Does the ‘Italian brand’ still hold sway in the coffee industry?
Ben Mitchell speaks with Italian barista trainer Simone Amenini to untangle the myths surrounding Italian coffee culture and to understand its unique value in the contemporary coffee industry.
For more than 500 years, Italy has occupied an important position on the global map of coffee.
In 16th-century Venice, upper-class Italian intellectuals enjoyed the stimulating effects of caffeine for the first time on European shores.
Then, in 1901, Luigi Bezzera made the breakthrough of using pressure to force water through a bed of coffee powder, giving rise to espresso – a drink that has arguably become the backbone of the industry.
Even “barista” comes from Italy, as a word that translates literally as “barman”.
Coffee trainer and Italian native, Simone Amenini, explains that, naturally, growing up in Italy means coffee is part of one’s life.
“It is linked to all the best memories,” he says. “When you think of coffee, you think about your childhood, your house, your grandma, and your friends.”
All the best depictions of Italian culture involve coffee, too – like the one about the 80-year-old woman. “She walks into a café to order her espresso, slapping the counter to hurry service along,” Simone says.
“‘Where have you got to be?’ asks the bartender, obviously annoyed by this unexpected sense of urgency. ‘You’re 80 years old!’ ‘Home,’ she replies, exasperated. ‘I’ve just got to get home!’”
Given its history and the extent to which it has become an inextricable part of the Italian identity, it is no surprise that the concept of “Italian coffee culture” still holds sway in the coffee industry today.
But as specialty coffee becomes ever more widespread and new cultures introduce their own way of doing things, is the Italian brand as strong as it was before?
Acquisitions & mergers in recent years
Over the course of the 20th century, many Italian coffee brands came to dominate the global market.
To this day, Illycaffè and Lavazza are household names, while innovators such as Carimali and Elektra continue to shape the future of coffee machines.
This is because the Italian brand itself is a distinct culture with a strong global influence and a high perception among consumers. According to a recent survey, 56% of US consumers said they would be willing to pay more for “Italian coffee products”.
It makes sense, then, that a number of multinational companies are looking to acquire a stake of their own that they can leverage to capture new corners of the market and drive sales.
Coca-Cola HBC, for example, recently acquired a minority stake in Caffe Vergnano – Italy’s oldest coffee roaster – in a major step towards becoming the leading “total beverage” company in the world.
Similarly, Rhone Capital, a US private equity firm bought a 20% stake in Illycaffè to accelerate global expansion and fund a shift in production towards home brewing.
Simone says that the appeal also comes down to the nature of “Italian coffee”. Brand consistency is an integral part of a strong identity, and this manifests in serving consistent and recognisable brews.
“Specialty coffee brings out the complexities in coffee, celebrating the variety of a single fruit,” Simone elaborates. “Yet, big companies do not want variation.”
Indeed, true Italian espresso tends to be dark, sweet, and have low acidity – a profile, more or less, that gives coffee chains consistency and pairs well with steamed milk.
However, one argument is that although inspired by Italian coffee traditions, the version that the likes of Starbucks are pushing is a diluted form. A frappuccino, for example, may carry an Italian-style name, but you would be hard-pressed to find it in any of the country’s coffee shops.
Therefore, it is more the image of Italian coffee heritage and everything it entails that holds the real value.
“International chains of cafés are spreading, calling the coffee they serve Italian espresso, Luigi Zecchini of the Italian Espresso National Institute said in a recent interview. “But behind our espresso, there is a unique and unrepeatable culture.”
Adapting to the rise of specialty
If acquisitions are anything to go by, then it is clear that the Italian coffee brand is as strong as it has ever been.
This is bolstered by the fact that Italian heritage companies, such as Lavazza, have been able to expand internationally and scoop up a large market share with relative ease.
Last year, for example, Lavazza added more square mileage to its US base in Pennsylvania, while also declaring its intentions to grow in Asia.
Similarly, Carimali has seen success with the launch of its Mya Ultra range in emerging markets such as Thailand and China, while younger generations have shown a growing preference for vintage Italian espresso machines, such as Elektra.
Some recognise a threat to Italy’s status as a global coffee superpower in the rise of specialty coffee. The sector, characterised by its focus on highlighting the subtleties of coffee with light roasts, has indeed turned many away from the more traditional tastes of dark-roasted robusta blends as they look for nuances of terroir.
Simone confirms that in Italy as well, more specialty coffee shops are appearing in bigger cities, including his hometown of Florence.
However, he feels that the transition is slow and new ways of serving coffee have to be introduced with trepidation.
“You have to be cautious,” he says. “When you say that coffee can have more complexity, consumers will start to question their whole life.”
As such, it is unlikely that the traditions of Italian coffee will be lost anytime soon. Instead, it is more likely to continue innovating and catering to new tastes, while holding significant influence over consumers’ perceptions of what coffee is all about.
After all, Italy has one thing that neither the specialty industry nor multinationals can take away: a rich and storied history of coffee.