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Espresso travels.

Until this past summer, my espresso education consisted of classes attended in the United States. The coursework included first hand experience gained making sales calls involving espresso beans and equipment, information gleaned from interviews, conversations, research, and many hours of hands-on experience. Even though the classes were interesting and challenging, I harbored a secret knowledge that graduate coursework in espresso could not be taken at the relatively new campus of the United States. To truly learn about espresso, I would have to attend classes at the main campus, and so I decided to think big, pack small, and scheduled an intense 10 day course in Italy at the University of Espresso.

Munich, Germany was my first stop on the way to Italy and provided a chance to rest and recuperate from jet lag. My impressions were of a busy, clean, polite city with coffee and espresso stands seemingly everywhere. My hotel had a social hour in the afternoon that featured desserts, espresso drinks, and cocktails. The large train station where I embarked upon my adventure into Italy had espresso bars set up every few yards.

My espresso education began as I boarded the train in Munich and traveled on the long journey through Germany, Austria and Switzerland, into Italy and onto the beautiful city of Trieste ... home of Illycaffe, one of the world's premier roasters of espresso coffee. Located on the Adriatic Sea, next to the Yugoslavian border, Trieste has the quiet beauty and serenity of an old Masters painting. The serenity of the city lasts only until the morning and afternoon rush hours begin; but the beauty is a constant, as is the presence of good food. Another noticeable feature of Trieste was the number of espresso bars displaying the distinctive logo of Illycaffe.

I spent an entire day touring the Illycaffe plant and speaking with the Illy family and employees. The facility is located just outside of central Trieste and is clean, new and a masterpiece of modern, sophisticated technology. My guide through the manufacturing plant was Denise Tecchio, a transplanted American who has embraced Italy as her home. Denise works in the export department of Illycaffe and helped arrange most of the visit to Trieste.

The Illycaffe manufacturing plant and laboratories are clean, bright, airy, and very modern. A sense of pride and dedication permeates all levels and drives all efforts. The manufacturing area is a maze of beans, roasters, computers, people, and equipment. The distinctive Illycaffe cans are made in the plant and machinery for making and testing them looks as if it takes up as much or more room than the roasting equipment. However as much room as this equipment takes up though, packaging coffee in the unique cans is an integral part of the Illy philosophy.

Francesco Illy first invented and manufactured cans to contain his family's roasted coffee in the 1930's. He had the idea of preserving coffees freshness by packaging the beans under inert-gas pressure and this method of packaging required strong, airtight, metal containers. No existing containers suited him, so he made his own, and to this day, Illy coffee is packaged in the cans he designed.

Freshly roasted coffee is put into the metal cans, the air removed and replaced with inert gases at low pressure and the containers are then hermetically sealed. A safety pressure valve prevents any excess pressure that may be caused by the release of gases by the freshly roasted coffee sealed in the container. After the cans are filled with coffee beans, the cans are stored for a period of 20 days before shipping to allow the flavor of the beans to mature in the oxygen free environment. Sealed in this manner, coffee will stay fresh approximately three years.

The Illy family was the first to store coffee in cans and the first to design and produce perfectly ground and weighed espresso pods. Each pod weighs 6.95 grams, is carefully formed into a shape that duplicates an espresso group basket, and then wrapped in high quality teabag paper.

Finally, the pods are packaged into a heavy metalized foil pouch and will retain freshness in the unopened bag for one year.

It was interesting to notice that of this almost completely automated facility, two quality control jobs were still done by hand. The seal on each and every can was checked by submerging the can in water and then blowing air into the can with a high pressure hose to see if any bubbles showed up in the water. Each and every espresso pod, after it was packed in paper, was held up to the light by workers wearing white gloves checking to make sure that no pods had any small pin holes.

All of the coffee at Illycaffe is uniform and very high quality; they have five different roast types and vary the color according to the end destination of the product. For instance, southern Italy prefers a darker roast than northern Italy and the United States prefers a darker roast than is typically enjoyed by most Italians.

Both green and roasted coffee beans go through very intense quality control procedures in the lab. As Denise commented to me, "coffee at Illycaffe begins it's life in the laboratory."

And what a laboratory! With its array of sophisticated computers and equipment, it could have been confusing but fortunately, my guide was the most competent lab person on the premises, the president of Illycaffe and Tea and Coffee Trade Journal's 1990 Man of the Year, Dr. Ernesto Illy.

