Machine-Age Espresso

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

The 19th century brought the invention of several new brewing methods. There was percolation, or allowing boiling water to rise in a central tube and irrigate a bed of ground coffee. There were plunger pots, which allowed the coffee brewer to steep the grounds, then push the grounds to the bottom with the plunger and pour the beverage off. But the biggest innovation in coffee brewing made its debut at the Paris Exhibition of 1855. That was Italian espresso, a word which means something made at the moment it’s ordered, rapidly, and for one customer. The way to make coffee fast is to force water through the grounds with high pressure. In the process, the pressure extracts a substantial amount of the coffee bean’s oil, and emulsifies it into tiny droplets that create a velvety texture and lingering flavor in the drink. Espresso is an expression of the power of the machine to force the most and the best from a traditional ingredient and make it into something new.