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Behind the scenes at Rocket Espresso, cycling’s favourite coffee maker

In-depth
9 Jun 2022
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From the cafes of 1970s Milan to the homes of WorldTour pros, Rocket Espresso has become the must-have coffee machine of the cycling world

Words Joe Laverick Photography Augustus Farmer

Geraint Thomas is making coffee on Instagram. By his own admission the latte art needs some work, but at least the equipment appears fitting. Sitting on G’s countertop is a serious-looking contraption of mirrored steel and shiny pipes, a telltale ‘R’ on its left-hand knob.

It’s the R58 model, because as Alex Dowsett once tweeted, ‘Are you even a pro cyclist unless you own a chrome Rocket Espresso machine?’

Of course Dowsett was being tongue in cheek, but only a bit. Check a pro’s social media feed over breakfast and you’re all but guaranteed to see a Rocket machine in the background. Cavendish, Alaphilippe, Matthews, Niewiadoma… the list goes on.

Yet apparently, unlike with their kit, these pros are coughing up their own hard-earned cash to own one. Which begs the question, how did a small company from Milan create such a cult following among the pro peloton?

Ground control

Professional cycling and coffee almost predates Adam and Eve. Eddy Merckx won his first four Grand Tours in the colours of Italian coffee giant Faema; Mario Cipollini spent his best years sponsored by Saeco; and Trek-Segafredo have enjoyed a happy partnership since 2016.

In the 1980s, the Café de Colombia team was literally sponsored by a nation’s coffee growers, the Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia, and there is not an amateur cyclist in the world that hasn’t made a cafe stop or necked a pre-ride espresso. The coffee-bike link is inextricable, which is where Rocket Espresso’s co-founder, Andrew Meo, comes in.

In a story that’s worthy of any prestigious bike marque (particularly the Italian ones), Rocket Espresso has enjoyed multiple generations of owners, boom-and-bust fortunes and a tangled family tree.

The legacy begins in 1970s Milan, when business partners Friedrich Berenbruch and Ennio Berti set up the Espresso Company Milano (ECM). The duo are supplying commercial equipment with good success, but their standout product is the Giotto – a commercial-grade coffee machine designed for domestic use.

Two decades on and halfway round the world in New Zealand, Andrew Meo is a keen amateur racer and coffee shop and roastery owner. One of his equipment suppliers is ECM and, together with his business partner Jeff Kennedy, Meo soon starts distributing Giotto machines in New Zealand.

Yet as good as Meo believes its products to be, ECM’s fortunes are waning. Meo and Kennedy sense a business opportunity so, together with Freidrich Berenbruch’s son, Daniele, the Kiwis buy Giotto’s intellectual property rights in 2007. Giotto becomes Rocket Espresso and is remarketed to a new, emerging audience.

Where once a 40-quid percolator from Russell Hobbs may have been sufficient, enthusiastic coffee amateurs were suddenly prepared to pay top dollar for machines like the professionals use. Sound familiar?

But Rocket still needed something to light the blue touch paper.

Lift off

‘Our move into the cycling market was accidental,’ laughs Meo, who is now retired but continues as Rocket’s ‘cycling advisor’, and remains a handy rider to boot: he was Italian national champ in the over-45s category in 2014.

‘We were having a sales meeting and I threw out the idea of a limited-edition machine to celebrate 100 years of the Giro. Everyone thought it was brilliant. I contacted Rapha as they were doing Giro-themed competitions at the time and offered them a machine as a prize. We were lucky with that project – it put us on the cycling map. That was the start, and from there it went gangbusters.’

The machine in question was a Rocket Giotto Premium Plus, its left side panel engraved with the names of previous Giro winners, and selling at around €2,000. That might sound like an incredible amount of money, but all 100 machines sold out quickly. Next Rapha got in on the act properly with its own collaboration, and the same thing happened: 200 limited-edition, Rapha-branded Rocket Giottos gone in a blink. And then the floodgates opened.

‘We suddenly had a lot of sports contacting us with opportunities, but I’m not a swimmer or a runner. I’m a cyclist,’ says Meo. ‘I know who won the race, I know who the teams are and I can speak with conviction and passion about the sport. That’s why Rocket has a strong tie with cycling.’

Meo has lost count of how many custom machines he’s done over the years, from Romain Bardet’s polka dots to Greg Van Avermaet’s Olympic gold, and he wishes he’d kept a side panel from each one. Yet for Meo there is one Rocket customer who stands out above all others.

