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Flavors of Italy

The Advent of Espresso: Why Italy is Famous for Coffee

“If you think about it, the world-recognized opinion that coffee is ‘Italian’, does seem quite bizarre.”

The first memory I have of coffee is the pleasant scent my babbo (a Florentine way of saying dad) was surrounded by when he would greet us after work–a daily sign that he had finally arrived home. My grandfather in the 50s founded a coffee roastery in the heart of Florence and today, like often in Italy, the business has remained a family affair. 

Growing up, we spent many summers in Germany visiting my Deutsch mother’s friends and family. There, as a child, I often got the “Oh your family works with coffee, in Italy? That’s such a beautiful clichè” comment and, when I later lived abroad, my friends often asked “Please, can you make us coffee? You’re Italian!” I would usually just smile and proudly prepare their coffee with my old Bialetti Moka that I brought with me everywhere I lived outside of Italy, pleasantly accepting the fact that: I’m Italian! I therefore ought to make a good coffee!

It was only years later, when I moved back to Italy and actually started working with coffee, that I began questioning why I was supposed to be making a better coffee than anyone else from any other nationality. Why exactly is coffee one of the symbols of Italy?

If you think about it, the world-recognized opinion that coffee is “Italian”, does seem quite bizarre. First of all, we’re not even close to being the biggest coffee consuming country: our per capita consumption is only about half of that of some northern European countries like Sweden or Finland. We definitely don’t grow the coffee plant (yet!) and there are many other countries worldwide far better known for high quality and specialty coffees than ours, such as the US, Australia and Germany.

So why are some of the most commonly used words in the world of coffee–espresso, cappuccino, macchiato–Italian? Why is “Italian” coffee so famous worldwide?

Well, it all began with the invention of the espresso machine. 

Until the early 1900s, coffee in Italy was most commonly prepared with infusion methods such as the Ibrik (or “Turkish way”) and the French press. Both great methods, but neither of them fast.

In 1884, to serve his clients faster, bar and hotel owner Angelo Moriondo was the first to experiment with different extraction methods at his now-defunct American Bar in the Galleria Nazionale di Via Roma and the Hotel Ligure (still around today) in Piazza Carlo Felice in Turin. His machine consisted of a large boiler that pushed the heated water through a bed of coffee grounds and extracted them with the water’s steam.

This very creative system turned out to be rather inconvenient and never passed the prototype stage. Luckily, in 1903, passionate mechanic Luigi Bezzera’s method finally made extraction faster and more effective with a system based on the use of high pressure steam. In 1905, engineer Desiderio Pavoni acquired the patent for Bezzera’s invention, and together they started selling the “Espresso Machine”, first in Milan with their La Pavoni company and subsequently all over Italy. Later on, due to different visions, they separated and Luigi Bezzera founded his own company BEZZERA. 

This faster version of Moriondo’s first machine soon took hold and many Italian bars began using it to make their customers the so-called espresso, named after the fastest Italian trains of the time, the “treno espresso” (express train)–also great advertisement fodder for coffee companies who used the train’s speed for the espresso machines’ posters.

This new, modern espresso coffee stayed locked up within our Italian borders however and didn’t make its way abroad until 1947 when, right after World War II, Achille Gaggia, son of local Milanese bar owners, developed the patent for the steam-free macchina a leva which improved the extraction by decreasing its temperature and elevating the pressure exerted on the coffee grounds, resulting in a more full-bodied and creamy coffee. (Gaggia once complained about the previous steamy machines with “Quando si beveva un caffè, sembrava di entrare in una Milano nebbiosa!” / “Drinking a coffee was like entering a cloudy Milan!”) 

The many Italian immigrants who went looking for a better life outside their beloved yet now war-destroyed and poor country brought their dear espresso coffee and its new technology with them along with the “Italian roast”, which simply means dark. 

Back then (and unfortunately still today) many roasters thought that by making darkers roasts and by using blends that had a higher percentage of Robusta (the “stronger” of the most common varieties Arabica and Robusta), they’d achieve a thicker crema (the thicker, lighter-colored “layer” that can be found on top of our coffee)–a sign of a well extracted espresso

Today, research and modern roasting technologies demonstrate that a medium-light roast is better for the beans’ quality, their aroma (and for our stomachs too!), while dark roasts result in a more bitter taste and are often used to hide any defects the beans might have–from rusty flavors to mold to insect-inflicted damages. Even so, dark-roasted coffee is still ubiquitous and considered a tradition in Italy today. 

A few Italian roasters, like my grandfather, long ago started a difficult journey of convincing their customers that they could achieve a great crema and a much better taste if they used better quality medium-light, single-varietal roasted beans. Their beliefs didn’t properly reach Italian customers and baristas, so in the 70s and 80s many Italian coffee companies started exporting medium roasted blends to other countries, finding much higher success abroad than in their homeland.

Unfortunately, my nonno passed away before I was born, but I can say with certainty that he would be very proud to see how Italian coffee culture is renowned worldwide and to know that a real coffee revolution is happening in Italy today. Many young, open-minded consumers, baristas and roasters are looking for higher quality, fair and sustainably sourced coffee beans and qualitatively better roasting methods, through which the roast profiles of each coffee variety are analyzed and taken into account.

This path will still need time and patience as our belief that the “real” Italian coffee ought to be dark roasted with a strong taste and thick crema is deep-rooted in tradition and history. (Some famous coffee bars have even requested UNESCO acknowledgement for the Neapolitan espresso!) But I’m convinced this new movement won’t change the way we enjoy our caffè al bar, but only help coffee reach a higher level of quality like it has in many other countries. 

Once we realize that a tradition doesn’t die when elevated or modified to a better standard, we’ll break free of the barriers of tradition we Italians unfortunately often create for ourselves. If you want to be part of this revolution too, here’s what to ask your local bar d’angolo about their coffee: 

 

  • Ask the barista if he/she/they is serving you a blend or a single origin and where the beans come from. The origin alone won’t tell you anything about the quality, but simply testing the barista’s knowledge is a good exercise for the bar and will make you understand if they care about the coffee they serve!
  • Ask if he/she/they can show you the coffee bag: are the beans dark or very light roasted? Light roasts are better than dark ones, but a medium roast usually hits the sweet spot of the coffee beans’ right roast profile. (Keep in mind that a medium roast might take longer for one type of bean than the other. For example: a Brazilian coffee of the Catuai variety might hit the medium roast after 12 minutes, whereas a Kenyan coffee of the Batian variety might reach its medium roast after 18.5 minutes. Therefore, the roast profile of each coffee really depends a lot on the coffee variety and processing methods.)
  • Ask he/she/they how the coffee was roasted: was it a single varietal roast? This will tell you if the coffee roasting company is focused on quality.

 

Last but not least, look at your espresso: does it have a very thick and dark crema? Or is it a rather smooth almost velvety crema with light, tiger-like stripes? How is the taste? Is the coffee rather bitter or sweet? Does it have a balanced acidity? What about the body? Is it round or rather flat? 

Taste, like every new skill we learn, takes a bit of training, but believe me, once you master the basics of tasting coffee, you’ll discover a whole new world of aromas and flavors–fruity, floral, sweet and savory notes–beyond the sadly ubiquitous acrid coffee you often find at the typical Italian bar.