Back in the bleak old days when I worked for Gaggia selling little domestic machines from my concession in Oxford Street I would sometimes show the curious customer something: On the concession Gaggia had put one of their old 1950’s lever machines (in incredibly good condition) on show. I would take out the original portafilter from the group and lock it into the smallest, cheapest home machine. It was a perfect fit. Customer’s loved the element of tradition in the home machines, though they could rarely pronounce the name correctly.
There is no doubt Gaggia inherited the portafilter (just as Achille Gaggia may have inherited his rival’s idea of a pressured system!) from an earlier time. They didn’t know what we know now about pressure, extraction, distribution etc. Yet we continue to use 58mm baskets (mostly) seemingly because that’s what the Italians have been using from the turn of the century. It made me think about what else we just take as written.
Espresso, or Italian espresso, uses a great deal of Brazilian naturals and robusta, and has done for some time. This is not because these are the best coffees for espresso, this is because Italy was never a colonial power, like say France or maybe England, who had controlling stakes in coffee producing countries and thus had access to many coffees. This was coupled with Italy not having the economy to buy better, more expensive coffees. It bought what was plentiful and what was cheap and thus shaped a coffee culture around what it could get.
Now after nearly a century we have had our espresso palette benchmarked around these coffees. We build blends using Brazils to attain a certain taste, that is just echoing the Italian styles and blends. If you weaned someone onto espresso using only single origins, never letting them taste traditional blends, and let them try to blend themselves would they reach immediately for the Brazil to provide their taste foundation?
What we are seeing in Antipodean, Scandinavian and new North American espresso (there is definitely an old N.A. espresso – I have books full of its descriptions and recipes – but thankfully it seems to be on the way out) is a break away from Italian espresso – mostly in terms of techniques such as dose, tamp and extraction length. [I do not believe that the UK has yet defined its own espresso, unless you class ‘mostly dire’ as a suitable definition] There is no doubt these changes in technique manifest themselves in vast changes in taste, and by breaking the rules we are discovering new tastes and ideas, but are we still limiting ourselves with certain ideas about what espresso should be? Why did we choose to scrutinize only some of the accepted principles of espresso?