Illustration of an espresso machine. Under the spout of the machine, two people sit at a patio table drinking espressos.

Credit: Shout

A short (or tall) history of the espresso bar

Chances are, you've already ordered a latte variation of choice. The espresso culture is so ubiquitous that many of us have our own machines sitting on kitchen counters. But how did we get here? Well, to see where it started, we need to go back more than a century.

In 1884, Italian inventor Angelo Moriondo received a patent for the world's first espresso machine. It was a bulky apparatus, designed to reduce coffee brewing times by 90% through steam power. (Back then, it took up to five minutes to brew a single cup!) Moriondo presented his machine at that year's Turin General Exposition, won the bronze medal, and then promptly disappeared from history. He never produced his invention commercially.

The two men made a splash at the 1906 Milan International Exposition with the updated machine, introducing "caffé espresso" on the sign above their stall—effectively the first espresso bar.

Twenty years later, two men from Milan—Luigi Bezzera and Desiderio Pavoni—took Moriondo's patent and improved it. Bezzera built the machine, and Pavoni introduced innovations to it: the pressure release valve and the steam wand. The two men made a splash at the 1906 Milan International Exposition with the updated machine, introducing "caffé espresso" on the sign above their stall—effectively the first espresso bar.

Back then, says Jonathan Morris, SAIS Eur '84 (Cert), one of the world's leading coffee historians, espresso machines were large vertical contraptions with a boiler. Steam pressure from the top of the boiler forced hot water through coffee, brewing it at about one and a half times the standard pressure, called "the atmosphere."

"It would taste like a slightly concentrated version of filter coffee today," says Morris, a professor of modern European history at the University of Hertfordshire in England and the author of Coffee: A Global History (Reaktion Books, 2019). "And that's really the first iteration of espresso."

After a few more updates to the invention—positioning the boiler horizontally instead of vertically so that you can actually see the person making your drink—we arrive in the 1960s with an espresso machine that produces espresso like the ones Morris came to know and love while attending SAIS in Bologna. His time there piqued his interest in the drink; he saw the culture flourish in real time. Seeing that growth—and indulging in espresso, of course—led him to spend much of his life tracking down the drink's history.

Listen to "1) A Five Gun Salute to the Origins of Coffee" on Spreaker.

While this story of the espresso machine was playing out, cocktail bars became en vogue in the United States. In the late 1800s, the first American-style cocktail bar opened in Italy. Morris says they were actually called American bars rather than cocktail bars. Customers would go right up to the counter, order their cocktail, and then drink it while standing at a high-top table. Or, they could drink coffee.

"What happens is that those American bars [in Italy] were among the first institutions to install espresso machines," Morris says.

After World War II and into the 1960s, more Italian people moved into cities. And because the espresso machine had flipped to be horizontal by that point, one person could run the whole thing while still chatting with customers. With all those new patrons, Morris says, small bars popped up in most neighborhoods to serve locals espresso all day.

"Neither homes nor, in a different way, workplaces were venues where you would probably want to socialize for coffee," he says. "In the case of a home, it's probably too small; you probably weren't inviting people in. In the case of a workplace, you certainly wouldn't be able to produce the kind of coffee, an espresso-type coffee, because the technology is far too expensive and you need somebody who knows how to do it. So, the notion of stopping in a bar for a coffee becomes ingrained."

And since espresso is typically a two-sip drink, customers would down it quickly, then leave.

Meanwhile, the Italian government began to tackle inflation by allowing local councils—in concert with bar owners—to determine maximum prices for basic items. Morris says it was based on a cup of coffee without service, which means you order at the counter, get your drink, and stand or leave. You don't sit down to enjoy the atmosphere or be served, a choice that would cost more.

"And indeed," Morris says, "there are plenty of stories of what happens when you sit down in an Italian café and suddenly your beverage is twice as expensive."

Essentially, it was in everyone's best interest to drink their espresso while standing—it would be cheaper, and they'd be in and out of the bar in a few minutes.

"That all comes together in the classic format of what we now think of as the Italian espresso bar. And that's really the format that persists through today."

Across the pond, the United States underwent its own coffee culture revolution in shops where you sat and leisurely drank your hot beverage. Starbucks, which opened in Seattle in 1971, mainly sold coffee beans until the owners sold the company to Howard Schultz. Schultz took a business trip to Milan in the late 1980s, where he encountered espresso bars and all the theatrics they employed with the fancy machines. He decided to bring espresso-based drinks to the United States. The rest is venti-size history.

With a new drink and an ambitious expansion plan, Starbucks entered into our lives around the world.

So where do espresso bars go from here? In the United States, we remain firmly a Starbucks culture—sitting and talking for hours with friends over a hot cup of coffee. But in Italy, the espresso experience is slowly shifting. The first Starbucks there, a Reserve Roastery, opened in 2018 to such success that the shops are now across the country.

"There are two interesting things happening," Morris says. "One is … [the Reserve Roastery] looks more like a fashion house than a coffee experience. There are guys in penguin suits outside the door checking who's going in and out and regulating the crowd."

The second, Morris says, is a complete departure regarding how Italian espresso bars typically work. Instead of hopping in, getting your cup to go, and moving on with your day, Starbucks is "selling time," he says. It's selling the idea that you have the space and time to sit and talk.

"The novelty of it is obviously not the coffee," he says. "The novelty of it is the timing and the rest of that format. That's going to be an interesting one to watch."

Jennifer Billock is an author and writing coach.