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What is Espresso?

Espresso coffee

If you asked for an espresso at your favourite restaurant or Café you would probably be served a small, strong shot of black coffee with a rich brown crema (or cream) on top. In broad terms, this is what an espresso is. The real substance of what an espresso is, however, lies far beyond just this basic idea.

History of Espresso

The roots of Espresso can be traced to a Frenchman, Louis Bernard Rabaut. In 1822, he made the prototype of the first espresso machine. In the years that followed, others also worked on similar coffee brewing technologies. The essence of modern espresso truly began to be seen in Turin, Italy in the late 1800s. Angelo Moriondo invented a steam-driven machine which was said to produce coffee “instantaneously.” Unlike modern espresso machines this device was a bulk brewer. The word ‘espresso’ really referred to the fact that he could offer a fresh coffee to his customers quickly, without the wait-time of traditional infusion methods. He was proud to be able to serve a fresh cup of coffee within a few minutes. He was primarily interested in finding a solution to make ‘instant coffee’ for his customers in the hospitality business, which is why he never commercialised the equipment. Although the machine was patented internationally, Moriondo limited production to only a few hand-built models.

Bezzera Coffee
Early Bezzera Coffee Machines (Source:

True modern espresso coffee was born in 1901. Luigi Bezzera from Milan, Italy designed and patented various improvements to espresso technology. These developments were bought by Desiderio Pavoni, who founded the La Pavoni company. He then began to mass produce these machines. Since then espresso machines have continued to be produced and upgraded. Today there are many manufacturers around the world. Many of these offer state of the art espresso machines complete with various new pieces of technology to help produce espresso.

Most modern espresso is produced by passing hot, pressurized water through a compressed bed of finely ground coffee. It is this specific brew method which creates the coffee we know as “espresso.”

Modern Espresso

Espresso Extraction, Espresso Coffee
Espresso Extraction

While traditional espresso recipes tended to be vague: x grams of coffee in, x ml of coffee out. Modern espresso is becoming increasingly more specific. Today espresso is often produced following a recipe which accounts for factors such as dosage of ground coffee, weight of liquid coffee out, grind size, pressure, and temperature. Some may include extraction time in this list, but it is not a factor used to decide a recipe. We won’t be going into extraction theory in much detail here. There are many videos and articles available explaining this. The WillowBrew team particularly enjoys James Hoffmann’s “Understanding Espresso” series on Youtube.

Most modern baristas or espresso enthusiasts use Espresso Ratios as a basic way of communicating an espresso recipe. Most concur that a good general guideline is an espresso ratio of 1:2. That is, the liquid coffee weighs double what the ground coffee weighed. In many cases, this produces a well balanced, well extracted espresso. It is worth noting that each coffee is different, so coffee beans from different roasters or origins will be best suited to different ratios and recipes. There are many factors at play. True modern espresso, is a product of a fine tuning process.

Nespresso Machine

Modern espresso equipment also plays a big part in the end result. Espresso ratios, as mentioned above, don’t account for recipe factors such as temperature or pressure, but most modern espresso equipment is made within specifications which produce good espresso without tampering with those factors. Today it is possible to have high quality espresso, which is at the level of the best Italian coffee bars, in the comfort of your home. Modern technological advancements make it possible to fine tune espresso coffee by adjusting most or all of the factors in an espresso recipe. Other machines and devices allow one to create espresso or espresso-like drinks at home without going into the complicated theory of recipes. Some of these advancements in convenience can be seen in the popularity of coffee capsule machines. Nespresso® and Dolce Gusto® have taken the world, and the South African home coffee market by storm. These user-friendly pods are super convenient, and deliver consistent espresso each time.

Regardless of the exact recipe or equipment a good espresso is one which delivers complex flavour notes, intensity, and aroma. The taste of espresso should be well balanced with both bitter and sweet flavours combined to create a complex taste experience. Good espresso is not overwhelmingly bitter. Neither should an espresso be sour. This balance also means that the espresso is neither too watery (like filter coffee), nor too rich (like a Ristretto).

Which Coffee is best for Espresso?

Coffee Beans
Dark roasted coffee beans.

Coffee is a very personal thing. Every individual has their own personal taste preferences. Single origin, specialty, blends, 100% Arabica, Robusta, light roasts, medium roasts, dark roasts; there are so many options to choose from. Some select coffees branded as “Espresso blend,” but this branding is usually just a way in which the producer communicates that this blend has been created to easily deliver balanced Espresso, not necessarily that it is only for espresso or better than coffee not given this label.
The flavours, intensities and aromas available make it possible for every coffee lover to find something which suits them. Whether you buy Coffee Beans, Ground Coffee, or Coffee Capsules, you can have great espresso.

At WillowBrew Coffee Merchants, we stock Italian coffee. With Italy being the home of espresso, we believe that the years of experience, tradition, and practice leads to an exceptionally high quality espresso. Our roasters have been in the world of coffee for generations, and we are happy to deliver the results of that tradition and experience to South African coffee lovers who would like to enjoy it. Many other South African roasters have been working hard to produce fine quality espresso as well. Today it is possible to benefit from both the tradition and experience of international roasters, and the creativity, dedication and skill of local roasters. There is a place for everyone in the world of coffee!

