America's Golden Age of Coffee: Remarkably Like Italy's Past

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.

Out of decades of refinement came Italy's Golden Rules of Espresso: the formula governing coffee volume, water volume, water temperature, pressure level, and contact time that still serves as gospel for virtually all baristas in Italy. These standards migrated throughout the world. But once they became norms, the experimentation leveled off. (That said, big advances are still being made by Italy's roasters, in sustainable practices, understanding of coffee chemistry, human taste dynamics, and more.)

Here in the states, today feels like the 1940s and 1950s must have felt like in Italy—not necessarily in the kind of exploration going on but in spirit and ambition. For one, there are serious efforts afoot to understand and precisely measure total dissolved solids (TDS) content, which indicates whether an espresso was properly extracted. Assuming good bean quality, proper extraction gives you balanced taste. Growing altitude is another hot, worthwhile topic, spurring a movement to superior beans grown at higher altitudes. Experimentation is moving from physical hit-or-miss to scientific, as physically and virtually connected barista communities move from individual toil to a more collaborative work style. It's fast, furious and energizing, and in some instances creating wondrous results. I wonder how the Italian Golden Age would have played out if the likes of Mssrs. Illy and Gaggia were Facebook friends.

America's independent baristas today enjoy solid and growing relationships with equipment makers, and a better understanding of the fundamentals, starting with green coffee—two important things many of their Italian precursors simply didn't have. But along with all this comes a tendency to keep consumers out of the R&D process, perhaps given the underdevelopment of American consumers' palates from too many years of subpar coffee, or because of baristas that believe they've found the perfect way. Here I'm raising a red flag, advocating for an open-source model, involving users in the process as Italy's Golden Age baristas did. I do understand that dollars are in play in attracting customers to your café and not someone else's, and that negative opinion not just about the coffee you serve but the way you make it travels at speeds unthinkable 60 years ago. But there is nothing like the real world for proof of concept and refinement. Using solely a barista's palate and skill, no matter how highly developed his or her palate, is like talking to yourself after a while.

I've seen how the open approach creates its own, fervent following, at some of the independent bars I've visited, where great attention is paid to customer rapport—places where coffee is not just a transaction but a conversation. To the enlightened chain barista, let me just say, fight for what you think is right!

Lest I tamp down Golden Age spirit, just two more words of caution: one big picture, the other quite specific. First, always keep in mind the goal of all this experimentation: to create an ideal experience in the cup, rather than I did it because I could. On a recent trip to Dallas I met an indie barista who used a body scale to gauge the force applied during tamping. I admire her zeal, and it made for great theater, but there's a thing called feel that everyone can develop over time. And finally, resist the urge to over-concentrate the coffee to "go bold." I said it last year, and I'll say it again: the right beans in the right proportions do a beautiful job all on their own. It applies to French press, pour-over (individual drip), vacuum siphon, and any other method, just as it applies to espresso.

In a way, I wish these kinds of admonitions could still be made to the barista community in Italy, where it's easy to find a very good cup of coffee and tough to find something undrinkable—and about equally tough to find something outstanding. More swinging for the fences would be a great and energizing thing for Italian baristas. Also, better beans wouldn't hurt. Lower-quality robusta beans (as opposed to higher-quality arabica) are entirely too prevalent in Italian blends that pass as acceptable.

My crystal ball says that someday an American style of espresso will emerge from this Golden Age—likely a cross between authentic Italian and something I can't even imagine right now. What a great road lies ahead.

Image: jonathan mcintosh/flickr