Tradition

I’m a little conflicted when it comes to the idea of tradition. I firmly believe that an understanding of the past, especially its mistakes, is crucial to understanding the present and composing a reasonable guess at the future. A lot of coffee’s past is covered with the blanket of tradition, but I think we often neglect to look underneath to try and understand why and where they’ve come from.

I don’t really want to write this as a response to the articles Giorgio Milos has been writing, though they’ve probably helped crystalize some thoughts. We, as an industry, are continually struggling to deal with the impact and importance of Italian espresso traditions.

What has been on my mind has been the idea that tradition is something immutable, something to be preserved and studied.  This just isn’t true – tradition is little more than persistant ideas, roughly copied using the human mind.  Their memetic nature means that a tradition will adapt and change in order to be valuable and be passed on.  What distinguishes tradition from historical cultural artifact is relevance to the current culture.  What is traditional is not correct, nor perfect, it is merely useful enough to keep alive as an idea.

What does this rather wordy paragraph have to do with coffee?  Espresso is Italy in 1950 would be further away from espresso in Italy in 2010 than espresso in the USA in 2010.  I hope, and strongly suspect, that espresso in Italy today will be abhorrent to an Italian in 2060.  Tradition must evolve.

Tradition is not an excuse to stop exploration and progression.  Deviation and experimentation away from tradition absolutely must happen in order to discover new and useful things that will become the traditions we will pass down to future generations.

This doesn’t mean we should ignore the ideas that have survived best until now – if we can understand the 7g dose then we stand a better chance of avoiding mistakes that have already been made, of learning from past experiments.  My understanding of this dose, current machinery and extraction have all changed dramatically in the last year but if I’d either completely ignored the 7g or followed it slavishly I wouldn’t have had that learning experience.

Understanding the influence of economic factors on the birth of traditional espresso blends (coupled with regulation of drinks prices) explains more about the presence of robusta, or unwashed coffees from Brazil, than taste does.  This isn’t to say that people don’t enjoy blends like these – but you can’t help but end up at the conclusion that taste preferences weren’t the driving factor they are sometimes made out to be.  This means that if taste is your driving force then perhaps a different approach would be preferable.

I think the thing that most annoys me about the articles, and it annoys me about a great deal of culture, is the idea that diversity is not to be celebrated and encouraged.  I’d hate to see Italian espresso in its current form disappear completely, but I’d hate to see it become a ubiquitous, monotonous method more.

34 Comments

  1. Methinks that the celebration of diversity must begin somewhere, and what better place to celebrate that diversity than right here. While we may bandy about how people like Milos and Carmichael “don’t get it” and rant on about their rantings, it’s really wasted effort.

    Too often I find people in our industry grasping at straws trying to claim something. We want to feel as though our way is “better” than the other person. That Starbucks is wrong, Illy tastes like crap and that unless that barista is doing The Stockfleth, they’re charlatans.

    The more that I’ve learned in this craft, the more that I’ve seen the folly in this kind of approach. To my mind, it is about the craft and the vision of the barista and nothing more. I would be just as interested to attend a lecture given by Giorgio Milos as I would a lecture by Mike Phillips – though I suspect that the Milos lecture would be more fun simply because he’d probably spend some time bashing on someone. Nothing like getting worked up over nothing as a means of entertainment!

    There’s the tradition of Italian espresso and (since I’ve never been to Italy) I presume it to be a good thing and can respect the work and their way of doing things. To my mind, we should respect tradition: 7g per ounce, if that’s tradition then I respect that and understand it’s concepts.

    However, it’s not what we (meaning my company of baristas) do. Our approach is progressive, our vision is different and our coffee is not meant to conform to the Italian tradition. In fact, it’s not meant to conform to “Third Wave”, for that matter.

    Tradition can mean a myriad of things. To my mind, a classic “cappuccino” should be a “rule of thirds” or equal parts espresso, milk and foam – in a maximum of six ounces. Anything else really is something else.

    While that standard of tradition may seem stringent, it’s really available for interpretation. The milk, the foam, the texture, the flavor of the coffee means that while a drink can be “traditional” it can also evolve and explore new ground and provide a transcendental experience for the drinker.

