Behind the Espresso Machine
The tradition of espresso machines begins and still lives in Italy.
This legendary piece of equipment has shaped cafe culture around the world. We spoke to Alessandro Morrico, who has close on 4 decades of experience behind the espresso machine.
He tells us about the position espresso holds in Italian culture, how looking after your equipment is paramount, whether you have a home espresso machine or a commercial beast, and just how important the barista is to this industry.
How long have you been working in coffee? What drew you to dedicating your career to coffee and cafe equipment?
I’ve been in the coffee industry so to speak, since I started making coffee at 13 years old. So that would be around 37 years! Although it was only in early 1991 that I truly engaged and enrolled in the technical training at the Faema Factory Academy. In those days it was all very personal, you needed to know people and exchanging information was not quite as simple as it is today! I was one of only three students in the technical courses! It took approximately six months for the first company to do a training video on one of the first fully automatic coffee machines!
I guess what got me engaged right from the start was realising the enormous gap between what Roasters and Espresso equipment manufacturers were trying to do and what the users and the clients were actually doing with it. If I had to make a poor analogy with vehicles, I would say that they were building and selling cars to people without a license to drive (perhaps this still happens today)!
The desire to help the market try to get it right and the desire to try to understand it all is what kept me going and offered me the opportunity to share as much of the knowledge as I could. Fighting against the ignorance and the myths at the time was challenging , but perseverance paid off. Everyday I would be teaching something to somebody about coffee and that’s a great reward to have at any job. Nowadays, I have to keep updating my own level of knowledge and competency so I can keep supporting our clients as well as teaching and engaging on most levels. Coffee has become so very interesting and there’s still so much to do. That is still the best part of my everyday work.
In the hospitality sector, coffee often goes overlooked in the best restaurants and hotels, have you seen this changing over the years? Has coffee become a more important part of these high-end offerings?
Honesty is perhaps one of my worst traits, and honestly I’ve seen little change over the years -
And I’m not suggesting nothing has been done about it, just perhaps they’re going about it the wrong way. I don’t think that the high-end rollers of premium restaurant franchises and premium hotels have ever had the drive to change to serving great coffee. In particular the larger groups and hotels look for the cheapest option or the best value for money and often fail to invest in consultants. It’s amazing how simple it is to serve great coffee and yet…
Of course it all comes down to knowledge. preparation and getting the correct information without being driven to the “trends” or the cheap, short-term fixes. Too often the big company politics and the red tape and corporate governance are the biggest challenges .
Although in recent years we have noticed some real positive efforts in a few top-rated restaurants, restauranteurs that are committed to better coffee that compliments the food, so at least some positive change has happened.
In the last decade, how has the coffee industry changed from your perspective?
Since 2010 there’s been a second and third and fourth boom so to speak, this increased demand has largely been driven by consumer satisfaction and as well as a greater variety of knowledge of the product as well as a wider offering to accommodate more and mope coffee drinkers choices. More and more emphasis has been put on the chain of supply and sustainability which has importantly brought the farmers and consumers so much closer. This has increased the consumers’ interest as well as acknowledgement of the process and the efforts that the farmers and the rest of the individuals in the chain of supply have worked so hard to increase and maintain.
The green bean suppliers have supported the roasters much more, the roasters have engaged with the baristas so much more, the whole industry has been communicating better and with greater results - it’s been a fantastic change!
The consumer is now better informed with a shorter trail to learn about where his cup of coffee comes from - and this leads to greater appreciation for our product.
You are a real life Italian! The standard espresso costs no more than a euro. There was even a recent case in Florence at Ditta Artiginale, a specialty coffee shop, where Francesco Sanapo was fined when a customer ordered an espresso and the price wasn’t displayed anywhere and the customer was horrified by the price of EUR 2! What are your thoughts on specialty coffee prices? And can you tell us the pros of a traditional Italian espresso?
It is true, EUR1 is the standard price. Generally there’s no such thing as a menu at a traditional bar here in Italy. While we can appreciate that a quality product should be charged accordingly for the time and money that it’s worth, in the same breath we cannot deny that as consumers, we have to be protected. Should somebody be charged twice the amount of money for any one item, somebody is going to say something about it. Especially for something as common as an espresso - you want to know upfront and make the choice yourself. If it is a specialty coffee the price will be higher, but this should then be displayed.
I think we all agree that a single Euro is not all that much, but it is very affordable for everyone to have and that’s the way it has always been in Italy. While I write this, I’m actually in Rome, where an espresso is served in a warm, perfectly-crafted porcelain cup, an accompanying glass of sparkling water and always perfectly made.
Coffee is a very serious business in Italy and usually served from a well kept machine. It is served at the counter and served as any variable you may ask for: vetro, lungo, corto, ristretto, appena, macchiato freddo, appena macchiato caldo, espresso is always the hero.
In Europe in particular, consumers expect to have a coffee or an espresso few times a day everyday , so raising prices is really not an easy task. Yet there is definitely some space for a small increase in particular to allow the Cafe to offer better staff pay and better coffee training and even more speciality premium blends. Perhaps EUR1,50 is not too far on the horizon.
This is the very same reason why we cannot grow some areas of specialty coffee locally in SA, as a lot of customers are just not prepared to pay the extra charge for better quality coffee, made through a premium machine, with a well trained barista that makes a good living as a professional and refers to being a barista as a “profession”, rather than a “temporary job“ or a “ stepping stone.”
What is the value of coffee professionals undertaking formal training? You yourself have attained many qualifications through the SCA and CQI training programs, why would you say this is important?
The fact that we are still ask those questions is part of the challenge. We cannot expect any coffee professional such as a Barista behind an espresso machine, to be rewarded for what they do, without knowing that they’re good at doing it , and to know they have studied for it.
