A History of the Espresso Machine

Thursday, 3 June, 2021

A look back at how the espresso machine came to prominence and remains integral in our coffee lives. We have had the opportunity to meet the wonderful Henk Langkemper from the Netherlands who has amassed one of the best vintage espresso machine collections in the world. So beautiful! We tasked Anastasia with the wonderful job of picking his brain about the rise of the espresso machine.

Words By: Anastasia Prikhodko

The beginning of the espresso machine takes place in France – not Italy, like many would assume. It was 1822, and a French man named Louis Bernard Rabaut presented a device that used steam to drive boiling water through finely-ground coffee. Although the result remains unknown, the experiment was proven by the drawings he sent to the French Academy of Sciences in Paris. 

Following Rabaut was Edward Loysel de Santais who in 1843 introduced the first steam coffee machine, and this model was produced for commercial use. Such a device made it possible to prepare vast amounts of coffee at once. “The Italians claim that they invented [the first coffee machine], but that’s not true,” confirms Henk Langkemper, whose coffee machine collection spans 30 odd years. 

Langkemper is a coffee machine entrepreneur and the founder of Espresso Service West, a distributor of numerous espresso machine brands in The Hague, The Netherlands. A selection of his vintage espresso machines collection will be on display at World of Coffee Warsaw in October this year. “I own about 130 machines and 125 coffee grinders. They’re all beautiful,” he enthuses. The history of Italy’s coffee sits in Langkemper’s office. 

Research also suggests that at the beginning of the 20th century, Milanese Luigi Bezzera patented a machine that used the strength of captured vapour to force water through ground coffee. The Bezzera machine distributed the brewed coffee through more than one water and steam groups into the cup. 

According to the Coffee Review, the Bezzera machines decreased the size of the strainer that held the coffee but increased the number of valves, allowing for several cups of coffee to be produced simultaneously. Back then and much like it is now, the espresso operator packed a few teaspoons of finely ground, dark-roast coffee into a small metal filter. The filter was fixed into a vessel called ‘the group’, which protruded from the side of the machine. When the operator opened the valve, hot water was forced through the coffee and into the cup.

“My collection starts in 1936 with a beautiful Snider and a Universal machine,” says Langkemper. “Then, the lever collection starts in 1948 with the Gaggia.” Achille Gaggia introduced the first modern espresso machine where the water tank was laid on its side and hidden inside a streamlined metal cabinet. The valve of the old days was replaced with a spring-powered piston that allowed for pressure profiling; thus, Caffé con Crema was born.

“Gaggia built his business with machine builder Ernesto Valente, and together they produced the first Gaggia machines,” Langkemper explains. This partnership then led Valente to build machines for himself, and open a coffee machine factory in Milan called ‘Factory Electro-Mechanical and Associated Equipment’ otherwise known as FAEMA. 

“A big change in the market came in 1957 when FAEMA built a machine called FAEMA Tartaruga, which had a group with a heat exchanger, and a pump out of the machine,” Langkemper relays. “Although the pump didn’t work well and made a lot of noise. The Tartaruga was in the market for about three years, when someone from FAEMA went to the United States and got in contact with Procon Pumps. “FAEMA then got the rights to the Procon pump for Europe for one year. And then in November 1961, they launched the FAEMA E61.”

That was the beginning of the next revolution. Valente’s E61 surpassed Gaggia’s piston machine. The device, homage to the solar eclipse that occurred in Italy the same year, immediately became a performance and style icon. FAEMA describes the E61 as the first machine to use a volumetric pump to give the water the ideal 9-atmosphere pressure. The pump also kept the pressure constant during the extraction process, unlike lever machines.

“The FAEMA E61 machine was much easier to handle,” Langkemper explains. “It was silent, you didn’t break your arm making coffee, and the temperature control was much better.” It completely revolutionised the market. “You saw all the brands change their machines to be like that,” Langkemper reflects. 

Around the 1970s, Kent Bakke (former La Marzocco International CEO and current board member and advisor) was working in Seattle as a distributor for Franke Coffee Systems. A few friends of his approached him with the idea of opening three espresso bars in Seattle. Packing their bags, the duo travelled to Italy in to look for espresso machine suppliers. 

Shortly after their arrival, a visit to La Marzocco sealed the deal. Bakke began importing La Marzocco machines to the US and eventually become instrumental in the company’s rise to prominence. In 1994, those three espresso bars were sold and renamed Starbucks. 

The 1970s also introduced some beautiful machines. Langkemper explains that this era was all about the “retro look”. Each device had its own personality, look and feel. “Every Italian has their view on making the best coffee machine,” he notes. 

When looking at the history of the espresso machine, it is also necessary to acknowledge where it came from. “Only then can we understand that country’s coffee market,” Langkemper stresses. “Without the history, you cannot understand why the coffee is made the way it is,” he notes. While adding that when people buy an espresso machine, it’s not just a machine being purchased, they are essentially becoming part of the family. “You have to give her a name and a baby shower when you get the machine. You clean her every day and are good to her. Then when you train the people to work with the machine, they get good, and that helps the coffee market.”

The espresso machine is continuing to change -- slowly. Langkemper further adds that when looking at the history of coffee, a small percentage of inventions change the world. “It always takes time because people are not always open-minded to change. They know what they have, and if you are trying to fix their garden again, they don’t like that.” 

Looking at Langkemper’s collection, it is evident that much has happened in the past 30 years in terms of design, size, automation and modernisation. “But when putting my FAEMA Tartaruga on the workbench you’d say: “What the f*ck happened in 50 years?” The answer is nothing. That machine is already so great at making coffee.”  

Technology to help make the experience better is a place where inroads are still being made. A taste of the future came in early March with La Marzocco Home launching an all-new app to pair with the kitchen-sized Linea Mini and GS3 machine. The mobile application connects the home machine and the home barista. The app allows the user to adjust parameters such as temperature and pre-brewing. It can also be used as a remote control for on or off activations and weekly scheduling for the Linea Mini and the GS3. 

On the subject of the future, James Hoffman hopes that there is more of a move towards automation. “There are several parts of the coffee-making process that require the specific skills of a person,” he says. “Several parts are unpleasant and tedious and that I’d be more than happy to hand back to the machine. As long as the barista is engaged in the process, then I think we’ll be ok. I think machines will definitely get a bit smaller and more efficient, but no less powerful.”

Hoffman is the co-founder of Square Mile Coffee Roasters and the Managing Director. Since 2003, he has worked in coffee as a barista, barista trainer and as a speaker and consultant. Hoffman was also the World Barista Champion in 2007 and author of The World Atlas Of Coffee. He says that in the past five years, the espresso machine has evolved comparatively slowly. 

“I don’t think much has changed,” he notes. “What I’m starting to see, and certainly working on myself, is a push towards energy efficiency and less waste.” Hoffman adds that historically espresso machines consumed vast amounts of energy and, it turns out, they didn’t need to. His work on the Victoria Arduino White Eagle was an exercise in creating a machine that aspires to this efficiency.

Looking at the history of the espresso machine opens up a whole story of the country, its people and its coffee drinking habits. Langkemper puts it nicely by saying: 

“The machine is not only a coffee machine, but it also symbolises status. Having an espresso machine in an Italian bar meant that you could provide for your family your whole life. People are proud of their machine and to drink a cup of coffee from a machine like that – it is really something special.”

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