Are you an espresso lover? Coffee brewing enthusiasts and coffee professionals have developed a love for good espresso. It is a passion shared by many South African coffee lovers. With espresso, there is always more to learn, and more to experience. Now that you’re done reading about the espresso basics! Go out there and get some coffee, find what you love, and share it with a friend.

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How to make Cold Brew without a fancy Cold Brew Setup

Coffee drinks aren’t immune to trends and fads. We’ve all seen the latest drink of the month come and go from our neighborhood coffee shops as well as the big chains. But there’s one coffee drink that seems poised to stay, particularly when the weather is warmer and we’re all looking to cool down: cold brew coffee.
Cold brew might seem like it’s just an iced coffee, but it’s not. Cold brew isn’t just chilled coffee. It’s actually coffee beans that are steeped in cold water for up to a day, and then often diluted with water before drinking. It has a smoothness and lack of acidity that many people enjoy (and it still provides a caffeine kick). And unlike some very fancy coffee drinks, making cold brew doesn’t require a ton of extra equipment or expense. How can you make it and what steps should you follow? This graphic offers some easy instructions.

Guide to cold brew coffee


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The best coffee capsule in Italy?

Cellini coffee in south africaEarly this year, almost by accident, I came across an article in an Italian newspaper about a study into the best coffee  capsules in Italy, conducted by Altro Consumo, an independent consumer-oriented magazine investigating a wide range of products.  Whilst I am not in love with coffee in capsules, I found the research intriguing and decided to look into it.

The study looked at 24 different capsules available in Italy, including many of the big names of coffee roasters in Italy: Lavazza, Illy, Vergnano, Borbone, Kimbo, Gimoka, as well as the ubiquitous non-Italian Nespresso.  Surprisingly, the highest-rated capsule came from Cellini, a company I knew very little about.  I wanted to know more about these roasters.  I found that they are based in Genoa, with the family roots in Tuscany; a few years ago they realised how important capsules were becoming to the modern coffee drinker and therefore invested heavily in the research, testing and production of coffee in capsules.  But Cellini is no newcomer to the coffee business.  In 1925, Amleto Pieri started to deal as a green coffee broker and, in 1946, immediately after WWII, started his own roastery with the support of his sons.

nespresso-compatible-melodico-espresso-coffee-capsulesI was impressed by the story and values of Cellini and wanted to visit them in person.  I contacted them and they agreed to a visit.  Finally, in September of this year, with all due precautions dictated by the COVID pandemic, my wife and I were able to visit their current production site in Genoa.  A fourth-generation descendant of Amleto welcomed us and immediately treated us to a cup of their award-winning Melodico coffee.  Usually, I would have been reluctant to go with a coffee capsule, but I was very curious to try this winner and I was not disappointed, I loved it!  Even my wife Silvana, who is very demanding when it comes to coffee, was impressed.  What followed was a fascinating tour of their facilities, looking at every aspect of their operation, from receiving coffee samples from different plantations, through testing, tasting, chemical analysis, blending, development of the roasting parameters for each different blend, granulation assessment for different capsules, as well as a good discussion about speciality coffees and why they are unlikely to become mainstream in the foreseeable future.  We had the opportunity to taste some of their other coffees and take a few samples home with us.

We had a wonderful and educational visit.  We were impressed by their facilities, their professionalism, their attention to detail, their love and passion for coffee.  We had one thought: we must get this coffee to South Africa, so I contacted my friends at WillowBrew and I am so happy that they agreed to start a working relationship with Cellini.  The great news is that some Cellini products will be available in South Africa on the WillowBrew website or from any of its agents this month! (December 2020)  As well as the award-winning Melodico Nespresso-compatible capsules, they have a range of other capsules with different blends, as well as a couple of single-origin capsules and one compostable capsule with organic coffee.  For those who have opted for the Dolce Gusto machines, there will also be a couple of options.  And for the traditional ‘I want to make my own coffee’ brigade, they also have some options of premium ground coffee blends.

As Cellini like to say: LIFE, PASSION!

Altroconsumo Coffee Capsules Chart

Article about the study in HoReCa news magazine – English version: CLICK HERE

Cellini website: CLICK HERE

P.S.  If you do not have a suitable machine to make espresso, WillowBrew will help you rent or buy one that is appropriate to your needs. CLICK HERE

P.P.S.  If you would like to become an agent for WillowBrew, please contact us via our contact form; we are always recruiting in different areas.


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What makes Italian Coffee Better?

“Life’s too short to drink bad coffee”

Italian Cafe
Photo by Tony Lee

A phrase commonly used by coffee lovers. While we don’t know where this phrase originated from, coffee lovers everywhere agree that it is resoundingly accurate. Most of us would rather go without than to begrudgingly swallow a substandard brew. It is essential to most of us that we have the best coffee available. I and many are of the opinion that Italian coffee is the best coffee available. Why is it that so many coffee lovers and coffee professionals take this opinion? Let’s consider some reasons…


Firstly some history.

