This week I spent two days at the University of Coffee. Yes, believe it or not, there is such a thing. Actually it’s called Universitá del Caffé, which, you might have guessed, is Italian. And if it’s Italian and it’s about coffee, chances are illy will be in the picture. Yes, that’s illy with a small i. And it’s illy that runs the UDC.
In brief, we learned some coffee history, what elements an espresso should consist of, how to single out the tastes in a good espresso (a bit bitter, sweet, salty, sour), some of the world’s major bean-growing regions (who knew that India is becoming a major coffee producer?), the myths (coffee doesn’t make your heart go faster, coffee is not bad for you – talk to the scientists!), the politics of coffee (direct trade vs. fair trade), the inner workings of an espresso machine (Question: What is that silver screwtop coffee maker we put on the stove called? Answer at the end), and we got to drink various types of espresso to gauge whether we could tell the difference between caf and decaf (no, we couldn’t) or over- and underextracted espressos (yes, we could). And if you don’t know what it means to ‘extract’ coffee, get thee to your nearest Universitá (or just Google it) to find out more. And of course, we got to pull espressos and try to make as good a cappuccino as you can in two days.
I used to be a cynic about illy. For me the distinctive red label was a bit like Coca-Cola. You saw the sign everywhere, which was both good and bad. Good because it meant that If you were in a place where there weren’t many coffeeshops, an illy sign promised at least a decent enough brew and perhaps someone who knew what an espresso was. But if there were other options – which there are increasingly today, as specialty coffeeshops proliferate – you would pass illy by.
But turns out that illy not only makes serious coffee – and has been plugging away at it since 1933, when Francesco Illy started the company in Trieste – but has also been doing some pretty darn innovative things.
Take direct trade (forget fair trade, that’s passé), where roasters deal directly with the farmers, often also teaching them how to grow better beans and get more bang for their beans. Today lots of roasters, especially in America, wear it as a badge of distinction that they work in tandem with farmers in Colombia or Rwanda, but illy has quietly been doing this for a long time without blowing its own horn.
At the company’s Universitás in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Bangalore, India – there are 10 UDCs around the world, with courses for professionals and consumers – illy schools local farmers in new techniques and technology. Agronomists pay visits to farms to see where they can offer help and suggest ways to improve crops. Because illy buys its coffee from 9 countries – and from that intake it concocts a signature blend that it tries to keep as constant as possible every year – it pays the company to make sure that the beans it gets are of the best quality.
Then there’s the coffee-making equipment, an area where illy has been no slouch either. Check out the X7 iperEspresso, part of what illy calls ‘the next generation of espresso’, which uses a nifty-looking, specially designed and crafted capsule to give you an espresso or a lungo or a cappuccino. It might be a bit too Jetsons and space-agey for some, but if illy’s doing it, it’s the future. And you can bet it tastes good.
(Answer: It’s called a moka.)