Notes on Progress: In pursuit of decent coffee
No great stagnation in home espresso
In this issue, Works in Progress editor Nick Whitaker writes about the development of home espresso machines. If you enjoy it, please share it on social media or by forwarding it to anyone you think might find it interesting.
I’ve written before about the lack of progress in kitchen appliances in the last 50 years. The last great kitchen appliance was the microwave—introduced in 1967—and they haven’t changed much since.
But the home espresso machine is an exception. The first widely adopted home espresso machine, the La Pavoni Europiccola, was released in 1961. Since then, they have evolved in all sorts of ways.
I actually have a Europiccola, known as a “Euro” by enthusiasts, collecting dust in my closet. Mine was produced in 1976. It’s almost exactly the same as that original ‘61 machine. The only major revision came in 2000, when the machine’s grouphead (where the espresso comes out) was redesigned.
The Euro is a wonderful and remarkable machine. It’s also a bit terrifying. When it’s on, the machine is scorching hot and highly pressurized. It’s also basically analog. There is one boiler, where the water is heated. It sprays and sputters as you start to pull your shot of espresso. When you open the steam wand, the Euro steams and hisses like a steam engine in an old Disney cartoon. After two or three espressos, the machine becomes too hot to use. There are about eight different places to burn yourself while preparing an espresso, and you haven’t had your coffee yet. Plus, “pulling” an espresso is literal on a La Pavoni: you pull a lever to push water though the puck of coffee with about 40lbs of force.
If you can actually make an espresso, it will be delicious.
Yet because of its quirks, the Euro is hard to use. James Bond himself, in the 1973 film Live and Let Die, makes a cappuccino in such an atrocious way that M is appalled.
Home espresso machines after the Euro sought simplicity.
The ideal was a “superautomatic espresso machine” or “bean to cup machine,” where the user simply added beans, pressed a button, and got an espresso. The first of these, the SuperAutomatica, was produced by Saeco in 1985. But these machines face a tricky mechanical problem: How do you grind coffee, move it into position, push water through it, and discard the coffee, without making a massive mess in the machine? If any of these steps fail, the machine will need constant cleaning and maintenance, not to mention produce subpar espresso.
Some of the new bean to cup machines are okay, but none are excellent. They still need lots of maintenance and cleaning. The settings are opaque, so the user has little control over their drink. The espresso usually ends up bitter or sour, and sometimes a bit rancid from the mess in the machine.
Nestlé’s Nespresso system debuted a year later, in 1986, with its signature capsule approach. The new approach avoided the messy process of transferring coffee by keeping all the grounds contained in a convenient (and well-patented) capsule. Nespresso machines also avoided the terror of the La Pavoni: Rather than use a steaming, pressurized vessel, Nestlé found a clever way of mimicking the taste and concentration of espresso without building up the traditional 9 bars of pressure necessary. Nespresso machines became a luxury home item, a taste of Italy in the 1980s upper-class kitchen. Since then, they’ve found ubiquity in hotel lobbies and homes across the world.
Even serious coffee people have to admit the machines do a decent job. The convenience alone—of turning the machine on and getting your espresso in under a minute—is enough to make anyone used to waiting an hour for their espresso machine to warm up jealous. In a pinch few would turn up their noses.
But Nespresso doesn't quite satisfy like traditional espresso, as anyone would notice with the two side by side. Traditional espresso is more viscous with a ‘body’ to it, from the tiny particles of coffee (‘fines’) that escape the basket into the cup and the soluble fats from the beans. The flavors are richer and more nuanced. Plus, though the machines are cheap, Nestlé’s branded capsules are extremely expensive: 300 grams of coffee can easily cost $40, whereas even the fanciest coffee shop would usually charge you closer to $25, and a typical supermarket would want around $5.
There is another alternative that has become common since Nespresso: home espresso machines that are essentially miniature versions of the modern commercial machine. These are usually ‘semi-automatic machines’, as opposed to the super-automatics with one button and the manual machines which you have to pull. When someone says, ‘I have an espresso machine,’ this is usually now what they mean. They range from about $450 to $5900.
These machines do not follow the super-automatics and Nespresso in the search for simplicity. They’re a bit easier and safer than a Euro, to be sure, but they primarily seek to bring the genuine barista experience to the home. What caused this switch from simplicity to cafe-authenticity has never been studied. I suspect it's in part due to information technologies: with ample YouTube videos explaining how to make espresso, nobody has to embarrass themselves like James Bond did.
I purchased my Euro a few years ago as a relatively inexpensive way to learn about espresso and its history. A guy in San Francisco restores vintage Euros and other classic lever machines under the name Voltage 110. Like learning on an acoustic guitar rather than electric, there’s a certain advantage to just having the bare essentials in front of you. After many failures, I started making good espresso.
But after getting burned by the steam again one too many times, I decided I wanted to upgrade.
Coffee itself changed a lot recently, so coffee technology has needed to adapt. The largest change is the way coffee is roasted.
Peet’s Coffee, which grew out of Berkeley, California in the 70s and wrought the “second wave” of coffee by inspiring Starbucks, pioneered dark, “French roast” coffee. There is a possibly apocryphal story about why their roast is so dark: coffee loses mass as it is roasted, so Alfred Peet believed other companies were cheating their customers by not roasting dark enough. Those nefarious competitors were able to sell a higher weight of “underroasted” coffee. He would be more honest.
