Excerpt from Espresso History Podcast, Part II

I am so friggin’ way long crazy stupid overdue for releasing the Espresso History Part II podcast (Part I is here — that’s right, four friggin’ years ago). Part II is fully scripted, but got so long, I had to go with a Part III, and I’ve nearly finished the process of pulling the long draft apart and completing the Part III portion, which takes espresso up to the introduction of the PID and the dual boiler home machine. But in the meantime, I thought it’d be fun to release a portion of my script for the Part II episode, even before I record it. This is only a small portion of the podcast, but covers some innovations in horizontal espresso boilers. Enjoy!

So we finished off the History of Espresso, Part 1, talking about Achilles Gaggia and his tinkering with pistons for producing higher water pressure on espresso — first with a screw type piston, then with his breakthrough lever piston design. We’re going to pick things up there.

Achilles Gaggia is credited with being the father of modern day espresso, much like Bezerra and Pavoni are credited with being the fathers of the original espresso beverage, but one important thing to note about Gaggia: with the exception of a few hand built prototypes, he did not actually manufacture his original lever machines for general sale. He contracted Ernesto Valente of Faema Light Engineering to build the first commercial run of lever machines, and in that first full year of production, some 90 Gaggia Classica Crema lever machines were built. This was Faema’s first ever venture into the world of espresso.

What’s really interesting to note is that the new beverage produced by the Gaggia lever machine was initially a tough sale. Gaggia marketed it as “crema caffe naturale” or coffee with its own natural cream, but his competitors at the time labelled crema as “scum” and undesirable foam. Gaggia also marketed his lever machine as the first to work without steam to produce coffee, or espresso, and again, his competitors in the marketplace would tell everyone that good espresso needed steam to complete the beverage.

Gaggia did start a revolution, no doubt, and he ushered in a decade of innovation in espresso that’s only been matched one or two times since. Very soon after the first Gaggia lever machines hit the cafe scene, people noticed the radically different beverage, and how it was thicker, more viscous, and more sweet than the steam driven machines could produce. He had a winner, and the rest of the industry played catch up in a very fast manner, then started working on their own innovations.

Let me talk about one innovation — boilers going horizontal. Believe it or not, this was a big deal and just the fact that boilers did move from vertical to horizontal meant a lot of future innovations in espresso technology could happen.

Now, there’s some dispute as to who actually did the first ever horizontal boiler espresso machine, and why they did it. Rancilio claims they were one of the first with their Ideale machine in 1947. Pavoni claims, to this day, they were the first with their La Cortuna machine, but it wasn’t available for sale until 1948. Faema, all amped up with the Gaggia partnership success, started designing and manufacturing their own espresso machines, named after the planets, no less, and had the horizontal boiler Nettuno and Saturno models in prototype stage by 1948.

As to why all these manufacturers were moving to horizontal boiler designs? Different manufacturers give different reasons. Pavoni and Faema both say it was so that the barista could more directly interact with the customer, and create very low profile machines to allow full interaction, making the art and science of espresso more social. Their initial horizontal boiler machines showed this too, as the machine were very low profile, and the groupheads were often higher than the rest of the machine.

Rancilio felt that horizontal boilers would mean bigger boilers, and therefore more power, and more stability in the machine’s temperature. This is evidenced by the Rancilio Ideale machine — it had a horizontal boiler — it even had a big cup warming area, which was another post war industry first — but was still tall, and the boiler sat mid way up the machine, not low profile at all.

The fact is, the move to horizontal boilers provided both of these things. And here’s another fact: Rancilio, Pavoni, Faema? They weren’t the first to do a horizontal boiler design. They weren’t the first, because the firsts happened almost 10 years earlier, prior to World War II.

In 1940, La Cimbali launched their first true horizontal boiler machine, called the Ala. I’ve seen one of these in person at the Cagliari Espresso Museum. The machine is stunning to look at: it’s based on a three tube design — two vertical pillars that form the legs and top-caps, which were beautifully merged into a long horizontal tube that held the boiler. The entire thing is polished chrome. Stunning. And underpowered, with only a 5 litre boiler for one group.

There’s an even earlier machine, and I’ve also seen this one in person — from 1939 (manufactured until 1940), the Elettra machine with two groups at either end of the boiler, and it too had cup warmers, something the horizontal boiler design could afford, but in the Elettra’s case, the cup warmers were low to the table and not really influenced by the boiler’s heat.

And that still isn’t the earliest horizontal boiler machine. According to La Marzocco’s marketing literature (and also seen the original documents, which I was fortunate to do) they claim that Guiseppi Bambi, the founder of La Marzocco designed a machine in 1937 called the Marus, and it was the first ever horizontal boiler machine designed and patented. And they claim at least one and possibly as many as five, were built. Problem is, all La Marzocco has are a few drawings, and a Marus nameplate; no photographs exist of the machine, nor are any left. This isn’t surprising since World War II had a devastating impact on manufacturing and businesses, and many espresso machines were converted into scrap metal for the war drive in Italy.

So, while horizontal boilers really started to take off by 1950 in espresso machine design, some early innovators tried their best pre war, and like so many other things that horrible war did, these machines and their potential for innovation was completely snuffed, for almost an entire decade.