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A passion for quality gathered steam

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.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Oct. 27, 2006 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.

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.”)

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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”).

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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.

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More flavor in a cup

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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.

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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.

Due to political unrest in Indonesia, only a few sacks of Celebes (Sulawesi) made it to the U.S. that year, and Peet -- who had worked in Indonesia -- boldly snagged a large share of them. The beans were wonderfully rich and sold out quickly, proving there was a market for specialty coffee. In the beginning, Peet sold only coffee beans, but eventually he started selling drip coffee by the cup.

Five years later, three twenty-something fans of Peet’s, English teacher Jerry Baldwin, writer Gordon Bowker and history teacher Zev Siegl, started a little coffee import place of their own in Seattle, Starbucks, which ended up as the espresso house chain that conquered the world.

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As we know, you can now find an espresso house just about anywhere -- in some places more than one on a block. There also are big, gleaming espresso machines at bars, restaurants, supermarkets and even bookstores. These days, you’re not surprised to see an imposing espresso machine in a neighbor’s kitchen.

But as espresso has spread, it has changed.

The fact is, strong black coffee served in tiny cups is typical of a belt extending from Spain to Hungary by way of Italy and Austria. Elsewhere in Europe, people prefer weaker drip coffee served in big cups with sugar and cream. Coffee historian Ian Bersten suggests this reflects the division between wine-drinking and beer-drinking Europe -- wine being strongly flavored and served in glasses while beer is mild and served in mugs.

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A fusion of styles

THE American tradition is decidedly big mugs with sugar and cream. As high-quality coffee and coffee-making have become common, we’ve been seeing a convergence of the two traditions. These days, people who order a straight espresso at a coffee shop are a minority. Most customers are getting something with a dairy product in it.

This fusion started with cappuccino, a traditional combination of equal amounts of espresso and milk, served in a medium-sized cup with a thick topping of steamed milk. (The reason it’s so thick is that when a barista foams milk by powering steam through it, some of the milk protein coagulates.) When Starbucks went national in the late 1980s, the country went crazy for cappuccino. The gurgling roar of milk being steamed became the soundtrack of a coffeehouse.

More recently, cappuccino has been dethroned by caffe latte, which uses more milk and less foam. As hordes of people have been ordering mild, milky lattes, coffee shops have been obliging them by boosting the proportion of milk. These days you can find latte recipes that call for up to six times as much milk as coffee.

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In 1995, Starbucks introduced a sort of coffee-flavored slush made with milk and sugar, the Frappuccino. Ever since, coffee shops have been concentrating more and more on ice-blended drinks, many without the least fig leaf of coffee. The coffee house has become a place for milkshake-like drinks with coffee as a motif.

But throughout all this, home coffee making has improved vastly. Drip makers drove out percolators in the ‘80s, and then French presses became common. Now people insist on owning burr grinders to make the perfect grind for their home espresso machines.

And for the first time since canned coffee was invented, independent local coffee roasters have established themselves around town. Good coffee is making itself at home, 50 years on.

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charles.perry@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Important dates in modern coffee connoisseurship

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1940s

American coffee roasters start blending cheap Robusta beans, high in caffeine but low in flavor, with their traditional Arabica coffee. The vast majority of Americans are brewing canned ground coffee in percolators.

1947

Giovanni Achille Gaggia patents the modern espresso machine.

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Early 1950s

Gaggia’s machines start showing up in Greenwich Village Italian cafes. New York bohemians take up espresso.

1956

Ambrose Pasquini opens Moka d’Oro, L.A.'s first cafe using a Gaggia espresso machine, at 1712 N. Vermont Ave. Robinson’s department store advertises a more primitive home espresso maker, the Nova Caffe.

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1957

Coffee House Positano opens in Malibu, initiating Southern California’s beatnik coffee house era. Thirty more espresso joints open in the following year.

1961

Peak use of Robusta beans by coffee companies, followed by a 25-year decline in American coffee consumption.

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1962

The 1962 International Trade Agreement is signed, the first of a series of five-year agreements that cartelize coffee production. They stifle the market for specialty coffees until the agreement breaks down in 1989.

1965

In “The Ipcress File,” Michael Caine’s hip spy character Harry Palmer uses a Chemex filter coffee maker, reflecting the growing dissatisfaction with ordinary coffee.

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1966

Peet’s Coffee, Tea and Spices opens in Berkeley selling specialty coffees; popularizes a relatively dark roast. In New York, Zabar’s revives interest in specialty coffees; uses a light roast.

1973

Introduction of Mr. Coffee drip coffee maker, which helps wean Americans away from the percolator.

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1975

Hills Bros. introduces European Style Coffees flavored with cocoa, cinnamon and coconut, spawning the flavored coffee trend.

1987

Starbucks, a Seattle coffee merchant which had recently acquired Peet’s, becomes a chain of coffee houses.

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Late 1980s

Caffe latte becomes popular; in a Far Side cartoon, one cowboy offers another a mug, saying, “Latte, Jed?” Proportion of latte to caffe rises year by year.

1995

Starbucks promotes the Frappuccino, a slushy drink of coffee, milk and ice. The ice-blended era begins; coffee shops more and more resemble 1940s soda fountains.

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Late 1990s

A sizable wave of serious local coffee roasters.

2005

Fifteen percent of adult Americans have a cup of specialty coffee every day.

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-- Charles Perry


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