    Within the strictures of “tradition”, this is where the excitement lies.

    So, I say “embrace tradition!” Demonstrate your mastery over the craft. Just be prepared for someone (perhaps Milos or Carmichael or even Hoffmann) to disagree with you, it’s all part of the process.

  2. I know this is not the point of the post, but:

    Why, beyond the logic of their reputed brew ratios, would you hate to see Italian espresso in its current form disappear? What does it contribute to the industry? How is it good for coffee?

    I’m all for diversity to a certain extent. I love that pacamara tastes completely different than bourbon. I love that you can find dozens of different unique flavor profiles of coffee that are all wonderful and delicious from one region in Kenya or even simply one well maintained farm in Central America. I do however believe that Robustas are universally bad. I think that if you put a liquid with that kind of flavor in front of someone who had no context for what coffee was “supposed” to taste like, a child for instance, they would ask you, “are you trying to poison me?” and then spit it out. Yet, if you put a clean, balanced, sweet and fruited coffee from central america, ethiopia or kenya in their cup, and they might go for it or even enjoy it. For this reason, I don’t really understand why Italian Espresso should exist.

  3. Tradition has brought us:
    Corporal Punishment!
    The Running of the Bulls!
    Genital Mutilation!
    Institutionalized Racism!
    Institutionalized Sexism!

    How can anyone diss on tradition?

  4. Hi Ben,
    I agree with many of your comments but the reason Italians prefer 7gram doses is not because of taste. It is about economics. There is ( from what I experienced) a salary cap as you may call on the price on what an espresso is paid for in Italy. After speaking with Mario from Anfim while we went out for dinner in Vancouver, he explained to me that an espresso is generally 0.8 Euro’s in Italy. If you charge more, there is more than likely going to be no customers coming to your cafe. He said Italians are very finicky when you try to increase the price of a precious commodity like espresso. In order for an Italian cafe to exist with this so called salary cap, they must find coffees that are cheaper so they can make their margins and in return make a living. This has led to low grade Arabicas and Robusta’s being used in espresso.

    I’m sure that if Italian cafes could sell espresso for what we in North America and London sell espresso for, they would more than likely use Kenyan coffees or high grown Arabicas.

    If we could only sell our espresso for roughly $1.00 … what would we use in our espresso blends?

  5. How long does a habit have to be repeated before it becomes a tradition?
    How does a tradition start?
    The tradition of Santa wearing red was down to Coca Cola portraying him so in 1938. The tradition of the Queen living at Buckingham Palace dates back to Queen Victoria in the late 19th century and the tradition of my little boy getting into my bed at 7am every morning dates back to May 2010.
    A great deal of tradition, as Frith points out, is not especially healthy or productive.
    In my experience, ‘Traditional’ Italian Espresso is almost universally awful. I’ve had better espressos in almost every part of Northern Europe (including the UK) than in Italy, except for in the offices of big, quality roasters.
    The ridiculously low price of an espresso is a great excuse for not cleaning your coffee machine, using stale coffee in a worn out grinder, and a great defence agaist complaint (“what do you expect for 1.20?”)
    Traditions evolve, sometimes they even die. I for one hope that the Italians find and learn to appreciate the kind of coffee I can find in London, Copenhagen, Oslo etc. etc.

    Down with Traditional Italian espresso!

  6. Sometimes tradition is a good story that brings back fond memories and warms the heart. And sometimes tradition becomes stagnation – a story that leaves one apathetic.

    Unwilling to change? Afraid to progress?
    Don’t bother me with your pathetic story, I’m too busy learning something new.

  7. Learn from tradition, understand tradition but you must always grow otherwise we would all still be riding horses to work. Read an interesting article tonight on how Italian barista’s are demanding that the rest of the world stop using the word “barista” to refer to coffee makers. They own the word and a barista is so much more than a coffee maker (included a quote about how the machinery does all the work and anyone can make coffee). To me that shows an industry that is bunkered down and defending their tradition rather than having a look at what others are doing and learning that there may be something that they don’t know.

  8. @Ben – I wasn’t saying that all about Italian Espresso should be preserved. There are a few things I’d like to keep, while I’d be happy to see a great deal disappear.

