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This year’s Out Of The Box event, put on by our friends and partners at La Marzocco, was full of exciting new products and fascinating glimpses into the possible future of the company, which you can read about in more depth in our wrap-up. One of the most intriguing of these glimpses was the functional prototype of the new Caffè Firenze compressed-air driven espresso extraction technology, developed by La Marzocco in concert with Illy, perhaps Italy’s most well-known coffee brand, and researchers at the University of Florence.

In a nutshell, Caffè Firenze uses a combination of compressed air and a standard espresso machine pump to extract espresso at 20 bar with a partially-sealed high-pressure brew chamber. The resulting shot has an intense amount of super light and silky crema, and the claim is that it produces more sweetness and emphasizes the aromatics.

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Left: Francesco Illy

Francesco Illy, vice-president of Gruppo Illy SpA, was on-hand all weekend giving presentations and showing off the new technology. In 2004 Mr Illy started a broad research project aimed at “re-inventing coffee”, that partnered with multiple universities and other groups in Italy. The first results to come out of that project were from the University of Florence, where Alessandro Parenti experimented with brewing espresso with pressurized gas. Mr. Illy, who holds the patents behind the technology, began working with La Marzocco in 2011 to turn that research into a workable technology, which resulted in the prototype shown at Out Of The Box, built on a modified Strada EP platform.

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Being an alpha prototype, the operation of the machine was still very manually controlled and it seemed like there was a lot of exploration of its potential left to be done, but the thing did indeed work, and it did indeed create a qualitatively different espresso experience.

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Mr Illy said that one of the genesises of the Caffè Firenze project was his work selling Illy in Switzerland, where he says customers with more filter-coffee attuned palates sometimes find his espresso to be “too strong”. To make something more delicate with a smooth “fatty” mouthfeel,  Caffè Firenze uses seven grams of ground coffee, in a specially-designed portafilter with a valve on the bottom that can be opened and closed by twisting the portafilter handle.

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The actual extraction of Caffè Firenze goes through four distinct stages, over the course of about a minute: 1. The sealed portafilter is locked into the heated brew-chamber, and compressed air is added, bringing the chamber to 15bars of pressure. 2. Water at standard espresso temperatures is added to the brew chamber, bringing the pressure to 18 bar, and then the valve is opened for a second and then closed to “pre-infuse” the coffee. 3. The closed chamber is brought to 20 bars of pressure with the addition of more water. 4. The valve is opened and the shot is extracted by the compressed-air escaping.

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This new technology certainly had people’s interests piqued–the machine was mobbed all weekend. I didn’t have a chance to play in-depth with the new technology, and the only coffee being made on it was Illy’s standard espresso roast, so I wasn’t able to really evaluate its effects on more acidic or aromatic roast profiles. I can say though that the shots I did try had a sweet, milk-chocolatey profile and a smooth, luscious tactile experience. Definitely the most enjoyable shots of Illy I’ve had, and a fascinating suggestion of one possible direction for the future of espresso preparation. The technology is still a long way from market, but it’s exciting to see attempts at innovation in the espresso realm.

Alex Bernson (@AlexBernson) is the assistant editor at Sprudge.com. You can read more of his work here

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