Retrotopian Espresso

  • Posted on: 1 November 2020
  • By: Justin Patrick Moore

This is a guest post by Andy Dwelly.

I've recently had the pleasure of re-reading John Michael Greer's Retrotopia novel, a description of life during the early part of the Long Descent in the Lakeland Republic. The Republic is one of the successors to the United States, that in the novel has broken up around a quarter of a century prior to the story. Centred around its capital of Toledo, the Republic has been forced by circumstances to face the reality of the end of the American Empire and declining energy supplies rather sooner than its neighbours. It must be said that they've made a pretty fair fist of things, and the novel itself is at heart a thoroughly optimistic one.

In between the descriptions of clothing, fashion, transport, newspapers, business law, and food, there's an occasional mention of coffee - but not the particular style of coffee that I drink, which is espresso. Espresso in its current form was discovered in 1948, but it evolved from a series of patents that were attempts to reduce the brew time of a cup of filtered coffee. In '48, the owner of a cafe in Milan called Achilles Gaggia invented a machine that pushed water through a puck of finely ground coffee at much higher pressure than was usual for the period. This had the effect of releasing a carbon dioxide foam from the beans that floated on the surface of the resulting tiny drink. In a stroke of maketing genius, he called this foam 'crema' and the result was pretty much an instant hit throughout Italy. A good espresso combines intense coffee flavour with a relatively syrupy texture and the natural caffeine kick, but if it's done right avoids both bitterness and acidity. Actually achieving that goal in a simple espresso takes some practice.

Espresso also makes an ideal basis for milk coffee drinks because the small size of the espresso shot will not dilute the natural sweetness of the milk. Both kinds are widely available in Europe and in the UK in both urban and rural cafes, but of course the cost of regularly buying a few speciality coffee drinks from an independent cafe or a chain soon mounts up. Lots of people have machines at home that attempt to make espressos and the lockdowns introduced in the wake of COVID-19 can only have accelerated the takeup of home machines.

I was in the process of moving house as the leading edge of the pandemic hit the UK, and the large shed at the top of my new garden got repurposed as a temporary office with power and internet. At this point, life furnished me with an example of almost Retorotopian diminishing returns.

I didn't have a home espresso machine and when I was given a gift certificate at a well known UK department store I jumped at the chance to acquire one. Modern home espresso machines are very high tech indeed. I got an entry level Sage (Breville in the US) Duotemp, it has a built in water filter, a high specification pump, a steam wand for people making milk drinks, and a great deal of electronics inside to make this all work. I should say right off the bat that it does work, the problem being that the particular machine is quite inflexible about timing, temperature, and pressure. This means that getting a really good espresso in the morning becomes a bit of a hit or miss affair, if the particular beans you are using are something like the sort of beans this machine is preset for, then all's well, otherwise the results can be a bit disappointing; to be fair Sage makes far more capable machines as well.

There's no doubt as to the internal complexity of these and similarly specced machines, they need regular cleaning, descaling, and backflushing to remove old oils and coffee grains that have gone astray, and there's no doubt that I live an a peculiarly hostile environment for such an appliance. I use them least twice a day, every day, and I live on a chalk down and the water out of my kitchen taps is unusually hard. Sooner rather than later a job would come up that I was not capable of, and it would have to go back to the manufacturer for maintenance.

So I did some more research and concluded that to reach a consistent morning and lunchtime result I'd probably have to buy one of Sage's more advanced machines or start saving for an even more complicated PID controlled variable pressure machine. A PID is an advanced control mechanism, a kind of thermostat on steroids. Machines of this style start at an incredible £1200 and go north of there. They also need a high end coffee grinder because the bean has to be reduced to a fine powder with a consistently sized grain. You can't do that with cheap blade grinders, and the alternative burr grinders can cost more than the machines they are paired with. There are companies out there that make grinders for home use that cost more than decent second hand cars. I wish that was a joke. Given this is all in aid of a cup of coffee, it was pretty clear that I'd reached the point of diminishing returns right there.

