As the chairman and CEO of illycaffé, the Italian coffee company with a logo even more recognizable than Starbucks’, Andrea Illy knows his way around a bean. And while many of us, not just devoted coffee nerds, have our basic preferences and habits when it comes to our morning cup, I for one am always searching for more knowledge to go along with my caffeine fix. So when Signore Illy stopped through New York recently, I shared a cup of espresso with him and pressed him to share his wisdom.
He was game, of course; in fact, he offered to share the first chapter of his new book, A Coffee Dream, with Food Republic readers. Published in Italian, he’s yet to sign a deal for English rights, but he’s given us a sneak preview, downloadable as a .pdf here. He also writes about coffee frequently on his personal website.
During our interview, we talked coffee trends, illy’s history and why America’s recent fixation with all things coffee is good for everyone in the business, including his venerable company. But first, we talked about one of the recent hot topics in the biz, when is the best time to drink coffee. (This interview has been condensed and edited.)
Is the best cup of coffee after you first wake up, or after a meal, or as an afternoon pick-me-up?
Well, the first coffee in the morning is probably the most emotional and interesting experience of the day. It is not the only one. Everybody loves waking up with a cup of coffee, and this is a nice experience because you have the flavor, you have the pleasure, which really arouses your spirit, literally. You have also the ritual of preparation in a very intimate environment. This is for sure a very good way to start the day.
And other times of day?
You have a mid-morning break, which is something much more social. You have a break with colleagues, with friends. You go and have a little chat, maybe five minutes or 10 minutes, but it’s a good break. It recharges your spirit and also your mind. Then you have after lunch, which is closing a meal positively with good flavor and also helping your digestion, giving you the energy also to overcome the possible fatigue after having food, because the digestion usually triggers some rest, which is something we cannot afford with contemporary society.
Then you have the repetition of the morning in the afternoon: the mid-afternoon break. Some people center their happy hour at night around coffee. Some people close their dinner with coffee, maybe with cappuccino, replacing [desserts with cappuccinos].
So you think it’s okay to drink cappuccino at night? Your brother Riccardo once told me the exact opposite!
Yes, why not? Everything is okay — more than okay, it’s great.
Yesterday my father-in-law came for lunch and he made me brew him coffee to have with his burrito — is that okay, too? I thought it was very strange.
Everything is okay. Recently I tasted a blend of exotic fruits with coffee at the Colombian pavilion at the Expo [in Milan]. It was interesting. We have to work on it to make it a little more balanced, but yes, this is one of the extremely interesting sides of coffee, which is the diversity, preparations, origins, recipes, with or without milk, different recipes. People can really have enjoyment around a cup of coffee. Now that you have much more alternatives in which you enjoy your coffee, consumption is higher. People drink more. Remember when you were used to your typical mug with black coffee, not necessarily super-good — this was flat consumption, even slightly declining. Now you have the sexy coffee culture; it’s very experiential, people consume more because it’s pleasure, better quality, better preparation, better places, more varieties that you can enjoy.
What’s your opinion about America’s increased coffee consumption and interest in coffee culture?
It’s extremely encouraging. Before it was a commodity, with no specific interest — it was just a caffeine kick in the morning in order to walk out of your house. Now the perception of coffee has improved a lot, I would say dramatically. It is now clear that coffee is good for health; you live longer and better. It’s also sustainable — it’s a good crop.
That’s a good point. How does this increase in coffee consumption and knowledge affect coffee farmers?
Coffee is grown in the south of the world, in more than 70 countries, by 25 million people. Most of them are poor; they live below the poverty level. So we have a responsibility. Each time we drink a cup of coffee, it’s like a social act because we contribute to the well-being and livelihood of those who produce it. But besides that, the reason why I’m so positive, this first revolution we went from commodity to specialty — very much like in wine — and we now have the ability to go from specialty to excellence, further stressing product differentiation. Starting with the coffee grower, helping them differentiate ethical practices and continue to boost quality. This means there is a path to create value through quality that can be continued indefinitely. I like to dream that this will eventually pull the growers out of poverty.