For some time I have argued that the Italian coffee market is experiencing a rebirth. A coffee renaissance, if you will, that like the artistic-literary movement of the late 1300’s has as its focus a revisiting of tradition in a modern and innovative way.
Unlike the “original” renaissance however, this coffee rebirth is following a reverse path. In fact, while the Renaissance era had Italy as its epicentre - in particular Florence then expanding throughout Europe - this coffee renaissance began its journey in the United States.
It is there that the development of specialty coffee shops and a new culture for coffee began which, passing through Northern Europe, finally arrived in Italy - coincidentally in Florence, Tuscany - where the most innovative coffee houses came to life using this American model. It was as if the outside world wanted to pay tribute to our country - through coffee - for the artistic and cultural heritage we gave them. It was precisely this form of gratitude that prompted the Starbucks founder Howard Schultz to want a store in the heart of Milan, given that it was a source of inspiration for his business idea from the very beginning.
You are probably asking yourselves: Should we Italians be passive spectators in all this?
Definitely not is my response. Our contribution has been important and relevant. To Italy we owe the invention of the espresso machine and the culture connected to this preparation method, without forgetting that many roasting plants are of Italian production. The spread of the espresso on a global scale, however, is something we owe to Starbucks who has seized the initiative and has been able to export its format all over the world.
What “goes around comes around” thanks to the opening of the long-awaited Starbucks Reserve in via Cordusio, Milan - the third largest Starbucks store in the world after Seattle and Shanghai. Everyone from café owners and workers to lovers of coffee - and Italians themselves - should be proud and grateful to the American colossus for this decision. The fundamental experience inside these spaces is primarily emotional. In fact, the visceral impact you get is comparable to the experience children have in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory!
The subsequent experience is cultural and educational, since the area consists of an open space of 3200 square meters where the whole process, from roasting to extraction, is displayed and executed by the staff in an extremely professional manner.
The third and last experience is sensorial. Here we can experience coffee in all its forms: there are areas dedicated to different methods of preparation (espresso and drip) as well as a cocktail area on the upper floor. Of course, the coffee will not necessarily follow the traditional norms of specialty coffee shops (but who and how many can really claim to do it in the centre of Milan anyway?) and the roasting is perhaps a bit much (a questionable choice, but a choice nonetheless). The raw material used is however of excellent quality and linked to ethical certification (Rainforest, UTZ, organic) and a sensitivity and attention to detail that is often sadly lacking in our country.
All this at a starting price of € 1.80 for a single shot of espresso. Too much you say?
After more than 2 months from the grand opening the flow of people in new premises in Via Cordusio would seem to suggest otherwise and in any business, as you know, numbers talk.
A better question would be: How much of this revenue goes to favouring and improving the living conditions of those who produce it - the real weak link in the production chain?
In today’s market where the price of arabica is below $ 1 / lb (therefore well below the cost of production) I think it is a crucial point to dwell on. We must not forget that coffee is first and foremost a plant that is grown and harvested and if this production becomes economically unattractive for new generations of growers, the risk we run is to drastically compromise production in terms of volume and variety.
So, rather than just reducing the argument to net cup price, we should seriously ask ourselves how much more we are willing to pay for a product that is actually better quality and more ethical.
What can we learn from all this?
First of all coffee is fashionable, not just a daily necessity, so one must be skilled and clever in expanding the offering on the menu trying to intrigue the consumer too often used to ordering "the usual". Rigorous technical and customer service training of the staff are elements that cannot be overlooked. Given that there are so many bars – perhaps even too many - where coffee is drunk in a hurry, why not bet on a clientele who is prepared to come looking for us for our coffee?
Finally, there must be a “value-add”: the product served must not only have a story to tell, but also show that it has the necessary foresight to support communities in production countries and thus support the entire supply chain. Only then can we increase the final price of our cup of coffee.
Milan is also the city where the first edition of “The Milan Coffee Festival” has taken place (November 30th – December 2nd) organized by the English company Allegra Group in the area of Brera – Pelota space.
A real celebration dedicated to specialty coffees with a wealth programme of meetings, shows and competitions. A great result that placed the city of Milan as a benchmark for the spread of the culture of high quality coffee in Europe.
The third wave has reached its “renaissance” peak even in Italy, and if we are able to ride this wave it will be beneficial for everyone, otherwise the risk is to be overwhelmed by its impetuous force.