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Espresso Yourself

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Espresso Yourself

by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland

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James Leavey

Heathrow Traveller/Espresso yourself/by James Leavey

The perfect espresso coffee is percolated in no more or less than 30 seconds. Once brewed, it must be drunk immediately. If not, the foam shrinks, collapses, and dries out on the walls of the small heavy china cup it is usually served in, just above the liquid. Smoothness of taste is lost and acidity increases, as does a certain saltiness.

So get one down you quick, and brace yourself for some caffeine-fuelled information on a hot beverage that is, after 145 years, at last taking over the Western world.

Every day around the globe, we consume over 1.1 billion cups of espresso coffee - that dark brew topped by a thick reddish brown foam of tiny bubbles, made famous by the Italians. Industry experts believe this figure will more than double by 2002.

For the Italians, the word 'espresso' means 'made to order' and is used to describe food and drinks that are prepared at the customer's request. In Italy, this became the most common way to make coffee. Eventually the word came to be used as a noun referring to the coffee itself.

If you thought espresso coffee was just a small cupful of enough concentrated caffeine to blow your brain into gear on a slow day, think again, for espresso is a complex product derived from 1500 chemical substances.

"This unique method of preparing coffee began when the first espresso machine was presented at the Paris Fair, in 1855," explained Dr Ernesto Illy, who, since 1963, has been chairman of illycaffe s.p.a. Illy is also known as the 'Einstein of Espresso', for his extensive knowledge, ideas, and passion for producing the world's finest coffee.

"This new machine was developed to solve the problems that characterized other, less efficient methods of preparing coffee, such as their slow speed and the loss in flavour incurred when the infusion was prepared and kept warm until it was consumed.

"It had to be capable of preparing one or two coffees in a short time, on demand. To speed up the passage of the water through the coffee grounds, a high-pressure system was invented, steam-delivered through a series of valves controlled by the bartender."

The story of espresso coffee is closely linked to Trieste, and the Illy family who still reside and work there. It all started after the First World War, when Francesco Illy remained in Trieste, which had recently come under Italian rule, where he married and began working in the cocoa and coffee trade. In 1935, he substituted compressed air for the steam and created the 'illetta' - the world's first automatic espresso machine.

As a result, illycaffè rapidly affirmed its position as a producer of high-quality espresso coffee and, thanks to Illy's patented pressurised packing system for preserving ground coffee, began selling its coffee to the rest of Italy.

After World War II, the reins of the family business passed to Francesco's son, Ernesto, who established the company's research laboratory, which was to become a source of numerous patents and innovations.

The consumption of coffee as a beverage is mostly a development of the last three centuries, but the origins of the plant itself have been lost in time. The only certainty is that it originated in Africa, in a region of Ethiopia called Kaffa, not far from the area where the earliest traces of Homo Sapiens have been found. The name coffee is derived from an Arabic word, qahwa, meaning 'vegetable drink'.

According to legend, the properties of coffee were discovered by an Ethiopian shepherd called Kaldi who, while grazing his flock on the mountain plateaus, noticed that his sheep became especially lively after eating the leaves and berries of a particular plant.

Initially, the entire fruit of the coffee plant was consumed. Then the seeds began to be extracted from the fruit, ground, and mixed with animal fat to form a type of paste that could be transported on long journeys. Just after 1000 A.D., the Arabs began to use coffee beans to prepare infusions made with boiling water - which became known as 'Arabian wine'.

The cultivation of coffee spread rapidly throughout the Islamic world, boosted by the fact that the Koran prohibits Muslims from drinking alcoholic beverages. Coffee was consumed at home, and in designated public places - the forerunners of modern cafés.

Soon the passion for this dark liquid spread across North Africa to Turkey, and then to Europe, giving birth to a flourishing trade in coffee beans, that has continued to this day.

North America was converted to coffee by the Boston Tea Party. One night in 1773 in the port of Boston, the boats of the British East India Company were looted by American patriots dressed as Indians. They threw hundreds of sacks of tea into the sea as a protest against excessive import taxes. After the American victory in the Revolutionary War, drinking tea was considered unpatriotic and coffee became the national drink - and a beverage symbolic of liberty.

The USA is now the largest consumer of coffee in the world but, oddly enough, it was just a few years ago that it discovered espresso and cappuccino, drinks that are now rapidly growing in popularity as the proliferation of coffee shops continues to spread.

Appreciated by chefs the world over, illy espresso is now a global brand, which can be enjoyed at over 30,000 top restaurants and cafés in more than 70 countries, as well as at home or in the office. Since the beginning, research on coffee has played a strategic role at illycaffè, and today it is carried out on an international level in collaboration with well-known universities and specialised institutions around the world.

