Espresso Basics : Cultural Definition

Defining espresso culturally and historically is more problematic. The taste for a dark, heavy, intense coffee, sweetened and drunk out of little cups, is obviously much older than the espresso machine itself, and may stretch back as far as the first coffeehouses in Cairo, Egypt, established during the early fifteenth century. On the other hand, technology (and the imagery of technology) is also obviously an important element of espresso culture. Although all coffee-making lends itself to technological tinkering, no other coffee culture has applied technology to coffee-making with quite the passion as the Italians have to espresso. The word espresso itself suggests custom-brewing, as in brewed expressly for you, as well as direct, rapid, non-stop, as in express train. Not only has technology been applied enthusiastically to the actual process of brewing espresso, but the imagery of technology, the idea of modernity and speed, also turns up as a major element in espresso’s cultural symbolism.

So culturally and historically we have a paradox. On the one hand, espresso as a general taste in coffee-drinking goes back to the very beginnings of coffee as a public beverage. On the other, Italian espresso culture has refined that taste through a technology that flaunts its modernity.

When we turn our attention to the United States, an historical and cultural definition of espresso might emphasize still another set of connotations. Rather than being associated with modernity and a dynamic urbanism, espresso in America has become identified with various alternate cultures, from Europeanized sophisticate nostalgically evoking tradition, to intellectual rebel attacking it.