    Brew ratios/low doses are definitely something that we’d be foolish to discount completely, or lose forever. I’ve had great espressos (not from Italian espresso blends I should add) brewed in a traditional Italian way.

    Espresso in Italy isn’t about luxury/gourmet experiences and thats ok with me too. It costs about what it is worth – which is something that both genuine speciality and marketing speciality both miss with on occasion.

    Small drinks – gotta keep those! Though I defy anyone to prove to me that a double shot six ounce cappuccino has any tradition, outside of grammatically incorrect coffee books and bad training manuals. It isn’t a drink thirds. It never was. (I have a very, very long blog post on this that will eventually see the light of day). If anyone has proof that this is a tradition and not a myth then I’d be very interested in it.

    What I think I’d hate to see most is the loss of a distinct culture of coffee. I want West Coast US coffee culture to be different to Scandinavian coffee culture – both in terms of recipe/drinks and in how consumers approach and appreciate coffee.

  9. While not being in the coffee industry, and have no particuliar experience in this market, I’m just wondering why this debate exists?

    To be a little provocative : Why Italian barista should care about how espresso is made in USA? Why Americans should care about how espresso is drunk in Italy?

    What is the point on debating on preferences? They are influenced by culture and not only tradition.

    Furthermore, it seems that most of the people don’t take into account that there are people in Italy, still alive, that have more than 50 years of experience with espresso. In America, UK, Australia, the vast majority of people in the industry is less than 15 years experience and the internet geeky culture is less than 10 years old.

    So it’s not only about tradition and its pejorative burden it is also about experience and know-how acquired by passionate people that have spent their life improving (to their taste) their daily duty.

    Forgetting that, I think, is a mistake, and calling for the end of Italian espresso could be taken as an assault or an insult.

    But I still don’t see the point at ‘who’s the better’ competition or ‘who has the best coffee culture in the world’ debate.

  10. Grammatically incorrect coffee books and bad training manuals included, it seems to me all of this, plus a hand-me-down tradition of teaching, has created an environment where the “traditional” cappuccino is a six ounce, measure of thirds drink. Or a 20 ounce cup of muck with lots of dry foam, depending where you drink. Honestly, I don’t really care where that “tradition” came from or a lengthy treatise on why it could be bunk. I care about the flavor and presentation of the coffees we serve to customers.

    And if much of the world has come to know the cappuccino as a 5.5-6.0 ounce cap, I can roll with that. To my mind, spending time debunking a “myth” is just as productive as debunking the “fact” that coffee is the “world’s second largest commodity to oil” or that Starbucks/Illy “sucks” – it’s a waste.

    And why would we (as a community) “lose” the “distinct culture” of coffees in the different regions? Of course, that presumes a distinct difference – of which I have yet to see demonstrated since so many of these “third wave” shops are too busy trying to conform to whatever dictate is “third wave” these days. Do we lose these “distinct cultures” simply because Milos or Carmichael says so? That would be a shame.

    “Tradition” is an interesting concept. And one that continually evolves, albeit over a longer period of time. One “tradition” that I wish we would move away from is that deBeers creation of diamonds as engagement. “Starve for two months or you don’t love your woman enough.” That’s a complete marketing put-up job as diamonds are hardly as “rare” as people have been told. But a great study in how to spin coffee for higher prices.

    Vince-
    Since I’ve yet to visit Italy, I can only go on the word of others. Is the 0,80€ price set by the government or a somewhat arbitrary standard set by the shops?

    If it’s the latter, isn’t that the thinking shared in North America by many retailers? That we can’t charge more than Starbucks/Tim Horton’s because the people will go elsewhere? While the cultures are different, can we not challenge that assertion? I think we can agree that we think people will recognize quality. Is there not an Italian operator willing to go against “tradition” and push for something new?

  11. I’ve had countless discussions with Barista’s, representatives & my Italian friends about the evolution of culture along side the changes of machine design & the bean industry.

    Most notably a lengthy debate with an Illy rep who insists that 7g is the dose, albeit a large dose. I would defend the 2010 method of packing/grinding & would consistently be met with a, “no”. Until I reasoned that the 7 gram filter is simply too large for a 7 gram pack, just look at the line, observe the time & relay the information that caffeine requires certain conditions to be met in order to be extracted, notably time, temperature & pressure, that’s when he started to listen. The fact of the matter is, channelling leads to problems, end of.

