This past January, I went on an espresso-fueled crusade through Italy, sipping my way through the country on a quest to better understand the cultural history and traditions that supposedly surround the beloved beverage there. In addition to consuming a dangerous amount of caffeine over the course of a week, I also got a chance to make the ultimate coffee nerd's pilgrimage: A tour of the La Marzocco espresso-machine factory.
Here, a little bit about the company and its operations just outside of Florence.
Based about an hour drive from Firenze in the Tuscan hills, the factory is a relatively new upgrade from the company's original just-outside-city-limits location, where operations were centered from 1961 until 2009. The company itself, however, traces its history all the way back to the late 1920s, when founder and coffee fanatic Giuseppe Bambi and his brother Bruno started hand-making individual coffee makers on a commission basis.
The first pieces were simple, coal-powered units that could be installed in train stations and busy bars, feeding the newly exploded espresso craze that had swept Italy since its Industrial Revolution. (In fact, the equipment was so new and so seemingly complicated that the folks who operated them were called macchinisti or "machine operators." The term barista didn't apply to coffee makers for several decades.)
The Bambis called their company "La Marzocco" after the Roman god of war, and designed its iconic lion-and-lily logo after the city seal of the brothers' beloved Florence.
In the late 1930s—just before WWII felled all nonessential machine production in Italy, stalling La Marzocco's output until after peacetime—the Bambis took out a patent for the first horizontal-boiler espresso machine. The new design allowed the brothers to incorporate additional group heads—the part on an espresso machine where the hot water and coffee grounds come in contact—to the equipment, which allowed baristas to make more than one shot of espresso at a time. (And the people rejoiced!)
Into the 1950s and 1960s, the brothers Bambi and their still-small crew continued to innovate coffee-brewing technology by incorporating electric pumps to their machines, and then in 1970 La Marzocco took out what is arguably its most significant patent yet: A design for the dedicated-boiler espresso machine.
What made this style of machine distinct from its predecessors was the inclusion of a pair of hot-water tanks, rather than a single boiler: One specifically set to heat water for brewing coffee (somewhere between 195°F and 205°F is ideal), and the other set to constantly bring a basin of water to just-off-boil in order to create a powerful bed of steam, which would be used to heat and texturize milk. (In single-boiler machines, the coffee-brewing water is often heated by passing through a tube that runs within the middle of the steam boiler, which can cause temperature inconsistencies and overheated brews.)
Today, all La Marzocco machines contain at least two separate hot-water tanks (as per that swingin' 70s design) and, staggeringly, are all also hand-assembled in the company's Tuscan factory. Staffed by about 40 full-time employees, LM's Italian HQ is a sunny, relatively modest facility full of friendly chattering, and a constant (if surprisingly unintrusive considering it's, you know, a factory) hum of rock & roll. It's packed with antiques—including a newly organized and cataloged archive of original designs and blueprints—and custom-painted specialty machines commissioned for special events and industry gatherings.
Anyone inclined to get geeky about coffee technology would be in heaven in this place—it helps, of course, that Tuscany is one of the most beautiful places on earth, and the drive to La Marzocco winds through hillside roads overlooking olive farms and charming cottages. (Seriously. Heaven.)
Oddly enough, however, La Marzocco hasn't had a stronghold on the Italian coffee scene for many years: The majority of their artisinal machines are headed to the U.S. and Asia upon completion, while most Italian cafes and bars house mass-produced (and usually lower-quality) equipment on their counters, typically furnished by one of the many humungous coffee vendors that's supplying the beans.
Throughout North America, however, the sight of a barista behind one of those lion-branded beauties is often (though certainly not always) a clue about the quality of the shots being made on it: Hand-crafted deliciousness on a hand-crafted piece of machinery? Can't beat that.