The espresso machine is the centrepiece of coffee shops all around the world. It is a symbol of technical expertise and innovation, as well as a representation of the art of making good coffee.
The first prototype espresso machine can be traced back to the late 19th century. Over 130 years later, espresso technology has changed and evolved in a number of key ways. Today’s machines boast cutting-edge boiler technology, precise digitally-controlled extraction, and an ever-increasing level of control for baristas.
To learn more about how espresso machines have changed, specifically in the 21st century, I spoke to two Dalla Corte brand ambassadors, Cole Torode and Fabrizio Sención Ramirez. Read on to find out what they told me.
You may also like our article on how espresso machines work
A brief history of the espresso machine
Across 19th century Europe, the coffee house was incredibly popular, but customers had to wait a while for their drinks. In time, inventors started looking for ways to make the process more efficient. At this time, steam power was still dominant across the continent, and so naturally, this was where they focused.
In 1884, Angelo Moriondo patented something similar to a prototype espresso machine. It used one boiler to force water through a coffee puck at around 1.5 bars of pressure, while a second boiler would flush the puck and finish extraction.
Moriondo never marketed his prototype, but it was built on by inventor Luigi Bezzera in the early 1900s. Bezzera reduced the brewing temperature down to around 90°C (195°F) using an open flame, but maintaining temperature consistency was difficult.
In 1903, Desiderio Pavoni bought the patents for Bezzera’s machine and introduced the first pressure release valve and steam wand. Three years later at the Milan Fair, Pavioni debuted the machine and announced the invention of “caffè espresso” – named so because it was “made in the spur of the moment”.
In the decades that followed, competitors started to enter the market, but machine pressure was still generally capped at 1 to 2 bars. It wasn’t until 1947 that Achille Gaggia developed a system that forced pressurised water from the boiler into a cylinder. The barista could also use a lever to add yet more pressure, increasing it to up to 8 to 10 bars.
In 1961, Ernesto Valente introduced a motorised pump to the machine that maintained pressure while using mains water, and thus the modern day espresso machine was born.
How have espresso machines changed in the 21st century?
Espresso machines development has come in four main area over the past two decades: boiler technology, flow rate control, a greater degree of automation, and design.
We’ve added some more detail to each of these categories below. Read on to learn more.
A boiler revolution
Boilers have been a crucial area of focus in espresso machine development since the turn of the century. Single boiler machines were prominent at the beginning of the 21st century, generally containing one heating element and two thermostats – one for espresso extraction and the other for steaming milk.
While these machines were more affordable, the barista was unable to pull shots and steam milk at the same time, which affected overall efficiency and service speed.
Cole Torode is the Director of Coffee and Operations at Forward Specialty Green Coffee Importers in Calgary, Canada. He says: “Over the years, the industry pushed for bigger boilers, then numerous boilers.
“Now I think we’re realising that [boiler function is] important for temperature stability and [quicker] heating times as the boiler depletes and refills.”
Cole says that in 2001, Dalla Corte launched its world-first multi-boiler technology. This allowed the groupheads and steam wands to be used at the same time, allowing the barista to create more drinks in a shorter timeframe.
“The beauty of this system is its quick response time, certainty of temperature control, and the ability to shut down one grouphead or the steam wands while using the rest of the machine,” Cole says. “This is helpful if you need to shut off part of the machine for maintenance or cleaning, for instance.”
In the past decade, saturated and semi-saturated groupheads have also become popular as they decrease the amount of time a machine needs to heat up. These groupheads effectively act as extensions of the boiler, allowing them to retain independent water levels and reach target brewing temperatures almost instantly.
Cole tells me that in early 2019, Dalla Corte added a grouphead with 0.75 litre water capacity to its Zero machine. “This grouphead is designed in a way that the inbound cold water equalises the outbound hot water,” he says. “This means the grouphead is always consistently full.
“The beauty of this design is not just the certainty of temperature control, but also lays the foundation for Dalla Corte’s revolutionary Freestyle Water Flow.”
Flow rate & extraction
“The relationship between a barista and espresso machine is often the heart and soul of a coffee shop,” Cole says. “If this relationship isn’t strong, the quality isn’t likely to be great either.
“If a barista doesn’t know how to tame the espresso machine, how can they control their coffee?”
To achieve even, high-quality espresso extraction, the barista needs to maintain consistent brewing temperatures of around 93 to 100°C (199 to 212°F). Developments such as proportional integral derivative (PID) and digital temperature controllers allow the barista to set required temperature ranges, with a few degrees of fluctuation.