    The never-ending & widely scoped debate of tradition vs modern methods is, well, never-ending, but it’s the discussion & courage to question tradition which is of most importance, the quest for the perfect espresso lives on.

    “Constant development is the law of life..”
    Gandhi

  12. Luc P-
    I think that a professional barista should be aware of differences in different areas of the profession. This doesn’t mean that barista champions the other methods but perhaps appreciates the difference.

    If we correlate this to food, certain cuisines may not be to one’s preferences, but an understanding of different cuisines can only enhance the knowledge of a cook. The understanding of varying methodologies and ingredients expands the repertoire and opens the door towards interpretation and perhaps innovation.

    To my mind, we (as American baristas) should be aware of Italian “tradition” because without a foundation, we flounder. Look at the number of “barista” comments anywhere on the Internet. Much of the “third wave” snarkyness comes from baristas without a solid foundation in craft and a lack of any sort of tradition. Much of the brew-ha-ha in the community is created because of inexperience and a lack of craft. While we struggle to learn craft and build technique, exuberance and condescension will suffice – it’s the “third wave” way.

    “Tradition” provides a baseline from which to build and evolve. There will always be the stalwarts who maintain a hardline on “tradition” – and that’s a wonderful thing. We need people like Milos and Carmichael to remain stodgy because it offers perspective.

    Perhaps one of the biggest problems we face in North America (and elsewhere) is the relative inexperience of the community. You’re right, the vast majority of people involved in this niche of the industry has less than 15 years experience. I myself have maybe eight years in the biz.

    An Atlantic Monthly article I read many years ago noted that it takes about ten years experience before someone has mastery over his craft. One of the things we lack in the craft are clear masters. In the world of cuisine, it’s easy to find masters of the craft, from the relative unknowns to the world leaders, like Pierre Gagnaire. With clear masters, it gives the new cook perspective and these masters exemplify what is possible within the craft.

    If we reflect on our own craft, we find no masters. We are a craft composed entirely of journeymen and, therefore, a lack of direction. We seem to lack even the simplistic strong voiced and visioned barista leading a shop of baristas preparing great coffee. With this lack of leadership/visionaries, our craft meanders about without focus in all directions.

  13. Very interesting Jay C.
    That is true that for improving one must consider other methods and people. Not only in coffee industry.

    I think your analysis of the third wave lacking basis really make sense and explain a lot.
    The main difference between ‘third wave’ and espresso in Italy is not only about dosing and volume. Is is about how it was born and demand.

    Espresso was born in SW Europe at the end of the 1800. It was about coffee, but not about aromas or taste. People wanted their coffee, and fast. That’s it. Since then, engineers and barista improved techniques and machine, feeling that this was in fact a completely new way of considering coffee. So in the 60s espresso was not only about speed of its extraction, it was a part of Italian, French, Spanish culture, and their culinary landscape.
    Especially in Italy, everybody now living is familiar with espresso. So demand comes from consumers who have habits – these habits eventually become ‘tradition’.

    In USA, UK, Australia, etc… Espresso is new to popular culture. People didn’t have a priori from espresso drinks. So it was easy for a bunch of passionate to define a new standard. The demand was modeled after their taste, habits, and experiences. The Internet provided a great way to expand this culture and to advertise loudly about the xx g/ounce standard and xxxx$ equipment. The best example is Marzocco that became the standard in every other country than Italy selling machines at incredible price without any problems.

    So demand was mainly defined by industry and its leaders. And it changes everything. Look how fast we went from espresso to drip, Chemex, Hario etc…. This looks like fashion, not culture and of course not tradition.

    To be more accurate it is some passionate people that set the trend but eventually it’s marketing and economical interests that settle it, or not.

    The good thing about this is that it brings attention to coffee (from seed to cup) and the countless method to prepare it to a ever larger public. But it also carries a bunch (ever growing) of false prophets, self-declared genius and ayatollahs that pollute badly the passion that enlightened the 3rd wave and the birth of espresso 100 years ago.

