Kees van der Westen first encountered espresso as a college student. It was the 1980s, and he was studying industrial design in Genk, Belgium. Like most college students, he valued the dark, acidic shots pulled in local cafes primarily for their caffeine content, not their complexity of flavor, mouth feel or aroma.
That changed after he chose the espresso machine as the final project for his degree, Bloomberg Pursuits magazine will report in its Holiday 2013 issue. Most devices then in production were boring metal boxes, he says, leaving plenty of room for innovation.
Today, van der Westen’s machines -- chrome goddesses whose bodies evoke the lines of classic midcentury American automobiles -- have gained a cult following among coffee connoisseurs.
“A Kees van der Westen is pretty much the holy grail,” says Dave Ringwood, head of equipment customization, restoration and design at Olympia, Washington–based Espresso Parts LLC.
He and a dozen assistants assemble about 400 machines a year in his small workshop in the town of Waalre in the southern Netherlands. Most buyers are cafes and espresso bars.
Wealthy individuals, however, have recently begun purchasing commercial espresso machines as showpieces for home kitchens, van der Westen says -- no small commitment given the specialized electrical hookups, plumbing and water-filtration systems required.
Edwin Mayer, a London media lawyer, saw one of van der Westen’s Speedsters in the window of a local coffee shop and was immediately smitten.
“I loved the look of it,” he says.
While the Speedster’s price gave him pause, Mayer says he considers the purchase on a par with a painting or sculpture.
“It’s a functional piece of art,” he says.
Having bought it for its aesthetics, Mayer quickly came to appreciate its brewing prowess.
“It makes superb coffee and is very forgiving and easy to maintain,” he says, adding that most home machines aren’t robust enough to produce consistently excellent espresso.
Other manufacturers cashing in on the trend in commercial-quality espresso at home include Seattle-based La Marzocco International LLC, whose GS/3 has found a niche among coffee obsessives, selling 800 to 1,000 units worldwide each year despite its $7,000 price tag.
“These people want a piece of art -- not just another appliance,” says Scott Callender, who’s in charge of home-barista marketing for La Marzocco.
Slayer Espresso, another Seattle-based manufacturer, is set to begin selling its industrial-grade machine designed for home use before the end of the year.
A lot of espresso’s taste shouldn’t have anything to do with the machine, La Marzocco Chief Executive Officer Kent Bakke says. It’s determined by the beans, how they’re roasted and even the water quality.
“The biggest challenge as an espresso-machine manufacturer is to do as little damage to the coffee as possible,” he says.
When it does come to the machine, the main variables are pressure and temperature. Traditionally, espresso has been made by forcing water through the grinds at 9 bar, or 131 pounds per square inch, for 25 seconds -- which remains the standard today.
The best temperature for brewing, on the other hand, is hotly contested, although all agree it lies somewhere between 180 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit (82 and 96 degrees Celsius). The trick is to deliver the water at exactly the right temperature throughout the brew cycle, even if the machine is simultaneously steaming milk or extracting another shot.
Seattle-based Synesso Inc. was the first manufacturer to achieve a temperature variance of less than 1 degree Fahrenheit from boiler to brew -- the espresso equivalent of breaking the sound barrier -- although a few other companies have since matched the achievement. However, the styling of a machine, not just what’s under the hood, has become the key selling point for many artisanal coffee lovers.
“It’s important for the machine to be as aesthetically pleasing as it is functional,” Espresso Parts’ Ringwood says.
He helps personalize espresso machines with custom paint jobs, neon lighting and wood trim. In some cases, he also soups up the insides of machines, adding extra boilers and modern temperature and pressure sensors. Often referred to as hot rodding, this customization can add as much as $25,000 to a machine’s base price, Ringwood says.
No one has to hot rod a Kees van der Westen; they start out looking wow. Van der Westen owns a 1964 Ford Thunderbird convertible and a 1962 Cadillac with tail fins, and there are echoes of this Chrome Age style in his espresso makers.
“I like fast shapes,” he says. “Espresso is fast coffee, so the machine should look fast.”
Ultimately, van der Westen says, he’s looking for a marriage of man and machine. He describes in rapturous tones Australian baristas working at full tilt in coffee shops that routinely sling more than 1,000 cups before 2 p.m. (A busy cafe in the U.S., by comparison, might serve 400 all day.) A good barista is in constant motion, his hands moving continuously over the machine, adjusting the steam lever, tamping the grind, wiping surfaces clean with a cloth, pulling shots.
“It’s a beautiful thing to behold,” van der Westen says.
A growing number of coffee lovers are saying the same thing about his machines.