The Modern Espresso Era

BH Unlimited Update, Sep 25th 2021.

What were the precise beginnings of the modern espresso era? Was it when the first lever machine was produced? Nineteen forty seven — that doesn’t feel modern enough — the barista had to do all the heavy lifting with a lot of guesswork thrown in. That’s why the old (and arguably redundant) manufacturer’s nomenclature used for categorising machines has the lever down as a ‘Manual’ type machine.

Manual espresso machine [ man-yoo-uhl ]
The barista must manually supply the pressure.

So, then, maybe semi-automatics were the beginning, though that term doesn’t sound quite modern enough either.

Semi-automatic espresso machine [ sem-ee-aw-tuh-mat-ik, sem-ahy- ]
A pump supplies the pressure to the group. The shot is started and ended by the barista.

So perhaps it was the ‘Automatic’ era that made the difference. The traditional definition of an automatic machine is as follows.

Automatic espresso machine [ aw-tuh-mat-ik ]
The pump supplies the pressure to the group and the shot is ended electronically via feedback from a flowmeter.

This week we have produced new lessons about the control panel , the central processing unit, and the software that operates them. But interestingly, in 1966 a machine was developed that certainly fulfilled the requirements of the definition of an automatic espresso machine, even though the CPU, if you can call it that, was mechanical, like a little Difference Engine for coffee.

The FAEMA E66, from 1966 — the first machine with volumetrics.

Several different mechanical flow meters were developed throughout the sixties. We even heard one anecdote this week from a prominent machine maker. He told us a story about a tech he once worked with who was asked to service a very valuable machine of this era. He proceeded to dismantle it, but the mechanics were so complicated that he couldn’t get it back together again. He then bolted out of the workshop, never to return.

You can imagine it was a certain relief to the machine techs of the 1970s and ‘80s when a digital solution was found for volumetrics. Going digital might be the true turning point where the Scarecrow finally was given a brain. Electronic flow-meters already existed in other applications by the time the E66 was made ( Josef 1963 ), but the first patent for their use in an espresso machine was filed by Rancilio. Their 1978 patent describes a flow-meter very similar to the kind used on modern machines, with a pair of magnets mounted on an impeller that spins as the water flows past it.

The flow-meter design in Rancilio’s 1978 patent.

In this type of flow-meter, the brewing water is channelled around a wheel (called an impeller) which spins freely as the water flows through the meter. Two magnets attached to the wheel pass by a detector each time the wheel turns, and the detector measures how much water has passed through the meter by counting the number of times the wheel has turned. The magnet triggers the detector either by closing a switch when it passes or, in modern flow-meters, by inducing a voltage in the detector. Either way, the flow-meter generates a tiny ‘pulse’ of electric current in the detector each time the wheel turns.

BH Unlimited subscribers can head into The Espresso Machine Course to learn all about how the Espresso Machine entered the digital age.

The Coffee Buyer's Guide to Brazil

This week in The Coffee Buyer’s Guide to Brazil we start with Planalto Central — the region immediately surrounding Brazil’s capital, Brasília. The high cost of land here near the capital means that farms are pushed to make very efficient use of their space, and the farms here are among the most productive in the country.

Next, we travel across the country to Caparaó, a small region straddling the border of Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo. Caparaó once had a reputation for producing poor quality coffee. The rainy climate meant that the coffee produced there was often not fully ripe at harvest, and had frequent drying defects. That has all changed in the last two decades, with farmers using hand-picking to select ripe cherry, and improved drying techniques to handle the wet climate. Now the region holds a DO in recognition of its uniquely floral and juicy coffees, and it is described by Felipe Croce from FAF as ‘the Ethiopia of Brazil’.

Finally, we visit the state of Acre in the far northwest of Brazil. This state lies fully within the Amazon rainforest, and is a highly efficient producer of conilon, the Brazilian lineage of Coffea canephora. Some research has also identified varieties of arabica that are adapted to high temperatures in Acre, such as the hybrid variety Icatu, but the amount of arabica produced in the state is very small, and it is generally of very poor quality.

Quick Links

Just weeks ahead of the 2021 World Barista Championships taking place at HOST in Milan, a debate has erupted (read the comments section of this post, too — it’s fascinating) on the ethics of additives in coffee.

Here's a new podcast from Tim Wendelboe, talking to Morten Münchow about some of their latest research on organic acids in coffee.

New Films

We’re committed to bringing new films in every update to make all this info quicker and easier to digest. This week we have published a new video ‘ EM 4.03 How a PID Works ’ in The Espresso Machine course.

Our Editorial Policy

At BH we never do ads for products on our website. There’s no product placement in any of our courses, newsletters or blog posts. Our only income comes from what you pay for your subscriptions. When you see machinery or coffee gear mentioned in any of our educational material, or featured in our course videos, we have chosen to use that equipment because we like using it or because it shows you something you need to see. It’s as simple as that.

The Espresso Machine

History, Form, and Function
EM 4.04 • The Control Panel and Flow Meters
EM 4.05 • Software

The Coffee Buyer’s Guide to Brazil

Growing Regions - Rondônia, Rio de Janeiro, and Other Regions
CBGB 4.07 • Planalto Central
CBGB 4.08 • Caparaó
CBGB 4.09 • Acre

As always, we're just an email away if you have any queries! Have great weekends and we look forward to seeing you next time.

To the Boundaries of Coffee,
Team BH