  14. I just read the Giorgio Milos interview in Salon and I disagree with most of what he said. As an American, I don’t care about tradition for the sake of tradition. I enjoy experimentation and new processes. Regarding espresso, to me, it is about taste. I don’t care if an extraction is suppose to be less than 30 seconds. If I discover a 40 second extraction gives better results on a certain machine, so be it.

    And there is nothing sacred about Italian espresso machines. Maybe we can make them better. Maybe we can come up with a new extraction process that is better than espresso.

    But I did agree with his statement that many cafes want to “run before they can walk”. It is very difficult, in most cities, to find a simple, decent espresso. Something with balanced flavors that linger on the tongue. I started roasting and brewing my own espresso because this was so hard to find. I don’t need every espresso to be a crazy, exotic, never tasted before ultra ristretto shot. Most of these turn out unpleasant anyway. Most of the time I just want a decent shot. Learn to do a decent, basic espresso before branching out, and make sure you can always offer this basic espresso.

  15. The older I get, the less nostalgic I become – not sure exactly why that is, but I think part of it has to do with preferring to learn rather than to know; moving forward with taste as the paradigm for coffee as opposed to drink construction ratios as the paradigm (for example). One has to do with intimately exploring your coffee for what tastes the best at a given time, the other with crowbarring every coffee into a pre-formed mold. I, for one, have no experience with Italian coffee because I have never been to Italy and what little Illy, etc., I have had in the states was pulled with a distinctly State-side sensibility, so even that was not really the “Italian” espresso experience. I just think that preserving the Italian tradition has everything to do with Italians’ right to do coffee however they want to and nothing to do with “standards” that should be imposed on any other locale’s approach to coffee.

  16. Italian espresso tradition ?? Is there a commonly accepted Italian espresso tradition. It is not, and if it is it is only on paper. keep in mind that also when it comes to coffee Italy is not a nation. It is a collection of kingdoms with a huge variety of beliefs, traditions, fairytales, progress…..and also research. Do all the 1300 roastres really have the same opinion.
    And do not forget that a part of the tradition is the “secret blend” discovered by the great grandfather 100 years ago !!!!!!!

  17. I ended up getting into coffee because of the italian tradition of espresso.
    When I was younger we lived in Italy for a bit. Every day the various men of the (extended) family would meet up a a local coffee bar for an espresso and conversation.
    Every day I asked if I could come along. Every day I was told I was too young.
    Eventually the day came when I was allowed to come along.

    Upon moving back to the States I tried to discover a similar experience (including but not just limited to the taste). What I found instead was undrinkable swill served in a commodity fashion without cultural value, context, pride or customer service.

    So I switched to tea.

    But I every time I traveled to Italy I looked forward to having “real” coffee experiences again.

    Fast forward a couple decades and I’m introduced to the emerging artisan coffee culture in the US. I realize that this is something not better or worse than Italian coffee as I’d experienced – but rather something new and different – and exciting.

    After a couple of years in coffee I have the chance to go back to Italy. Again… I look forward to “real” coffee. And I’m shocked and dismayed. When I get instead is safe coffee. I get predictable coffee. I get drinkable coffee. But I get nothing exciting. I get nothing great. I get nothing new or different.

    This is the strength of tradition – and the shackles it can put on you.

    Without this tradition, people like me wouldn’t have the structure and the background and the experiences and models to draw on when exploring what coffee CAN be.

    But this tradition can lead to stagnation. It can be a trap where everything is about what coffee SHOULD be (to paraphrase T Wendelboe).

    Tradition is important. It gives us a foundation to build on. But if we don’t build on this tradition… well… a foundation without anything built on top of it looks an awful lot like a grave.

  18. I agree that any preparation method should be evaluated by taste. Obviously, the niche market where you will sell is very important, because you say you like something until you taste something better.

    Education to the consumer, experimenting and getting full details of every single preparation method, coffee origin, varietals, roasting profiles, will help build new experiences with as many variables as there are in coffee.

    Totally agree that what was before the best way of doing something, has now been improved and will be improved in the future (with the basis of something proved correctly maybe or maybe not). There is nothing steady.

