Coffee innovation has shifted from the Old World to the New—and although Europe has tradition, it lacks U.S. creativity
I ruffled more than a few feathers with my first post last May, when I shared my thoughts about next-wave American coffee. I reported being quite shocked at times when I saw the kind of experimentation going on, and when I sampled the results. The comments poured in—both supportive and, let's say, otherwise.
What a difference a year makes, in both experience and perspective. I still have strong opinions about how coffee should and shouldn't be prepared, and how it should taste. But I realize that I may have pulled the trigger too early. Traveling city to city, conducting trainings at places where Illy is served, and just dropping into independently owned coffee bars, I've met too many talented and remarkably knowledgeable baristas to name. Many of the best espressos I've ever had, I've had here over these past months. And I've felt something you just don't sense in Italy anymore: a pure enthusiasm for coffee, and the expectation that so much more is still possible.
A light recently turned on in my mind. Specialty coffee in America today is in many ways akin to Italy's about 100 years ago: experiencing a Golden Age, when rapidly evolving technology and a fast-growing community of enthusiasts conspire to move forward preparation methodology and the quality and appreciation of coffee. There were hits and misses then, as there are now—the hits entering the mainstream and enlarging the fan base and moving better coffee from random event to everyday ritual.
In my view, the U.S. movement got its formal start in 1974 in the Bay Area, when Erna Knutsen, a Norwegian immigrant turned coffee enthusiast, described the term specialty coffee as "Beans of the best flavor that are produced in special microclimates." From there, it took about 15 years for things to really hit their stride, as interest in preparation starting pacing enthusiasm for beans. This is a great example of where the oft-cited parallels between specialty coffee and wine break down: Unlike wine, coffee beans aren't the end product. A well-executed transformation must occur before even the best bean can be enjoyed. If only we could just pop the cork.
As I've watched the incredible progress being made here, I've been constantly reminded of how espresso got better in Italy—how, in fact, it came to exist at all. Italy at the turn of the 20th century wasn't a particularly great place for coffee; think America, circa the 1950s, but replace the countertop percolator with a larger, more ornate vessel working on the same basic principle and swap big mugs for little cups. Milan, though, was awash in coffee from a new machine in the 20th century's first decade. An engineer named Bezzera had invented a contraption that cranked out small coffees faster than ever—essentially, a giant boiler that forced hot water, driven by steam pressure, through grinds in a filter basket to produce coffee. Indeed, Bezzera's was the first genuine espresso machine (though some may claim the French beat him to it by about 60 years).
Bezzera proved that fast doesn't necessarily mean good, or even better. Forget jasmine, chocolate, or caramel: burnt was a Bezzera coffee's most prominent note. The coffee was literally burnt, because water had to reach a dangerously high temperature—above boiling, in fact—to generate enough steam to drive the process.
But Bezzera's folly spawned something wonderful: a nascent community of precocious baristas, eager to deconstruct, hypothesize, and experiment. (Sound familiar?) They started asking the right questions. How much ground coffee? How finely ground? What is the right combination of temperature, pressure, and time? Slowly but surely, results started to show in the cup. My company's founder, Francesco Illy, was one such enthusiast. In 1935, he separated heat from pressure, introducing what many consider the first modern espresso machine. His illetta used compressed air to provide pressure, leaving the heating assembly to simply heat water to the right temperature—about 190-200 degrees F—and maintain it during extraction. For the first time, a consistently pleasant, un-burnt taste was possible. The next big advance came from a name you may know: Gaggia, as in Achille Gaggia, who in 1948 introduced a lever-based machine capable of creating greater pressure, and with it, better crema.