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A passion for quality gathered steam

From beatnik dive to microroaster, the road to better coffee.

October 25, 2006|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

MILAN, 1947. Giovanni Achille Gaggia, the inventor of modern espresso, was just trying to make a less bitter cup of coffee.

He wasn't the only one: A serious quest for flavorful coffee had been going on in Italy for half a century. Coffee aficionados realized that forcing hot water through grounds would produce something stronger than drip coffee with minimal bitterness, but their early experiments had fallen short because they relied on steam pressure.

Gaggia had the idea of using a powerful spring to get the necessary pressure to force the water through the grounds. You'd pull down on a lever, letting hot water into a chamber, and then release it, and the spring would force water through the grounds at 120 pounds per square inch.

It made a less bitter cup. To Gaggia's surprise, it also made something new -- modern espresso, with its concentrated flavor and velvety topping of crema, that cream-like mousse that is the sign of a well-drawn espresso. (When he found crema, he ran with the ball -- he promoted his product with the slogan "coffee cream from natural coffee.")

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 27, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Coffee companies: In Wednesday's Food section, a coffee timeline said Starbucks acquired Peet's Coffee in 1987. The purchaser was a group of partners led by Jerry Baldwin, a former co-owner of Starbucks.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 01, 2006 Home Edition Food Part F Page 2 Features Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Coffee companies: In last week's Food section, a coffee timeline stated that Starbucks acquired Peet's Coffee in 1987. The purchaser was a group of partners led by Jerry Baldwin, a former co-owner of Starbucks.

Quickly Gaggia's invention, the modern espresso machine, spread through Italy and Spain. In the mid-1950s there was an espresso-house craze in London. And in 1956, espresso finally reached Los Angeles.

First, a tiny sidewalk cafe named Moka d'Oro opened in Los Feliz, using a Gaggia machine. A little while later, the Robinson's department store chain was advertising a home espresso maker.

The department store device was old technology, just a souped-up version of a drip coffee maker. But together, these two events bespoke a yearning for better coffee. Many Angelenos -- like many other Americans, it turned out -- were dissatisfied with their coffee technology in the '50s. It took us a while to realize it, but we were tired of our anonymous coffee beans too.

At the time, the standard American coffee maker was the percolator, which boils the coffee after brewing it, driving off the aroma, and then recycles it through the grounds, making it bitter. On the plus side, the percolator does make the house smell wonderful -- it's the reason for the uniquely American expression "Wake up and smell the coffee" (rather than "taste the coffee").

In its day, the percolator was considered modern and convenient, and so was canned coffee, which had been a boon to people who didn't have a local roaster when Hills Bros. invented it in 1894. Old West cowboys, for instance, had to make do with roasted coffee beans preserved with a coating of sugar and egg white.

But during the 1940s, American coffee companies quietly started replacing the flavorful Arabica coffee beans in their grind with cheap Robustas. Put that through a percolator and you have a thin, bitter cup of caffeine.


More flavor in a cup

GAGGIA'S invention pointed a way out of this mess. His espresso was scarcely bitter, and on top of that it produced a richer effect in the mouth because the pressure had emulsified some of the aromatic coffee oils. The same pressure also drove carbon dioxide gas out of the grounds, creating crema, which conveniently slowed evaporation of the flavor elements from your cup.

The year after Moka d'Oro brought the first Gaggia-type espresso to Los Angeles, Coffee House Positano burst on the scene in Malibu. Open all night, serving nothing but espresso and sandwiches and with bongo players providing the soundtrack, it was described as "a bit of Greenwich Village" by a Times writer.

Angelenos had evidently been waiting for something such as this. Positano spawned an explosion of similar coffeehouses from Melrose Avenue to Venice, numbering about 50 by 1960, all outfitted with machines bought from Ambrose Pasquini of Moka d'Oro.

In retrospect, our coffeehouse era had less to do with coffee than with the romantic aura that espresso had picked up in New York, where bohemians had taken to drinking it in Greenwich Village's Italian cafes. As the fashion for Beat poetry faded, the number of espresso houses dwindled.

The fact is, we were still largely dependent on the big coffee-roasting companies. Our national prosperity, combined with the new affordability of European travel, was making Americans much more sophisticated about what they consumed. But the real renaissance had to wait until people became aware of specialty coffees: premium coffees from particular regions around the world.

That awareness largely stems from 1966, when Dutch-born Alfred Peet, a second-generation coffee roaster and tea taster, took over a former paint store in an obscure corner of north Berkeley and opened an import shop there. Behind its wooden counter were cupboards of tea leaves, dried herbs, fresh ground spices and regional coffee beans from around the world -- an eye-opening novelty at the time.

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