It’s hard to imagine life before espresso, but believe it or not, there was once a tired, latte-less time. The first basic prototype for an espresso machine was invented in Turin, Italy in the 1880s, though it looked more like a hot-water heater than the blinged-out coffee hotrods we see in cafés today, and for good reason—that’s basically all it was, a steam boiler designed to heat water in a closed chamber, which would also build up a reserve of pressure that a waiter or bartender could release over a bed of finely ground coffee.

Those early machines, including the 1905 patent by Luigi Bezzera that modernized and streamlined the design and added more functionality for the human baking the coffee (they were not known as baristas until much later), are interesting enough on their own—and we’ll briefly discuss how they work in a moment—but the really interesting thing about the history of espresso comes from tracing the story of coffee drinking all the way from Ethiopia and piecing together how in the world it made its way to Italy.

The Coffee Ceremony

The beverage we know as coffee has a somewhat mysterious origin, but historians know that first the leaves and the coffee fruit were consumed in and around the area now known as Ethiopia, possibly for hundreds of years, before anybody thought to clean and roast the seeds, pulverize them, and mix them with hot water. At some point in the 15th century, spice traders from the Arabian Peninsula, including the area now recognized as Yemen, encountered coffee plants while traveling through Ethiopia in search of trade, spices, and slaves. These traders were found inspiration for creating the hot, bittersweet, and caffeinated elixir we know as coffee most likely in mystical Islamic beliefs about alchemy, the principle of transforming something worthless into something valuable, as a sign of God’s love for humankind. Well, certainly if anything is a sign that God loves us, it’s coffee. Who’d have thunk that these little grassy-smelling seeds could transform into something so miraculous with a little heat, elbow grease, and water?

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This first Ethiopian coffee concoction was originally prepared—and still is, in a traditional service—as a kind of ceremony. It’s conducted by the woman who is the head of a household, and she will call friends, family, and neighbors to join at the table. The coffee seeds are washed and then roasted in a metal pan over a fire, until they turn dark chocolate brown and begin to crackle and smoke. The pan is removed and in its place a pot called a jebena will be filled with water and put on the heat to boil. Often the woman will also toast grains or pop corn to eat with the coffee. While the water heats, she grinds the beans with a mortar and pestle, and then she will add the grounds to the water when it’s ready. The coffee brews for a few minutes before she slowly pours off the liquid in small portions into demitasse like cups, passing them around for the folks who have gathered. In traditional ceremonies, the grounds will be brewed three symbolic times, with each serving poured for the guests; the whole process can take an hour (or more), depending on the company.

Before long, this version of our favorite drink became a staple of social and religious life throughout Ethiopia, Eritrea, and with spice traders and religious Sufi Muslims, but in order for it to really catch on, the process needed a bit of a boost.

Arabic Coffee

Knowing what we now know about the first coffee drink, it will probably be a little easier to connect the dots to what came next: Arabic coffee, sometimes also known as Turkish coffee because of its geographical and cultural associations with the Ottoman Empire. In cities throughout the Arabian Peninsula, then a huge trading hub for the Ottomans, coffee became a staple not of domestic life as in Ethiopia, but in business and political life, outside of the home and in male-dominated spaces. Men would sit in circles on rugs at “coffee houses” and take coffee together to make deals and discuss finances.

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Of course, this meant that the men also needed to hustle back to work, so an hourlong ceremony wasn’t going to cut the mustard—even in the days before time clocks and HR departments. In order to speed things up while still retaining some of the legacy and lore of coffee’s alchemical process, a new brewing pot was invented (called an ibrik or a cezve) with a long handle, in which coffee that’s been pulverized to a very fine powder can be boiled in water over a flame more quickly, poured out into small cups, and the grounds re-used as needed. Typically, the slurry of coffee grounds and water were brought to a vigorous boil three times before being doled out to patrons—thereby keeping some of the symbolic aspects of the coffee while also making a faster, stronger drink. The resulting liquid is thick, intense, and very bittersweet—much more pungent in flavor and concentration than the delicate, almost tea-like coffees of the Ethiopian ceremony.

Small portions of coffee brewed strong, dark, and fast: Can you guess where this is headed?

Trade and Industrial Revolution (aka The Need for Speed)

One of the main ports of call along the Ottoman spice route was the Italian city of Venice, which is also a major port city positioned on the Red Sea—a nearly direct route for traders to enter Europe and sell their goods. Starting in the 17th century, Italians would have been exposed to the coffee-drinking cultures that came off the ships, with coffee beans sold as an exotic item alongside garlic and cardamom, etc. Soon, Italians were drinking something like the Arabic coffee, a thick, dense brew that provided a jolt of energy and filled up an empty stomach. As Europe modernized and industrialized, coffee became a necessity to keep production flowing, replacing its status as more of a cultural, religious, or social drink and turning it into fuel for the working classes.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, Italy’s industrial revolution was in full force and the urban centers were booming with businesses, factories, and, of course, lots of overworked, underfed, and underpaid employees. Coffee was essential for productivity, but brewing it in the preferred style took took too long and interrupted work too much. Enter Luigi Bezzerra, credited with patenting the first fully functional steam-powered espresso machine. The beast of a boiler was capable of dispensing pressurized hot water over finely ground coffee in a matter of moments, creating a thick, bittersweet brew that immediately became the craze. “Espresso” was born, though whether the name implies the speed or the individual nature of the brews is still debated these more than 100 years later.

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One thing that’s not up for debate about espresso, however—and maybe the only thing that’s not up for debate about it—is that it’s changed the way that people have consumed coffee around the world. Italian immigrants brought espresso along with them as they came to the United States, and as early as 1945 a food columnist for New York Herald-Tribune was describing an “exotic” drink found in one of the cozy Italian cafés of the East Village. “Cappucino [sic] is a cup of espresso with steam-heated milk floating lazily over the surface, and that delicate bouquet is just the merest pinch of ground cinnamon,” she wrote, going on to quote the café owner as saying that the think is something “the ladies like very much.”

Espresso Today

Throughout the late 1950s and into the 1960s, espresso bars became countercultural hangouts where musicians, poets, and amateur philosophers gathered over black espresso to argue, swap ideas, and collaborate. In the 1970s and 1980s, the drink became emerged as a status symbol for upwardly mobile types who had traveled to Europe and brought back “refined” tastes from holiday, flaunting sophistication by ordering espresso at bars and restaurants and paying high prices for what had once been working-class fuel.

In the early 1980s, Howard Schultz—already the major player at a small but growing Seattle chain called Starbucks—took a trip to Milan and fell in love with the flavor of espresso and the local color in the espresso bars. When he came home, he quickly began transforming Starbucks into an Americanized (that is to say accessible, fast-food-like, and both affordable and seemingly “upscale”) institution, playing on the comfort of the coffeehouse and the chic air that Italian-style drinks offered.

The rest, as they say, is history: Today, espresso is everywhere from the most high-end boutique coffee shops to the average corner store. It can be expensive single-origin special-process coffee at a third-wave café, or it can be the base of any number of fast-food milkshake-like treats ordered across a drive-through window. It’s also easier than ever to make at home, with kitchen units costing anywhere from a couple hundred bucks all the way to a couple thousand.

There’s good news, though: If you need to justify your several-shots-a-day habit, just remind yourself you’re partaking of an ancient ceremony and, you know, paying tribute to the mysterious alchemy of coffee. Liquid gold, baby! Liquid gold.

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