The coffee lab at Illycaffe looks like something out of the 21st century. The average roaster's procedure for buying green beans is to get a sample, roast and cup the sample and determine if the coffee fits the desired taste profile. At Illycaffe, green beans under consideration for purchase are first put through a $100,000 spectrophoto meter that looks at the cells of the green beans to see if they respond to a predetermined, desirable profile. Different plants have different seeds and different types of cells and if the coffee beans do not fit the profile, they are rejected before being roasted and sampled. Dr. Illy commented that at times, this machine frustrated Illycaffe's green bean suppliers but it was just one of the many quality assurance checks to preserve the integrity of the coffee blend.

Another machine "fingerprints" the green beans looking for defects. If defects are found, the machine makes a special sort isolating the defective beans from the good beans, thus aiding the sorting process.

Another machine checks the grind correctness by using a laser and a computer to do particle size analysis. Ground coffee is constantly monitored and checked against a predetermined grind curve and grinding equipment is adjusted accordingly. There is even a computer simulation of espresso being brewed with an Illycaffe pod so technicians can measure the resistance of pods to water.

The sophisticated machinery serves only as aids to achieving perfect espresso; the primary test that the espresso has to pass is the one of taste and espresso at Illycaffe is constantly tasted in the cupping laboratory. Rows upon rows of green, roasted, and brewed variations of were set up so the progression of the same coffee could be viewed, scrutinized and tasted from green to roasted to brewed.

After tasting many cups of espresso and sharing two wonderful meals with Dr. Illy, I boarded the train for a side trip to Florence with the intent of looking at espresso bars rather than factories. I walked all over the city and saw espresso bars everywhere. Espresso was enjoyed by itself, before or after a meal, with a snack or a drink, anytime, anyplace. Generally, it was not served with food unless the food was a dessert. I was surprised to find that all of the espresso was not exceptional, some of it was merely good. Cappuccino was a breakfast drink, enjoyed with procuito ham, fruit, cheese and rolls; rarely did I see it at any other time of day.


After a day and a half in Florence, I boarded a train and headed into the mountains towards Porretta. In this beautiful city, I rendezvoused with Jim and Lucy Rafferty, of Dana-Lu Imports in Paramus, New Jersey, exclusive importers of Estro and Saeco espresso machines and equipment. Jim and Lucy were my guides to the Estro S.R.L. and Saeco S.R.L. factories for the few short hours I had to spend in this area.

Estro S.R.L. is located just outside of Porretta in beautiful Gaggio Montano. I met Sergio Zeppella and Giovanni Zaccanti and these two gentlemen, in addition to being principals of Estro S.R.L., were the original founders of Saeco, S.R.L.

Estro manufactures large commercial espresso machines and also many component parts such as pumps, boilers, etc. for small espresso machines assembled elsewhere by other companies, i.e. Saeco. Other items manufactured at this location include the Estro Cappuccino Steamer, and Cup/Glass Warmer. While I was there, they were working on a machine that particularly caught my attention, it was a vending espresso machine.

The unit had a built in grinder and would grind the coffee, extract espresso and dispose of the grounds in seconds. In addition to espresso, it made cafe au lait, cappuccino, hot chocolate, tea and hot milk. An added bonus was the size of the machine. It was small and looked like it would fit on top of a counter. I'll be anxious to take a closer look at it when it rolls off the production facility.

Just down the hill from Estro's new 100,000 square foot facility is the headquarters of Saeco, S.R.L. My visit here was all too brief but I was there long enough to meet Giuseppe Marconi, general manager, and Erik Kooijmans, export area manager, and take a look around the spacious and modern facility.

Saeco, S.R.L. makes a wide range of espresso machines for private label customers as well as under the Saeco name. One of their machines produced under the "Solis" label is #1 on the Swiss market for home, office, and commercial use. I am very familiar with the Saeco Superautomatica espresso machine and was not surprised to learn that 600,000 of these units were produced in 1990.

The Saeco Superautomatica espresso machine grinds coffee beans, prepares espresso, and disposes of the grounds in seconds. It is good for small bar and restaurant use and Jim Rafferty suggests that the Estro Steamer makes a good companion piece to a Superautomatica if more than 15 to 20 espresso/cappuccino drinks are made in an hour.

Saeco is the largest single manufacturer of espresso equipment in the world and are #1 in sales in Europe. An integral part of this success is the company's goal of quality assurance second to none.

The Saeco machines are put together in an assembly line with each station responsible for approximately 10 components. After the machine is assembled, it is tested with whole bean coffee and water. This final bit of quality assurance testing prompted them to tape a note on each piece of equipment before it was shipped. The note assured the recipients that even though the machine was brand new, it might contain a few residual grains of coffee, because every Saeco machine was tested before it left the factory.

I could have spent the whole day looking around but unfortunately, my unrelenting travel schedule forced me to leave. My next day of espresso classes were scheduled in Milan, and I soon found out that this fast paced city would provide quite a contrast to the rolling hills and gentle atmosphere of Porretta and Gaggia Montana.

