Publication Date

December 23, 2020

Perspectives Section

Everything Has a History


  • Europe


Cultural, Food & Foodways

Pushing one’s way through a crowded bar to reach the counter and down a quick coffee before heading off to work is one of the everyday rituals of Italian life. Although it can feel like chaos, it is actually a highly choreographed performance, starring the barista, supported by a coffee machine capable of rapidly brewing cup after cup of espresso, freeing its operator to orchestrate the show going on around them. The coffee bar has been hailed as Italy’s “minimum unit of civilization,” where the chatter that constitutes the pulse of the community takes place.

Faema E61 Espresso Machine

Courtesy MUMAC Archive (Coffee Machine Museum by Gruppo Cimbali—Italy)

Coffee entered Europe through Venice in the 1570s, and so-called “espresso” machines, using pressure to speed up the coffee brewing process, were first manufactured in Milan in 1905. The Italian coffee bar experience, however, was the product of the postwar “economic miracle” that transformed an agrarian country into an urban, industrial one. Underpinning this revolution was the appearance in 1961 of an espresso machine that redefined the beverage, the brewing technology, and, above all, the business model that it supported: the Faema E61.

This was the first commercially successful semi-automatic espresso machine. It took advantage of the country’s electrification by replacing manually operated levers with an on/off switch controlling delivery. This activated an electrical volumetric pump that passed hot water through the coffee under a constant nine bars of pressure, now the standard parameter for Italian espresso. Previous machines used boilers to heat the water directly. The E61 drew cold water from an external source, passed it through a heat exchanger situated within its boiler, and deposited it into the brew head. Connected to the public water supply, the machine was capable of “continuous delivery” of coffees, without any interruptions to recharge the boiler.

The E61 was to espresso drinking what the Mini Cooper was to automobiles. The physically imposing machines of the first half of the century, featuring beautifully stylized casings wrapped around vertical boilers, were rendered outmoded by a squat little intruder fronted with a trendy piece of pop-art branding and a cute translucent plastic cup warmer cover sitting on top. The machine stood just 22 inches high because the boiler had been turned onto its side to allow the barista to chat over the top to the customer. By bending the steam wands at the ends of the machine toward them, baristas could perform all the elements of coffee preparation without needing to move from one spot.

The E61 was Italy’s best-selling coffee machine of the 1960s, finding particular favor among proprietors of small establishments who worked alone. Faema moved into the production of all kinds of bar fixings and fittings but fell victim to overexpansion in the 1970s, enabling other manufacturers to share in the opportunities created by the later rise of the international coffee shop format embodied by Starbucks. It was the E61, however, that made possible the Italian espresso-downing ritual that is now being proposed for UNESCO listing as an element of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity.

Jonathan Morris is professor of modern history at the University of Hertfordshire. He tweets @coffeehistoryjm.

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