Thoughts and Reflections on Italian Coffee Culture

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I’ve been thinking a lot about Italian coffee culture recently, for obvious reasons.  While I approached it with trepidation and uncertainty at the beginning of the year, Italian coffee culture has transformed into something that I have deep opinions about and can discuss knowledgeably.  I guess that’s what happens when you write a 3,500 word essay on something.  Especially when that essay turns out to be more like 3900 words.  Yeah, I’m working on that.

I’m not a fan of Italian coffee culture.   Italian coffee used to be extremely original and innovative,but in recent years has transformed into an over-traditional, conservative commodity machine.  While I agree that there is an importance to understanding the history behind a set of habits — especially if you are career-minded about said subject — there is a huge difference between conserving the past to the point that it becomes detrimental to the future and understanding what has come before you.  Italian coffee culture has become industrialized and regularized to the point where all the art has left the craft.  Italian espresso isn’t the equivalent of third-wave coffee joints that serve mostly espresso-based drinks, it is an, admittedly better tasting, equivalent of American drip coffee.

Walk into any Italian bar and there will be an implicit understanding between the barista and patrons that things are done this way because things have always been done this way.  The bar isn’t about serving great coffee, the Italian bar is a way for Italians to preserve and create their cultural identity through interactions with a historical object (that is coffee) and members of their community.  Third wave cafes (I avoid saying American because this a phenomenon that is not exclusive to America.  There are brilliant examples everywhere from London to Berlin and Bristol to Paris) focus instead on forming a community through a beautiful cup of coffee.  This cup isn’t viewed as just the product of well-trained barista, but as the end product of a long process that the barista is fortunate enough to translate to the customer.

Now, I might be biased, but that gets me all kind of crazy excited.  What do you think?

Italian coffee is remarkable, as James Freeman notes in The Blue Bottle Coffee Companion, for its remarkable consistency.  There is something we can learn there about what to do.  There are just as many things, however, that can teach us about what NOT to do.  The focus on very precise measurements is illuminating, the subsidization of bars from larger coffee companies, however, isn’t.  The respect for baristas is great in Italy.  What is most glaringly disgusting about Italian coffee culture, however, is their belief that they created and somehow own espresso.  We owe much of our current coffee knowledge to Italians, yes, but the idea that all espresso has to be made to Italian tastes or that it is “the most Italian drink there is,” is more than ridiculous.  It’s disgusting.

I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity to learn about Italian coffee culture, if only because it has reinforced my understanding of WHY I am passionate about coffee.  Coffee doesn’t only taste great, to me third wave coffee culture presents a fantastic opportunity to integrate interactions between the consumer, the farmer and the artisan.  If we’re going to be pumping our bodies with what is essentially a chemical, then why not make sure it is the highest quality it can be?  Why not have a social benefit behind it?

The work that many third wave coffee roasters are doing with farmers is fantastic.   No matter how many Tierra campaigns Lavazza launches, I highly doubt that their priorities will ever shift beyond making a very specific type of coffee for a very limited clientele.  I am passionate about this chain and, perhaps selfishly, most interested about it on a café-level.

To me, third wave coffee isn’t just about drinking a brilliant cup, it’s about a community and the freedom within this community.  I am truly excited upon my long-term return to America (TERRIFYING) to have the opportunity to explore this culture and the role in which I want to take within it in a more complex way.

Italian coffee culture: are you familiar with it?  do you have any thoughts about it or experiences with it?

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5 thoughts on “Thoughts and Reflections on Italian Coffee Culture

  1. Hanno Phenn

    Well not really the most southern experience itch Coffee I had is in Austria in Vienna and I am so stunned by this perfection of Coffee culture I didn’t dare to try the Italian. maybe in the near future I will have the opportunity to try it out.

    Reply
  2. Giulia

    Coffee here isn’t just a way to preserve our culture. It’s a way to spend time with family and friends talking about our day, our problems, our lives. We don’t need Starbucks to form a community. I think that that kind of coffee comes from an industrialized culture. It’s just a trend. We’re talking about taste not fashion. Giulia

    Reply
  3. cos

    Completely agree with Giulia. It’s obvious that if we add cream/toffee etc etc it may taste nice but it’s not anymore about actual “coffee” appreciation for it’s actual taste. We enjoy coffee for it’s taste……a real coffee lover usually don’t even add sugar! coffee, as cigars,wines etc can be enjoyed to it’s unique flavour compounds!

    Reply
    1. Emilia Post author

      Love the comparison to cigars and wine. I think it’s only a matter of time before more people learn to appreciate coffee sans sugar … though fruity flavored wines are popular in some parts of the world…

      Reply
  4. Gerti Ikonomi

    I just discovered your blog ( glad) following food pictures and following your comment on an Italian dish. I’m not talented as you in writing, however, studied in Italy (boring accounting) and was afffacinated with italian coffee culture. I have to disagree with you on industrialization of italian bars. Yes may be regulation is extremely high in Italy. However, you don’t see any big chain in bar scene. Every thing is local independently owned, very difficult to explain to Americans without looking as a European snob or SMTP else. As previously mentioned Italians use the bars (coffee culture) as a mean to socialize, ties to community, a meeting point, and yes a bad espresso is always very bad for business. The barista is highly recognized and will socialize with customers even about the weather or whatever. As you know the morning coffe (@ cafe e corneto) it’s an energizing beautiful event to start the day with a little conversation on whatever about nothing. As for the 3rd wave café, most of us live in areas that a sit down paper cup Starbucks with Italian names is as close as we get to coffe culture. Although, I do love those places and what new coffe snobs are doing to an archaic American non existent coffe culture.

    Reply

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