  19. One of the things that I love about this line of work is my ability to create. A great chef has to know and understand tradition when it comes to method, ingredient pairing, and things like the chemistry and science of how things work when cooking. Without this his bread would fall, the sauce would clump and who knows what other tragedies would ensue. However, upon this knowledge he can build and grow. Good, strong traditions can provide us with trajectory. They get us on track and send us forward. They allow me the tools for creativity.

    I don’t think that tradition should be viewed positively or negatively. I think it should be looked at as a tool. When it needs to be picked up, then do so. When it needs to be put down, then put it down. Some people tend to grasp to it too tightly and others seems to throw the baby out with the bath water. Either way, by speaking about “tradition” in such general terms, we are setting ourselves up for fallacies. Some traditions may in fact be worthless and good for a laugh only, whereas, others may be the freshest ideas and most concise ways of doing things. In other words, let’s not get hung up on things that lead to frivol less arguments. Let’s analyze things as they come. Let’s do what tastes best and makes sense. Let’s look for ways to encourage each other, whether traditionalists or innovators. I love a fresh expressive cocktail just as much as a late 19th century mix.

  20. Some years ago, a big Italian roaster suggested to the Italian government that espresso should be a protected designation of origin product. This was correctly rejected due to the large worldwide expansion of espresso.

    Taking as a fact that espresso has expanded so much all over the world, the different approaches that have been established, based on different cultural and demographic factors as well as different taste preferences, are not surprising.

    I have observed the route of the Italian roasters since the early 90’s, when the large worldwide expansion of espresso had just started. Even nowadays, 20 years after, the same monotonous style exists; an Italian roaster with long-term experience, a secret recipe and a blend Arabica-Robusta or an Arabica blend not easily traceable.

    In a world of fast changes, stereotypes should also “evolve”.

    I agree with Vince about the matter of cost, the doses and the blends used but this should apply only in Italy.
    All other countries perceive espresso as a gourmet product. That is why there are new approaches from roasters and baristas (different techniques, single origin coffees, single estate coffees, the value of the variety etc).
    Having in mind that the new coffee culture is multi-dimensional and that is how it should be, the traditional one is still one-dimensional.
    Italian roasters try to use this tradition as a competitive advantage but in our days, this attitude is quite shallow and easily pushed aside by the new coffee culture.

  21. ” . . . if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, “tradition” should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition. Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour . . .

    “No barista, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead baristas and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of æsthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new espresso drink is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the espressos which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) espresso drink among them. The existing order is complete before the new drink arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each espresso toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.”

    TS Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (modified a little bit)

  22. In Italy we currently have more or less 700 coffee roasters, not 1,300. You are right, we are not a nation in the sense we have different regional traditions. But beware that we share some common views on espresso, the dose being for example 6.5 up to 8 grams and the final cup being 22-30 mls (1 oz more or less). Although people in the Northern part of the country like low bitterness and people in the Southern regions an higher bitterness, in anu case Italian people do not like an excessive bitterness. And we all like a rounded body, no one likes an underextracted coffee. Coming to the price it is not realistic to think that if you pay more you get an higher quality. You do not get quality just by raising the price. For same price I can have a very good cup or a loosy one. At the moment a cup of espresso costs around 0.90 or 1.00 euro.

  23. Carlo-
    Perhaps you have misunderstood the context. You’re right, you don’t get quality just by raising the price. A company must invest in quality. It must seek out quality and pay the price for that quality.

    Typically, quality costs more – as a Ferrari typically costs more than a Fiat. Quality costs more and there is an inherent value in that quality.

    With regards to espresso – sourcing quality will cost a company more, which means that the company must either raise prices or work with diminished profit.

  24. This may be a first, but I find myself agreeing rather wholeheartedly with Chris Tacy. The tradition of espresso in Italy surely has some value, although most of it may be invested in the ritual of consumption rather than preparation. All good traditions inform progress, and withstand the test of time only when they can withstand the probing question of “why do we do this thing this way?” Whenever the answer to that question is only “because we’ve always done it this way” more exploration is needed.

    Using tradition as a starting place for questioning, testing, improving and developing seems highly appropriate in our coffee world. Confining ourselves to blind allegiance to tradition stifles all the best innovation.