Yet there was an irony in Peet’s style: the company also emphasizes their coffee’s country of origin, which helped begin coffee’s switch from a commodity to a specialty product more like wine. Yet the more you roast a coffee, the more that coffee tastes like the chocolate, caramel, smokey notes of the Maillard reaction and the less it tastes like itself.
Coffee shops in the 2000s began to roast lighter and focus on drawing out varietal and regional characteristics in their coffee. Ethiopian coffees became famous for their distinctive blueberry flavors, Kenyan for their fruity acidity, Columbian for their nutty notes. In the US, the shift was led by coffee shops like Intelligentsia in Chicago, Stumptown in Portland, and—although purists may disagree—Blue Bottle in San Francisco.
In 2007, James Hoffman, who pioneered specialty coffee in England with his company Square Mile Roasters, won the World Barista Championship with a single estate espresso (beans not just from the same country, but from the same farm) culminating the shift. Hoffman has since become the most popular coffee YouTuber and educator.
There was also a change far more iconic than light roasts: Latte art. At Espresso Vivace in Seattle, David Schomer perfected first the heart pattern in 1989, followed by the fern-like rosetta pattern in 1992. By the 2000s latte art had made its way around the world. It has had its own world championships since 2005.
Latte art is actually a technological breakthrough of sorts. Traditionally, a cappuccino was thought of as being three equal parts espresso, milk, and foam. This meant having a tall foam head like you might have had at a cafe in France or Italy. Schomer realized by injecting just a little bit of air into the milk and then creating a vortex (‘rolling the milk’), you could generate ‘microfoam’ almost seamlessly connected to the milk itself. This milk could be poured into patterns on top of the espresso. Better yet, this technique tended to caramelize the sugars in the milk, adding natural sweetness to the drink and avoiding the scorching that could make the drinks bitter.
These changes created new expectations for coffee. Home enthusiasts wanted to pull lightly roasted, single origin coffee from their favorite local coffee shop and pour a beautiful pattern on top of it. Plus, they had Hoffman and company on YouTube to show them how to do it.
Nestlé never really went after these customers, even after it purchased Blue Bottle in 2017 at a $700M (!) valuation. Nespresso’s ‘light roast’ capsules remain fairly dark and their milk systems don’t have the power to make latte art. Superautomatic machines could never make good enough espresso to satisfy this audience either, nor did they have sufficient steaming power.
The semi-automatics were the best fit, but they too were far from optimal. The pressurized pumps the machines use jump straight to 9 bars, rather than slowly ramping up with the pull of the lever. Jumping to 9 bars can destroy light roast coffee: The puck of coffee breaks apart, creating channels which cause sour over-extraction. I suspect it’s these failed, sour coffees that leave people hating modern coffee. Coffee obsessives on the Home Barista Forums modified their machines to avoid these problems, with PIDs to get better control of temperature and valves to control pressure, but they were the exception.
It turns out, though, that the difficulty of making home espresso was already a solved problem. Lever machines like the Euro, with their slowly ramping pressure, make much tastier shots with light roasted coffee. And light roasted coffees do better with a higher water temperature to aid the extraction.
This led to an idea: what if there were an espresso machine where you could control every variable and optimize each for every shot?
Enter John Buckman. Buckman is a technologist. He used to be the chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He’s founded a number of companies including Magnatune, which distributes classical music and eighties electronica, and BookMooch, where users can swap books among one another.
Buckman spent years trying to perfect his home espresso on all sorts of machines and decided making good espresso was just too hard. So he decided to build a machine to make it easier: Decent Espresso.
A tablet above the machine allows the user to select a premade recipe or program a novel shot. Each shot specifies changes in the pressure, the flow rate, the temperature over time. You simply press a button, no 40lbs of force needed. As the shot goes, a live graph shows whether the recipe is being followed, or whether it is failing (usually due to an incorrect grind adjustment or puck preparation issue).
I was inspired by his work—and even more, the prospect of being on the cutting edge of a culinary revolution—so I bought the machine.
Recipes for the Decent have more variety than you might expect. Some mimic other espresso machines, like the Euro, flawlessly. Others create wholly new drinks, like turbo shots, allonges, and even filter coffee made from an espresso puck. Some recipes have broken important new ground, like blooming shots, perhaps the best way ever discovered to pull those tricky light roast coffees.
Users can create new recipes and share them on the Decent Diaspora, an owner’s forum, and visualizer.coffee. Clubs have formed online to buy a common bag of coffee beans and figure out the best recipe for it through collaboration and recipe exchange. You can see what I’ve been brewing here.
Decent hasn’t solved all the problems with coffees: Many grinders still aren’t good enough at producing the even particle size distribution espresso demands, and preparing a puck of coffee is still way too finicky.
But they have made making good espresso easier. Not only that, they’ve built a platform on top of which a deeper understanding of espresso can be developed. Jonathan Gagne, an astrophysicist who studies coffee, uses the Decent for his research. He’s already reshaping our understanding of how to brew coffee. He even invented a new type of shot, adaptive shots, where the recipe’s specifications change as the espresso is pulled to make it as good as possible.
All of this may sound a bit ridiculous. It is just coffee, after all. But while jokes about $10 lattes and millennials who will never be able to afford homes might persist, I do think there is something special about the way we are able to make little parts of our life better. We turned what was once gulping out sludge to get out of bed into a truly culinary activity in the morning—and of course you are still able to drink the sludge if you prefer it.