Let’s test your coffee IQ.
Is the number of cups of coffee consumed annually around the globe 900 billion, 400 billion or 800 million? Was the modern-day espresso born in 1884, 1901 or 1947?
If you’re reading this article early in the morning, perhaps you still need that cup of Joe to kick-start your brain. Don’t think too hard. Go fill your mug. The answers are 400 billion and 1947, respectively.
“Passione Italiana: The Art of Espresso,” a new exhibition at the Museum of Design Atlanta (MODA), is filled with coffee facts such as these. The exhibition, which runs through June 9, chronicles the technological and design advances of espresso, while also examining social, political and cultural movements fueled by coffee and cafes.
Back to 1947, to what MODA executive director Laura Flusche called “the big moment.” That’s when Milanese cafe owner Achille Gaggia applied for a patent for the machine that would deliver the first cup of real espresso.
Espresso is the only method of brewing coffee that uses pump pressure. For coffee to be considered espresso, the water must be pressurized to at least nine bars of atmospheric pressure at sea level, then “pulled” through a puck of tamped, ground coffee for about 25-30 seconds.
Where others before him failed to reach the golden number of nine bars, or were concentrating instead on how to brew large amounts of coffee to fuel thirsty factory workers during their short breaks, Gaggia succeeded through a lever-driven machine in which a boiler forces water into a cylinder and a barista uses a spring-piston lever to further pressurize the water.
His machine, called Gaggia Spagna, could hold only an ounce of water, so it is thanks to Gaggia’s gadget that espresso is a tiny little shot. It’s also where the phrase “pull an espresso” originated. And that foam floating on top, the crema, was new for its time; now considered a defining characteristic of a quality espresso, it took a bit of marketing to convince the coffee crowd there was nothing wrong with it.
Other inventors have since improved on espresso gadgetry, and designers have made fashion statements with it. “Passione Italiana” showcases more than 50 industrial pieces that date from the mid-20th century through present day, as well as creative coffee sets and crockery. Previously on display at Kerkrade in the Netherlands, the exhibition highlights influential designers that include Aldo Rossi, Toyo Ito, Richard Sapper and Massimiliano Fuksas. It was developed by the Netherlands’ Cube Design Museum in cooperation with IFM Foundation and is curated by Elisabetta Pisu.
While Italy may be the birthplace of espresso, even Georgia plays a role in “Passione Italiana.” Three machines on display are on loan from Espresso Southeast, an espresso machine supplier based in Auburn, Georgia. Among these is a massive vertical espresso machine created in 2005 in honor of renowned Italian espresso maker Victoria Arduino’s 100th anniversary. Called a Venus Century, the machine is one of only 100 such models that were manufactured — and blessed by Pope Benedict XVI in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Basilica.
Speaking of popes, it was Pope Clement VIII, back in the late 1500s, who gave coffee his seal of approval. Coffee was new to Europe at the time, and the Catholic Church was suspicious of it because of its association with Islam and its psychoactive effects. Pope Clement’s own advisers called it the “devil’s drink.”
Pope Clement’s “blessing” is just one historical moment among many that shed light on the social and historical impact of coffee – from the first public coffee houses that appeared in the 15th and 16th centuries in the Middle East and East Africa, and which served as places for conversation and debate, to coffee’s place during times of civil strife, be it after the Boston Tea Party or upon Camille Desmoulins delivering a fiery speech at Le Cafe Foy in Paris that incited a mob to storm the Bastille, the start of the French Revolution.
“We were kind of wowed by how many things have shaped our world because of coffee,” Flusche said.
Inspired by the spirit of creativity fueled by coffee and in conjunction with the exhibition, MODA has launched Co. Lab, an experiential space within the gallery. The environment, marked by expansive communal tables, is designed to spark thought and conversation. MODA is also planning additional coffee-related events, such as cuppings, with area businesses. Details can be found on its website.
“Passione Italiana: The Art of Espresso”
Through June 9. The exhibition explores espresso machine design and technology while examining the social, political and cultural movements fueled by coffee and cafes throughout history. $10; seniors and military, $8; students, $5; free for members and children age 5 and younger. Museum of Design Atlanta, 1315 Peachtree St., Atlanta. 404-979-6455, museumofdesign.org.
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