‘While sitting at home one night I get a call from a Spanish number. “Hello, is this Andrew?” the speaker asks. “This is Alberto. Alberto Contador. I’d like to get an espresso machine.” “OK, Alberto,” I say.

‘I put a machine in the car and although we’re in Milan I drive it to Lugano, where he is based – this is Alberto Contador after all – and as I get near to his place, there he is, on the sidewalk, waving his arms up and down. I was thinking, “Hang on, there’s something wrong with this picture, Alberto Contador should be coming down the road and I should be waving my hands.” Then I show him how to set up the machine and how to make a coffee.’

Mission control

Starting from the first screw, the average Rocket Espresso machine takes three hours to assemble, with everything built in the tradition of fatto a mano: made by hand.

That goes some way to justifying the pricetags, which range from the Rocket Espresso Appartmento at £1,250 to the Epica at a staggering £5,195. That kind of money may seem unjustifiable, but we all know that cyclists are drawn in by the beauty, the engineering and the expense.

It’s coincidence of course, but one of the most significant pieces of a coffee machine is the ‘group’, the part where the portafilter – the handled basket into which coffee goes – attaches and through which water flows.

A bit like a Campagnolo rear derailleur, whose design has barely changed since the days of Tulio, most Rocket models still use an E61 group, designed in the 1960s by none other than Eddy Merckx’s sponsor, Faema.

And like a rear derailleur, the E61 is found on a variety of machines throughout the industry. Yet, as any artisan framebuilder might tell you, it’s the small details that count.

‘What makes a good machine is how it’s put together – the thermal architecture – and we were pioneers in the home espresso market,’ says Meo. ‘I was pretty anal about the small details, right down to making the tamper and screw-on metal badges.’

To the stars

Today Rocket ships units all over the world, and the cycling buy-in continues – Rapha has just released a limited run of 100 Rocket R Cinquantotto machines, yours for a cool £2,375.

Yet there might just be one man who is Rocket’s best marketing manager to date: ex-pro Christian Meier, owner of Espresso Mafia roasters and La Fabrica cafe in cycling’s unofficial coffee Mecca, Girona.

‘I first bought a Rocket in 2012, but it wasn’t due to their connection with cycling, it was simply because of the machine,’ says Meier. ‘Back then there wasn’t the speciality coffee culture in the peloton that there is now.

‘I originally got in touch with Andrew and Rocket because of Orica-GreenEdge’s Backstage Pass series. We had a lot in common and from there we built a friendship. I never held an official role at Rocket, I’d just act as the middle-man and send fellow pros to them.’

Today Rocket is ‘official team partner’ with QuickStep Alpha Vinyl and Bahrain Victorious, but Meo reckons 80 to 90 pro riders own a Rocket Espresso machine. Yet, he claims, it’s not what you might think; while most brands give away their products in the hope of reputation by association, Rocket merely offers a discount.

Make of that what you will, but one thing is for sure: however the company has done it, Rocket Espresso has pulled off a neat trick. It has created a product pro cyclists want to be a part of. And if it’s good enough for the pros…

Rise of the machine

What puts Rockets up there?

If bikes revolve around weight and stiffness, espresso machines concern temperature and pressure.

Take the Rocket R58, here lovingly painted by framebuilder Dario Pegoretti. It weighs 29kg and that’s largely due to the material – boilers are brass, chassis and casing steel.

It’s all designed to get hot and stay hot, because consistent heat is crucial, say baristas. The R58’s brew boiler comes preset at 105°C, so by the time water flows through the group head it’s at 92°C.

But brew temperature is subjective and so here it’s programmable via a digital controller (or in the case of the R58’s successor, an app).

So too is steam temperature, because that’s the other thing: like all high-end machines, Rockets have twin boilers. After all, you don’t want your espresso losing its lovely crema while you wait for your single boiler to reach milk-steaming temperature (preset to 123°C since you ask).

And then there’s pressure. Rocket machines are preset to track-tyre levels – 9 bar (130psi) – and this pressure must be delivered consistently, hence the use of commercial-grade rotary pumps, which are quieter and provide more consistent pressure than the vibratory pumps on cheaper machines. But pressure affects taste, and taste is subjective, so machines such as the Rocket R 60V come with ‘pressure profiles’, which can be selected remotely. It’s clever, expensive, stuff.