A short train journey from Florence couched amoung the Tuscan hills is a holy site for all coffee afficianados. The first thing that struck me about the La Marzocco factory was it’s modern clean look. A building more likely to be seen in silicon valley than amoung the olive farms.
San Sieve is known for its moter racing track, yet La Marzocco is the coffee machine of choice worldwide, but apparently they not as well know within Italy itself. My comrade Dagmar, who organised this juant via Mr Henk of La Marzocco Netherlands, was wondering out loud who we were meeting when a La Marzocco branded van pulls up.
Two Italians from La Marzocco Rome shared our ride to the factory. Despite the language barrier quickly we were talking coffee machines. Such is the fraternity of coffee. They talked with love for their company founders and ethics. They spoke of 1939, when Giuseppe Bambi registered a patent for a machine with a horizontal boiler, the first of its kind, with group heads side by side (linear). This gave the barista more space to operate the machine and the possibility of more groupheads that disperse the espresso. This is often the first thing you learn about La Marzocco, But more on this later.
Walking into the Factory’s reception the space is dominated by an early 20th century Vittoria roaster, maybe 40kgs I’d guess. Well waiting Dagmar and I discussed the pros and cons of the old roaster and direct flame roasting this roaster having its flame jets in the centre of the drum axis, rather than from beneath the drum. We were giddy with the spirit of the space already.
We were then welcomed into museum and coffee bar area. At this point only a couple people had arrived for the tour so with luck we got Silvia, La Marzocco PR, to ourselves. We quickly got down to the business of talking history. I feel disingenuous using the term PR as that term is associated with spin, marketing and hype. La Marzocco was free of all of this. I’ve never seen a company so large that is full people passionate about who they work for and the history of what they do.
Silvia told us about the two brothers, craftsmen who operated a workshop building all sorts of things, panel beating and metal working. Giuseppe and Bruno Bambi. One commission taken by the workshop for an upright boiler coffee machine. The Fiorenza, essential I large mokkha pot with something like a portafiter on each side of the machine and no pressure regulation. If you want to cool it down add more water, if you want more heat as more coals. The pressure was a mere 3 kg per cm³ compared to the 9kg per cm³ machines that came later. The machine required two operators. One stoking, one brewing. At the time they were not known as barista, simply Italian for bar men, But machinista. This machine was akward, dangerous and didn’t produce very nice coffee.
By 1936 the Bambi brothers had completely revolutionised the coffee machine. Inventing design features which are still standard today. They changed the way the boiler worked, adopted the successful group style from Gaggia with spring levers in the 1950s. By far the most beautifully designed of the coffee machines in the espresso Hayday of post war.
While other coffee machine manufacturers in Italy continued to operate during The war the Officina Fratelli Bambi as they were known was no friend of the regime. They could not obtain license from the Mussolini government for use of metals. Many early machines were taken and melted down for the war effort.
Hardly surprising since the lion found on all LMs are a symbol for the Florentine Republic. The La Marzocco lion, based on a sculpture by Dontello, was a reinterpretation of Mars, a god who was a symbol for the Florentine republic. Pre dating the Roman invasion and Christianity. Guiseppe however did patient the liner boiler during this time but due to Bruno dying during the war his wife took the Linea patent to other companies which is why they are now the style of all modern coffee machines.
The machine in the hospitality area, a three group Linea with a brass casing hand beaten by Giuseppe when he was 97 years old decorated with the Lilly of Florence. As Silvia is asking if we want a coffee an elderly man starts dosing and grinding behind the machine and makes us an espresso. Silvia smiles and introduces us to Pietro Bambi. I’m taken hold by an uncharacteristic shyness but Dagmar jumps behind the machine with him and despite the language barrier an exchange ensures.
Silvia tells me that when she first started she wasn’t a barista, but she was trained by Pietro, she found all the techniques and steps a little overwhelming. Asking him to slow down he told her well I’m teaching you properly because I wouldn’t waste my time on someone stupid. A backhanded compliment. We tried an espresso from Guatemala, roasted locally.
After the war Guiseppe work with limited resources. He would visit soldiers markets to buy old parachutes and metals to fashion in the workshops products. Hard to imagine when looking at this large, solar powered Spanish mission style building that it was grown on coffee machines built with used fun casings.
We started the tour moving from the offices to R&D but unfortunately I didn’t get to see the La Curva LMs lever project. It was in the research and design section. The blinds were down and the future plans of LM are still a secret to me.
First stop was the top floor where both GS3s and Linea Minis are assembled. These are single group machines. GS3s for low use commercial such as in roasters, bars and training. The Linea Mini the new sweet heart for home users.
The shop floor for both of these machines are broken up into separate areas with the top for people working in each section. Silvia explained all staff had interchangeable skills and no one was fixed in one position.
It’s amazing that each machine is handmade to order. Each customisable, and they often are. The Brothers design skills also extended to decor as did Piero Bambini was originally training to become an interior designer and his older brother was to continue the company.
interior designer. So many coffee bars were designed by Piero. He even designed chandlers and moldings for them.
It’s almost like LM have developed along parallel lines to the industrial revolution. They have not industrialised and compartmentalised the process but simple made the workshop method bigger and bigger. They don’t operate top down push and production line assembly, but operate collaboratively and give room for bottom up innovation. They are modern day craftspersons not allowing themselves to be hurried each machine taking the time that is required to finish to a high standard.
That a single machine can be assembled by just a few workers each having responsibility for those individual machines. Counter intuitively LM is a quiet, clean and zen like calm space where intelligence and innovation is valued. The large windows over vistas of olive farms no doubt helps worker morale too.
Dagmar pointed out the number of women employed by La Marzocco. The ratio is healthy and women take tasks equal to men, not resigned to just making the tea (or espresso).
Moving through the lower part of the factory we continued the tour we passed the man himself Kees Van Der Western, Dutch innovator of such machine design as the mirage and minstrel. I can only guess what creative collaborative projects may be in the works. He was kind enough to compliment me on the Faema shirt I happened to be wearing that day.
As well all workers having a knowledge of the wide range of techniques for assembling all builds of machines they also have strict quality control. Parts from suppliers are rejected for the smallest imperfection. We were shown a saturated group cast as a single piece of surgical stainless steel that was rejected for the rough finish it had been given.
These groups are a major source of pride for LM, a solution to temperature instability, and created in the early GS models. The design so much a part of LM at every point even the concept behind the saturated groups is encoded into the GS logo for these machines. This design profile of the machine gave the barista far more space to interact with customers. It was also the machine the original Starbucks use and was the foot in the door for the American market. If it wasn’t for LMs and Pietro having the insight to expand from Italian to American markets the espresso and third wave coffee movement we know today would have not happened as beautifully as it did.