A fairly common misconception is that Italians invented coffee. In fact, the origins of coffee can be traced back to the Ethiopian plateau. Legend has it that a goat herder discovered the beans and their energizing properties. By the 17th century, coffee had made its way to Europe and was becoming popular across the continent, including Italy where coffee became a household staple. Appreciated at different times as a medicinal product, an expression of a lover’s affection, a status symbol for the upper class and intellectuals, or a way for friends and family to come together, coffee became quickly part of the Italian lifestyle and to this day is considered an integral part of Italian culture.  Given this background, it is not surprising that considerable resources have been invested over the centuries in achieving the “perfect coffee.”

Woman in Cafe
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Italians have been roasting coffee for centuries. The first coffee bar in Italy opened around 1683 in the city of Venice. The oldest existing Italian coffee roastery, Caffè Vergnano, has been around since 1882. In contrast, the oldest South African roastery in existence, did not start turning out coffee until over 4 decades later, and most popular South African roasteries which are currently operating started within the last 2 decades. There is no doubt that these roasteries have made a name for themselves by producing good coffee, however it is impossible to argue that any of them could have the same level of experience as many Italian Roasters where the methods and traditions have been passed down through the generations. Italian coffee blends, and roasting techniques have been perfected over time and are closely guarded secrets, usually kept within the company or sometimes within the family. A notable example of an Italian coffee family, is the Zanetti family. Marco Zanetti is a 7th generation owner in a family coffee dynasty dating back to 1700. The Zanetti family is home to established brands such as Segafredo, La San Marco and Caffè Mokarabia. Experience and know-how cannot be acquired in a few short years and every reputable Italian coffee company employs one or more roasting masters, each with their own secret recipes. Italian roasts tend to be on the darker end of the spectrum, exhibiting a rich brown colour with little oil on the bean, while producing an incredible variety of flavours and aromas. While a coffee aficionado can enjoy and appreciate a coffee from most roasteries, few would disagree that Italian coffee is different from others.

Italy is also the ancestral home of many of the drinks we know and love today. In 1901, Luigi Bezzera came up with the idea of forcing pressurized water through coffee powder to produce a short, concentrated drink, known as Espresso. Espressos form the base for most drinks which we enjoy at home or at restaurants, including Americano, Cappuccino, Latte, and the Australian Flat White. Of course, coffee is now a global industry and techniques, standards, and the science behind coffee have come a long way since Luigi Bezzera, however it’s only right that we acknowledge the role that Italian coffee roasters and coffee bars have played in making strides within the coffee industry. Without these key historical events, the world of coffee may have been very different.

Italian coffee is different from other coffees.

Moka Pot Coffee
Photo by Massimo Rinaldi

Why? All coffee roasters buy their beans from the same countries and yet Italian coffee has a distinct taste. This is largely due to the aforementioned techniques and industry secrets, but there’s more to it. Italian coffee brings with it the culture of Italy. It is truly an experience unlike any other. Cappuccino in the morning and Espresso after lunch, a perfectly extracted, aromatic, full bodied coffee every time from just 7 grams of ground coffee. Each blend with its own unique characteristics, much like the people and places of Italy. Coffee made from a traditional Moka Pot, or stove top espresso maker, or from home espresso machine brings the experience to life! Bonus points if you use Italian branded coffee cups.

Have you experienced Italian coffee? Have you tried the variety of blends and brands available? Every coffee lover should at some point get a taste of the proverbial homeland of coffee as we know it. Is Italian coffee really the best? Many would say ‘Yes,’ but I encourage you to decide for yourself. Explore the variety of Italian coffee, and experience what hundreds of years of tradition can produce. You won’t be disappointed!


Personal preference dictates that each of us can like what we like, and enjoy what we enjoy, regardless of what others think of it. In this article, I have explained why I believe that Italian coffee is superior to others. I understand that everyone may not agree with this sweeping generalisation and that it is perfectly reasonable to get amazing coffee from other sources. My only hope is that coffee lovers enjoyed reading it, and hopefully found some useful information.

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How to make a Cappuccino at Home

What is a Cappuccino?

A Cappuccino is an Espresso – based coffee drink that originated in Italy and is traditionally prepared with steamed milk foam. Variations of the drink involve the use of cream instead of milk, and flavoring with cinnamon or chocolate powder. The name refers to the colour of the habits of the Capuchin Friars, and in this context referring to the colour of the beverage when milk is added to an Espresso. 

Italian Cappuccino


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How to make Espresso with a Moka Pot

How to make Espresso with a Moka Pot

What is a Moka Pot?

The Moka Pot, or stove top espresso maker, invented in 1933 by Alfonso Bialetti, is a simple, effective, and elegant device which allows us to experience authentic Italian espresso in the comfort of our own homes. These pots work by passing pressurised water over Ground Coffee to produce an espresso. Many believe that true espresso can only be delivered by an expensive electronic espresso machine, however the Moka Pot can produce an espresso close, if not just as good as that produced by a coffee machine, at a fraction of the cost. Firstly, let’s understand what a Moka Pot is.

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