In early 1999, the desire to create a structure to serve all those working in the coffee sector led illycaffè to help found the Università del Caffè (University of Coffee), in Naples. In the heart of the world's principal coffee-producing country, illycaffè also founded the University of Coffee in Brazil, in collaboration with the Economics faculty at the University of San Paolo, to teach growers and other professionals who are involved in the coffee industry how best to improve the quality of their crop.

Another exclusive aspect of illycaffè is its unique system of 'pressurization', by which coffee is preserved in cans from which the air has been removed and replaced with an inert gas at a high level of pressure. This system allows coffee to undergo an ageing process, which actually improves its flavour over time, like fine wine.

To meet the need for an easier way of preparing espresso, illycaffè designed the Easy Serving Espresso system, which guarantees perfect results every time with a simple, fast and clean procedure

Since it was first introduced ten years ago, the E.S.E. industrial standard has been adopted on an international level. In early 1998, the Consortium for the Development and Protection of the E.S.E. Standard was founded by seven companies active in the espresso coffee production and espresso machine manufacturing industries.

Within a few months, the number of E.S.E. consortium member companies grew to 21, including industry leaders such as Alessi, Brasilia, Briel, Cafes Castel, Caffè Corsini, Caffè Gioia, De Longhi, Electrolux-Zanussi, Euromatik, Fanes AG, Gaggia, Girmi, I.C.A., illycaffè, Little Italy, Moulinex-Krups, Saeco, SGL, Starbucks, Unic, and Viking Coffee.

With the growth of the E.S.E. system, the consumption of espresso coffee is increasing rapidly, as it shifts from the coffee bar to the home and office. In 1998, the global market for espresso was equivalent to around 8000 tons of coffee, or about 1.1 billion servings, compared to 4,500 tons in 1996. By 2002, the world's espresso market is predicted to grow to 18,000 tons, or 2.8 billion servings.

Most experts agree that too much coffee makes you dangerously hyper-active. But in business, at least, it seems you can never have too much espresso.

As for the punters around the world who enjoy a good strong dollop of percolated caffeine: some of us think that nothing compliments an espresso better than a fine smoke.

It's one of life's magic moments.

Espresso facts:

  • The largest consumers of coffee in the world are in the countries of Northern Europe. In Sweden, each inhabitant drinks the equivalent of 11.04 kilograms of coffee each year. Norway is next with 9.13 kilograms, followed by Denmark with 8.75, and Finland with 8.65. Italy is in twelfth place among Europeans, with a per capita consumption of 4.9 kilograms per year.
  • In Italy, espresso coffee is consumed predominantly in bars (70% of the market), an activity that has become a ritual, often repeated several times a day. The use of espresso machines in the office and at home is growing, with one out of five families using one to prepare coffee. Italy's bars serve 38 million espressos each day, the equivalent of one every two minutes.
  • Coffee, along with petroleum and steel, is one of the world's principal commodities, and in terms of volume and the number of people employed, is the most important global commodity. During the 1996/97 season, the total world coffee harvest exceeded 6.3 million tons. About 75% of the coffee sold in the world is Arabica, with Robusta and other minor varieties making up the remainder.
  • Raw coffee beans are traded primarily in New York on the Coffee, Sugar & Cocoa Exchange (Arabica beans) and in London on the Coffee Terminal Market, now part of the London International Financial Futures and Options Exchange(Robusta beans). Coffee prices are subject to variations in the harvests, as well as alliances and agreements made between large producers.

Meanwhile, growing demand for high-quality coffee is forcing top producers of roasted coffee to deal directly with coffee growers. This phenomenon has created a market for quality green coffee that is independent of the international commodities exchanges.

The art of making a good espresso

There are two principal ways of preparing coffee - by infusion and by percolation. In the infusion method, the coffee grounds are steeped in boiling water. With percolation, a flow of hot water is passed through the ground coffee. The infusion method is still widely-used in countries where coffee is both produced and consumed in great quantities. Such is the case with Turkish coffee and Brazilian cafezinho.

The percolation method tends to be prevalent in areas with the highest levels of coffee consumption: Europe and North America. An espresso can be prepared either with a moka (stove-top espresso coffee maker), or an espresso machine.

The elements that produce a good espresso are: 6-7 grams of finely-ground Arabica beans, with the size of the individual grounds ranging from fine powder to 1 millimeter in diameter; about 30 cubic centimeters of water at a temperature of 90 degrees centigrade; 9 atmospheres of pressure; and 30 seconds of extraction. And a no-nonsense, well-designed espresso machine.

Copyright James Leavey, 2000. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.


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