La Pavoni

Milan is a hub of industry and commerce and life had a faster pace there than

in any other cities I visited. Milan is also very large and sprawling. My first visit was to La Pavoni located in Giuliano, a suburb of Milan. After a very long cab ride, I arrived and met Dr. Giorgio Penne, general manager and Stefania Papalla, manager, and got a chance to hear a bit of company history and tour the manufacturing plant.

The La Pavoni factory employs 35 people and makes about 300 bar machines annually. The number of machines made for home use and sold retail is much higher. (I saw quite a variety of beautiful silver and brass, home use models, packed to ship out.)

According to Penne and Papalla, La Pavoni represents the Rolls Royce of espresso equipment. Pre-infusion of the coffee grounds with water is an unique feature of the equipment and an increasing amount of the their many commercial models are being readied to send to the United States. As we passed through the factory, we noticed several machines being sent to Jim Glang at Crossroads Espresso in Burlingame, CA.

Another person I met that morning was Ambrogio Fumagalli, collector, author, curator and owner of a vast collection of many types and styles of espresso equipment. He stores the hundreds of pieces in his house, storeroom, and neighbor's storeroom. Tucked into literally every nook and cranny of every room, was some type of espresso maker. He has over 500 stovetop pots alone.

La Cimbali

After the visit with Fumagalli, I went back to the hotel and met Adriano Borgini, sales manager for La Cimbali. Borgini is also a helicopter pilot and demonstrated his prowess at high speed navigation as he whisked me through the snarled traffic to Binasco, another suburb of Milan.

However large you might think La Cimbali could be, think larger. This place is huge, clean and the offices are modern, almost futuristic. The display area features many items from their product line. In addition to espresso related items, they also make dishwashers, ice makers, and other pieces of equipment that would be found at a fully stocked, commercial espresso bar.

As I walked through the display area into the actual manufacturing plant, it was easier to see why so much room was needed. In addition to assembling machinery, workers were forming and making parts for the machines. Completed units of many different styles and sizes were kept in another large warehouse, packed and ready to be shipped out. My schedule put me at the factory right as it closed for the day so I really only got to walk through the plant itself and view many pieces of equipment at varying stages of completion. One distinct impression that I got from the visit was that La Cimbali could supply espresso equipment to the world.

As I was leaving, I met Daniele Bert, vice direttore generale of la Cimbali. Our conversation was brief but as I spoke to him about how impressed I was at what I had seen, it was easy to see the pride he took in the operation.

My last evening in Italy was spent with Angelo Balladori, a noted food and coffee consultant who resides near Milan. His choice of restaurant, knowledge of food and abilities as a conversationalist, made the espresso taste even better that evening. The following morning, I boarded the train one final time and traveled through Switzerland and France to Paris, my departure point.

The next time I enroll in the University of Espresso, I'm going to take a longer course. My visit was brief and very intense but it did give me clearer insight into Italian culture; understanding Italian culture is the first step in understanding and knowing espresso. Although I have written numerous articles on espresso, have co-authored a book on the subject (Espresso: Drinks, Desserts, and More, Crossina Press), and am working on another book involving espresso, I feel a change in my attitude since I studied in Italy.

The flavor of Italy is intense, but unhurried. The land is unbelievably lush with all types of flowers, fruits and plants growing everywhere. Life in Italy is a much slower paced than the hectic, frantic United States (except the traffic). The food is rich, full flavored, delicious and meals are not rushed. Italy is an attitude as much as a place. Life has an unhurried sweetness and smoothness that is uniquely Italian.

The knowledge that I gained studying in Italy comes back to me at odd times. I'll be reading an article about coffee and health and remember a conversation with Dr. Illy during which he mentioned that espresso can help people with low blood pressure sleep better. Or I'll be at an espresso bar receiving mediocre service and drinking a cappuccino with no froth and remember how, at La Verandah (the small restaurant/hotel where I stayed) in Poretta, the proprietor delivered my wakeup call by knocking on my door. When I went downstairs, his father had cappuccino and breakfast waiting for each guest and the cappuccino had the most perfectly frothed milk I had ever tasted. I approached the older gentleman, and since neither one of us spoke the other's language, signaled my pleasure at what he had prepared for me and tried to see how he frothed the milk. Without a word passing between us, he smiled and pointed out the steamer on the machine, showed me the steam pot, but he never did show me how he frothed the milk.

I have so many wonderful memories of my visit--I can't wait to go back.
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Title Annotation:Italy
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Article Type:Column
Date:Mar 1, 1992
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