It was at this point that I discovered the La Pavoni Europiccola, which is a manual lever style machine. You can see one in action in this 40 second clip of the 1973 James Bond movie, Live and Let Die.

It's worth watching to the end, it's quite funny.

The clip is an odd little snippet of British culture of the period. As I now know, Bond in his Roger Moore incarnation didn't have a clue how to use this machine and was improvising. The audience didn't know either. I went to the original release and although the line at the end got a laugh Moore's antics passed unnoticed. We all thought that was how you did it!

The design of the machine in question - that hissing silver thing - was over a decade when the film was made and in fact is still available today with only a few minor changes. I sold my original Sage and bought one of these instead.

The vertical boiler at the back has an electric kettle element that heats the water and raises the pressure to about twice atmospheric pressure; this forces hot water up through a tube into the lever/cylinder setup at the front. You grind the coffee and tamp the puck as you would for any machine, then once it is in place with a cup underneath raising the lever allows water into the cylinder. Forcing the lever back down pushes that water at around nine times atmospheric pressure, through the coffee puck and out into the cup below. It carries with it, the dissolved solids from the ground coffee and the *crema* that we expect to see on top. That's it. There's no pump and not a transistor in sight. The most complicated piece of electrical equipment on board is the internal switch that turns off the element when it reaches operating pressure. There's a spring operated safety valve on the side if the pressure switch fails, and a steam wand with a simple screw valve connected to the top of the boiler if you want to heat milk. This simple construction means that the Europiccola, although far from cheap, is a fraction of the price of the 'real' machines I mentioned earlier.

The day mine arrived I changed the plug for a UK style one, filched a 13 amp fuse from an an infrequently used DIY tool in the garage and fired it up. The boiler makes a friendly bubbling sound as it heats up and there's a distinct hiss as the lever is raised and the hot water hits the coffee for the initial stage of production. Within a minute or so of loading my first puck of ground coffee I was able to make a really very, very bad cup of espresso.

You see like many manual tools, there's a bit of a learning curve. You can tell that you have got it right when on the downward press there's a sensation of slight resistance - like smoothing a block of wood with a properly sharpened plane. The sense of growing mastery is one of the additional pleasures of this kind of set up, although I was able to get within spitting distance on my fourth attempt. Within a week I was turning out perfectly acceptable espresso quite consistently, it doesn't take long.

One of things that a picture can't give you a feel for is how heavy this, it's mainly constructed of thick chromed brass and gives the impression of solidity. The machines are known to last - there are working examples out there from before the millennium and older machines still regularly come up for sale on Ebay. I've also heard of cases where these machines were simply given away as they are 'too much work'.

The design is so simple that even advanced servicing can be done at home, descaling is a relatively easy process using vinegar or citric acid and occasionally internal gaskets need replacement. There's a small but lively secondary market in components and add ons such as pressure gauges, fancy wooden handles to replace the black plastic, and temperature displays. The individual components that make up these machines are also separately available.

In fact, I should think that the whole thing is well within the manufacturing capabilities of the Lakeland Republic, and as a consequence I will be able to get hold of a morning espresso when I visit sometime later on this century. More to the point, I think that variations on this design would be well within the capabilities of even a moderately equipped machine shop, and there's no requirement for the water to be electrically heated. A decent alcohol burner would be capable of powering such a machine and hand grinders were a feature of the past and are still available.

Coffee too has been available in Europe and the US for hundreds of years. I was surprised to discover that the first coffee shop in Britain started up in Oxford shortly after the civil war in 1654 and it's still in business. Green coffee beans are exactly the kind of robust yet high value commodity that an enterprising owner of a sailing ship might want to import from warmer parts of the world to the cooler parts of Europe, and of course there's as perfectly good overland route from South America to North America for merchant caravans too although sea routes might be a better choice.

So my guess is that coffee itself will still be available during much of the long descent and no doubt will still be part of the daily life of future civilisations. That's probably a good thing, we are going to need a cup or two to help us solve some of the problems we will be facing.