A mechanic studies to be certified, a chef studies and an electrician studies and all are required to pass various exams before they are allowed to consider themselves ready for the tasks , yet we expect an individual to receive a free 3 hour training the day before a cafe opens and then we are upset about poor quality coffee because the Barista is not competent?
I say we stop asking WHY baristas should get qualified and make it a very basic requirement. To improve their platform of recognition and reward and provide longevity and opportunity for a more stable lifestyle through a chosen profession. We do need involvement from the governing bodies and the entities driven by the government or educational bodies to institute these at an accessible price to allow them to choose this path as a profession. It is still a long road.
From a technological perspective, through your relationships with equipment manufacturers you have seen a lot more focus on technology (both espresso machines and grinder tech), do you think this automatically means better coffee for all? Or is the role of the barista still integral?
The baristas role is, and I believe, will always be the integral part of the delivery and experience of coffee. The support that we have received from the equipment manufacturers is to allow the barista to be the real face and representative of the coffee being served, being backed by performing equipment which allows for greater quality and consistency in the product. It is so much easier today to make a great cup of coffee consistently and this is largely due to all the R&D invested in technology, but these companies ultimately want to build the easiest and most reliable machines to use.
Let’s get technical, one of the questions we get asked most is about boilers. Can you explain the difference in performance when it comes to single boilers, twin boilers and when it comes to home equipment, what other methods (heat exchange etc) are used to create pressure and steam?
I’ve become tired of answering this question, not because it is asked, but because nobody seems to pay any attention to the answers!
A boiler generates heat. When the water boils, steam is produced. The manner in which the machine is designed to heat the water and distribute the heat to maintain the pressure, is possibly the most important question, irrelevant of the number of boilers.
You could have six boilers and the elements might still be designed to be too small to react to the water requirements. You could have a single boiler and have absolute performance through a very well designed heat exchanging system which maintains optimum temperatures.
A single boiler offers lower power consumption, there is less use of copper or stainless steel, less use of elements and therefore, less use of power and amperage.
Today these are very important factors to consider. Single boilers often have more compact designs, use less space on the counter often perhaps even having a lower machine, which allows the barista to interact and engage with the customers better. Single boilers also offer lower maintenance costs.
What are the facts that you wish people knew about espresso machines?
Three very simple facts :
1. The number of boilers in a machine doesn’t matter at all! And doesn’t always mean better or that it’s suited for the application.
2. The size of the boiler makes VERY little difference to overall performance. Element size, wattage, power consumption and how these are designed to work together all influence performance. For example a petrol tank in a car, whether it’s 50 litre or 100 litre capacity, it doesn’t make the car anymore or less powerful.
3. The espresso machine is only as successful as the rest of the package it works with.
The grinder, accessories, bar lay-out, barista skill set and menu offering, all these play a huge role to complete the package of performance - especially for high volume cafes and compact restaurant kitchens bars and mobile cafes.
For home baristas there are some important things to remember:
Any machine can make a good coffee! I’m not joking, when it is used within its limits and by looking after it, you can achieve amazing results. Play around with your equipment.
I always suggest purchasing a machine suitable for your style of coffee drinking from a reputable brand/dealer for after sale service and longevity.
A heat exchanger or double boiler offers greater longevity and is easier and better use - but if budget doesn’t allow it, then a home single boiler can be a great solution. Always try to find a reputable brand, built with as many commercial components as possible, such a spoon filters and steam taps. Don’t focus too much on gimmicks like PID (Proportional Integral Derivative) as we are not all entering a World Barista Competition! And temperature (as long as it’s relatively stable as any good machine is) plays a smaller part than we think in extraction.
Always stretch the budget on a really good grinder. You’ll only have to buy it once and keep it forever. You can always upgrade your machine, but an investment in a grinder is key.
When you get approached by people wanting to start out in the coffee business looking for a ’solid secondhand set of equipment’, what is your reaction and apart from the sales pitch of pros and cons, what pearls of wisdom would you offer to them?
No sales pitch! Promise! Treat your used purchase as if you were buying a vehicle. Ask the important questions:
How many km on the clock?
What’s the replacement value?
Who has looked after it? (service history)
Is it fully functional when purchased?
And does it carry a warranty for issues you may face in the first year?
If it’s anywhere close to 60/65% of a new machine, it’s perhaps worth stretching the budget and buying new. Often a used machine is supplied without warranty, installation, filtration, delivery. By the time you add it all up , you could be close to a new machine price. There are many new and competitively priced options out there.
And last but not least, usually you get what you pay for. Same for any piece of equipment.
What is the best advice you can give for home users in order to maintain their equipment?
Use fresh bottled water if you don’t have a filtering system. Preferably a balanced, high quality bottled water with low calcium content. This helps to preserve the boiler and system.
Flush immediately after use, always! Both the brewing grouphead and steam wand). Have your machine serviced regularly and get them to descale the boiler.
Machines always “work perfectly!” before they stop working, service it before it stops working and save yourself a headache.
What is your daily espresso recipe? Is it by feel? Or do you use a ratio that works for you?
More often than not I choose a medium to even dark roast , with approximately 16/18 grams in the basket with a very slow flow infusion and extraction of under 30 seconds, often with a final ratio of almost 1/1. Rich and creamy and full of punch .
While the rule of thumb often applies for new beans or new roasts, I do like to get a “feel“ for the coffee I brew, my first cup especially is often the result of 3 or 4 first cups , until you find the ideal flavour profile and optimum extraction.
I then often try the same roast profile in all other methods and recipes too, such as French press, or with milk or diluted into an americano, just to see how versatile it can be.
It’s a beautiful time of day, the time I spend making my coffee, which unfortunately only lasts for a few moments. Although the beauty is that the next day, I can do it all over again!