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FAEMA: Making The Universe’s Best Coffee

From Issue 94: Words by Paul Maunder; Images Courtesy of the Horton Collection

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Italy emerged from World War II a fractured and humbled nation. Industry had been nearly destroyed, unemployment spiraled and the Italian lire collapsed. Recovery was not helped by political tensions, as the various factions that had made the war so bitter vied for peacetime power. Yet though Italian society was fraught with these structural challenges, the rituals of everyday life survived. And perhaps, as now, it seemed more important than ever to hold on to the little things. Like a morning espresso. Since the 16th century, when the first Italian coffee was brewed in Venice, the country has been crazy about the black stuff. Coffee, and the lore surrounding it, has been integral to Italian culture.

In 1945 Carlo Ernesto Valente opened a coffee machine factory in Milan, calling his new company Fabbrica Apparecchiature Electro Meccaniche e Affini (the Electro- Mechanical and Associated Equipment Factory). And because the sign writer charged by the letter, the name was shortened to FAEMA. The company began life producing heaters and accessories for train cars but Valente soon saw the opportunity in coffee. While practically every Italian partook of a daily espresso or three, there was little industrial development in the way the coffee was made.

eddy merckx
Eddy Merckx en route to winning the 1968 Paris-Roubaix.

As the postwar economy found its feet and richer countries talked of conquering space, FAEMA designed and built a series of machines inspired by the names of the planets. There was the Saturno. a large machine for busy cafés; Marte was a futuristic machine with hydro-compressed infusion; and Venere was a compact model for smaller cafés and sports clubs. Underpinning the range was a sound business strategy of establishing many regional offices around the country. FAEMA machines became easily accessible for café owners across Italy and the brand took its position as the market leader.

Valente’s vision was clear and progressive. Every factory and office in his expanding empire understood that the company had only one rule: continuous modernization. Any technical development, he said, must improve the experience of using a FAEMA machine and most importantly, the resulting cup of joe.

In 1961 Valente patented a new machine. This was an eclipse year, hence the machine’s name, the E61 (right). It was immediately successful and over time became a design classic. The innovation lay in using the first volumetric pump to push the water onto the coffee grounds at the required pressure of 9 atmospheres. Another well-received feature was a preinfusion chamber that allowed a little water to seep through onto the coffee, discharging any trapped gases and enabling the rest of the water to be more effectively exposed to the grounds, giving each shot a richer flavor.

The machine was also reliably consistent in its temperatures. Water for brewing espresso should be at 202 degrees Fahrenheit, whereas the steam for heating milk needs to be higher, around 257 degrees. In other machines this difference had caused problems, with the water temperature creeping up too high and burning the coffee. The E61’s head mechanism had a set of channels and a cooling water flush that kept the water and steam at their correct temperatures.

faema built upon

Six years later, FAEMA built upon the E61’s success with the X5 model, incorporating automated processes, including bean grinding. But it was the iconic E61 that fueled the company’s growth throughout the 1960s and ’70s. Shrewdly, Valente invested in marketing, focusing on Italy and Latin America—where bike racing was a central part of his advertising strategy. From 1955 to 1962 his company sponsored the FAEMA-Guerra cycling team, captained by the enigmatic Charly Gaul. The Luxembourger’s stunning 1956 Giro d’Italia victory, following a snow-blasted ascent of Monte Bondone, was achieved in the simple red-andwhite jersey of FAEMA. But it is the incarnation of the team that existed between 1968 and 1970 that is most famous, principally because of its association with Eddy Merckx.

charly gaul won the 1956 giro
His original Maglia Rosa from that year.
charly gaul won the 1956 giro
Charly Gaul won the 1956 Giro d’Italia in Faema colors. E61 image: FAEMA.
rik van looy rode for faema from
Rik Van Looy rode for Faema from 1956-1962.
julien stevens
Julien Stevens’ 1968 Belgium National Champion jersey.

The Cannibal’s time with FAEMA was the beginning of his domination of the sport, but it also saw some of the darkest episodes of his career, events that would deeply affect the great Belgian. In 1968, after winning Paris–Roubaix in appalling weather, Merckx took the Giro d’Italia, announcing the 22-year-old’s grand tour credentials. The following year his classics campaign gave him victories at Milan–San Remo, the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Liège–Bastogne–Liège before he travelled to the Giro in good form, hoping to win but also (outrageously) to save energy for his debut at the Tour de France. But the Giro went badly awry on stage 16. Merckx, wearing the maglia rosa, was informed he had failed a dope test and was disqualified.

A month later, given a reprieve by the sport’s governing body, Merckx won his first Tour de France. From disaster to triumph, then back to disaster. In September, on the concrete velodrome at Blois in central France, Merckx took part in an exhibition derny-paced race. When another derny crashed in front of Merckx and his pilot Fernand Wambst, they had nowhere to go and crashed heavily. Wambst died of head injuries, Merckx was seriously injured and pain from his injuries affected Merckx for the rest of his career.

FAEMA pulled out of cycling in 1971, and Valente retired from active involvement in the company in 1974, but the brand’s ethos of innovation continued. In 1983 the Faematronic was launched, with electronic dosage and displays showing the machine’s performance. And in 2000 the X3 introduced a new generation of super-automatic coffee machines, with auto-diagnostics and milk refrigeration for cold frothy lattes. Today, the ultimate machine for a professional barista is the E71E. The latest electronic machines might be a world away from the original E61 but it’s possible to trace their design evolution over those 60 years. So, when you next enjoy an espresso from a FAEMA machine, think of Carlo Ernesto Valente and the wide-eyed, caffeine-driven optimism of the mid-20th century that was publicized by grand tour champions Gaul and Merckx. Every cup, and every memory, is a shot of history.

From issue 94, get your copy here.