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Coffee Trends: The Italian Caper


February 11, 2020
By Brian Martell


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UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has been responsible for the preservation of various world treasures deemed of cultural or natural significance since the early 60s. Many places, 20 in Canada alone, have been given this special status, making them not only protected from transformative development, but also tourism meccas. Less commonly known is the designation of “UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage” which can be a tradition, a festival, or the preparation of a specific type of food. In 2017, the method of making pizza in the Neapolitan tradition gained this status such that pizza made in any other way would not qualify. (Sorry, Hawaiian Pizza.) Now, it seems that the Italians are attempting two bids to get espresso recognized under the same banner. Not only has the Italian state formally applied for this status, but also the city of Naples, independent of each other.

Italians take their espresso seriously, not only is it considered a part of their cultural identity, but it is often the catalyst
for social gatherings.

First invented by the French in the early 19th century, the espresso machine was perfected by Luigi Bezzera in 1901. In 1911, laws were passed in Italy regulating the maximum price one could charge for espresso without service (at the bar, not at a table) that has been kept relatively low even to this day. For this reason, it is rare to see locals in Italy having a cup of espresso on a terrace outside a café where the price would be considerably more.

To further underline the importance of this beloved beverage, there exists an organization known as “Instituto Nazionale Espresso Italiano” which is responsible for maintaining the standard of a Certified Italian Espresso. Registered under ISO standard 45011, the Institute carefully lays out the specific requirements for an espresso to be given the status of “Certified” not the least of which is that it must be made by a barista – automatic machines of any kind, regardless of how precise, will not qualify for the certification.

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To achieve this status, coffee bars and baristas must submit to an evaluation by the Institute ensuring they are using the proper coffee, grinding it according to the standard, applying the proper pressure to the coffee in the group (the part of the machine that holds the coffee) and extracting the brew with the proper temperature and the right pressure within the set time to pull an espresso – and most importantly, yielding a delicious shot. There is even mention in the standard of what type of cup (and it isn’t cardboard) is required to qualify. Much thought, experimentation and tasting went into developing a standard for a beverage that takes seconds to consume. Unlike North Americans who will linger over a cup of coffee, an Italian espresso is to be dispatched like a tequila shot; no one sips an espresso in Rome.

So what do we learn from this relatively recent push to standardize and recognize espresso from the Italians? Part of the rationale to elevate espresso is national pride mixed with a good measure of hubris, but the underlying root cause comes down to calculated economics not only for the Italian coffee industry, but the hospitality industry. Essentially, Italy is building their brand and using international organizations to do it. With almost 190 billion euros in revenue from tourism, or about 285 billion Canadian dollars, steps taken to solidify Italy in the top 5 visited countries on the planet only makes good business sense.

For all the things that non-Italians recognize as iconic Italian, espresso is perhaps an after-thought. Efforts put into petitioning UNESCO as well as driving home quality standards will pay dividends to the Italian economy but will also make it harder for foreign companies to compete in the Italian market. Less than a year and half ago, Starbucks, the global coffee house juggernaut, dared step foot into Italy, and only did so with one roasting operation / coffee shop in Milan. It may be reasonable to guess that most of their revenues come from tourists, not Italians.

By re-claiming this much-loved beverage available around the globe as their own, or at least claiming partial ownership, Italy is giving tourists yet another reason to visit “the boot.”


Brian Martell works at Heritage Coffee as vice-president of sales and has many years of industry experience. Brian has also been the recipient of three prestigious awards: the Don Storey, Stuart Daw, and the Albert DeNovelus Customer Service awards. Questions, comments, feedback, start a dialogue? Email him at brian@heritage-coffee.com.