Altogether, this allows for more control over brewing variables.
Newer espresso machines come equipped with systems that allow the user to control two key variables throughout the extraction process: the volume of water passing through the puck, and the level of pressure at which the water is dispensed. This allows the barista to carefully manage the rate at which water flows through the coffee.
Fabrizio Sención Ramirez is a barista at Caffé Estelar and 5pm in Guadalajara, Mexico. “By controlling the flow rate, the barista can present water to the coffee more intentionally,” he tells me. “This allows you to carefully target unique and specific flavours.”
Many newer models have adjustable valves between the boiler and the grouphead which can restrict water flow. This is especially helpful during pre-infusion, a key stage of extraction where the puck initially comes into contact with the water.
Pre-infusion prepares the puck for the sudden intake of high-pressure water, reducing the likelihood that it will become disrupted and cause channeling.
Channeling is when water finds the path of least resistance through the puck, creating “channels” which are unevenly saturated in comparison to the remainder of the coffee. This leads to underextraction and sour or watery flavours in the cup.
“Flow rate makes coffee soluble in different ways,” Fabrizio explains. “By using the Zero you can access amazing recipes and unique espresso constantly.” Dalla Corte’s Zero machine includes two flow profiling tools: Fixed Water Flow (preset rates between 3 and 9g/s) and Freestyle Water Flow (which allows the barista to customise flow rate at any stage of extraction).
“The ability to control the flow rate through espresso extraction [provides] ultimate control to the barista,” Fabrizio concludes.
Digitalisation & automation
Digitalisation and automation have come to characterise the modern coffee sector, and espresso machine technology is no exception.
Fabrizio says: “We have technology involved in every single parameter of the machine, not to mention the different operational [styles]: automatic, semi-automatic, and fully manual.”
Integrated displays and digital touchscreens improve the barista’s access to key machine functions, allowing them to make swift changes to extraction variables while interacting with colleagues and customers.
These developments have also spread to energy efficiency, which has become especially pressing thanks to a wider consumer focus on sustainability.
“There are more espresso machines idling in off-service time and holding their temperature than we can comprehend,” Cole explains. “Part of this is due to insufficient boiler technology and the fact that heating an espresso machine takes an hour on average.”
As such, many coffee shops leave their espresso machines running continuously to prevent prolonged waiting times when they do need to heat up and pull a shot for a customer. This wastes energy.
However, Cole notes that newer machines such as the Zero are helping to change this trend. “With [the] Zero, it takes around 15 minutes to heat up from cold to fully operational,” he tells me. “You can comfortably power it off or you can flip on the energy-saving mode to reduce power usage by over 80%.”
Finally, a greater focus on digitalisation also means that baristas can now use dedicated apps to communicate with their espresso machines, such as Dalla Corte’s Online Control System. “If you forget to turn your machine off or set the energy-saver, you can use the Online Control System to make any adjustments from a distance,” Cole adds.
Design & style
Alongside changes to overall machine performance, espresso machine design has also evolved throughout the 21st century.
“This evolution of design combines several innovative features, such as ergonomic design, the use of quality materials and… overall ease of use,” Fabrizio explains.
Visual appeal has come a long way in the coffee shop more widely, so it’s no surprise that machine design has followed suit. Today, café interiors must be striking and broadly “social media friendly”. Branding and mind share are more important today than they ever have been.
“Hospitality remains a centrepiece of every modern café – the setup is important, but the service and the way [your coffee shop] makes [the customer] feel makes the real difference,” Fabrizio says. “Customers [get] the full experience [when] every aesthetic and functional detail gets taken into consideration.”
From a functional perspective, espresso machines have also shrunk over the years as boilers and pumps have become smaller. This optimises counter space, and can even allow for better communication between the barista and consumer at times.
“An important part of the Zero’s design was finding a way to encourage interaction between customers and their barista,” Cole explains. “The solution lied in lowering the machine’s height as much as possible to reduce the amount of physical barriers.”
Today, the espresso machine is often the focal point of a coffee shop, and is one of the first things a customer notices when they enter the space. In line with this, customisable design features have also become popular in recent years, allowing coffee shop owners to express their brand in a more personal way.
Through innovation in boiler technology, digital accessibility, flow profiling, and many other areas, the espresso machine has evolved in a number of incredible ways over the last 20 years. Extraction control and barista “usability” remain high on the agenda.
What will happen next remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: manufacturers will continue to focus on making sure their machines produce the best espresso they possibly can.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on how espresso machines are refurbished, step by step.
Photo credits: Dalla Corte
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