  25. Clinging to tradition to cling tradition is bad philosophy, every one knows this, and there will never be one way of making espresso either, just as there is barely an Italian espresso tradition. This tradition should be respected, but not necessarily mastered by all. Most Americans in the coffee industry don’t want Italian espresso. Just as everyone doesn’t have the same brewed coffee traditions. The Italian tradition is only useful to branch out from, if you want to make coffee in one of the Italian traditions, and barley useful to even know if you don’t want to. Italians don’t seem to want Kenyan espresso, and they may also be more price sensitive. So what?
    I think it is incorrect to preserve traditions for the sake of diversity. If nobody wants to drink it, let it die. There are enough stubborn people who like what they tasted in their 20’s that will stick with it their whole live. That’s why people still think a cup of Folgers taste great.
    Remember Folgers and instant coffee are as much a tradition, how do you feel about that? Do you hope the tradition of old stale coffee never dies, for the sake of diversity and tradition?

  26. Jay,

    while I was writing about price and quality, I was just thinking about Vince’s comment:

    “I’m sure that if Italian cafes could sell espresso for what we in North America and London sell espresso for, they would more than likely use Kenyan coffees or high grown Arabicas. If we could only sell our espresso for roughly $1.00 … what would we use in our espresso blends?”

    The answer is: I do not know what you would use, but I know that in Italy you can get an excellent espresso for € 1.00. And I have to say I got awful espressos in the US, although I paid them much more than $ 1.00. In some cases they stinked, in some other cases they were burnt.

  27. Carlo,
    For less than 1 Euro you are not able to produce coffee that is great and make a profit. You must stay with coffees that are cheaper. Coffees that are lower grade Arabicas and espresso’s that contain Robusta. Why is it that in Italy coffee bars do not charge more for espresso? Why is it that if I sit down in an espresso bar in Italy with a view of a town square I am charged a much higher price for an espresso than if I was standing? Could you not in Italy just charge a little more to get better coffee?

    I know you say you’ve had bad coffee in North America but I’m sure there is great coffee to be had. I’ve had average coffee in Italy and all the operators have told me the same thing. “We can’t charge more because customers won’t pay” anf ” why should I buy Illy when I can’t make a profit?” …. yet if they sit down customers pay a lot more.

    Just as an opinion … it is very easy to be a roaster where I create an espresso blended with low grown Arabica and Robusta and dose 7 grams and pour around 30mls. I personally do not like espresso this way. We choose to not do this in other parts of the world because using better coffees and creating excellence is personally rewarding.

    Also Carlo, I’ve been told by other roasters in Italy that some of the roasters in Italy act like banks where they supply espresso machines, grinders, counters, etc. and build out the whole cafe but must use the coffee of the roaster. Is this true?

  28. Vince,

    you can get an excellent espresso for 1 € and still make profit (I am not saying you get an excellent espresso everywhere in Italy).

    I know coffee roasters working with 4-5 origins and others working with 12 in the blend. Our blends are bases on Natural Arabica from Brazil, we add Washed Arabicas from Central America and sometimes other origins from Ethiopia. What we look for is complexity, that is why we use the blend. This is a big culturale difference: we prefer to have a wide range of aromas. And believe me it is not easy to create a well balanced blend to get a perfect 25-ml-cup.

    You can charge your client more than 1 € if you want. The price is not regulated anymore. Of course the market is regulating itself that is why the price if about 1 €. If you sit down you pay more because there is a waiter bringing the coffee to your table, taking the money and so on.

    As for the policy of Italian coffee roasters about machines and coffee grinders, I guess the majority of coffee roasters is still providing baristas with the machine and the grinders. This is actually a weak point in our system as in most cases the barista is not an entreprenuer but depends on the coffee roaster. Serious coffee roasters are changing their policy, but the process will be slow.

  29. Carlo,
    Nice to know that you are trying to elevate coffee quality.

    How can I contact you to order some coffee? I would love to try your blend. It sounds very nice.

  30. Vince,

    I would say we are trying to elevate the average coffee quality. Fortunately we have excellent coffees. I do not produce coffee. I apologize I forgot to introduce myself. I sit in the board of the International Institute of Coffee Tasters (www.coffeetasters.org) and I am of its trainers at the Espresso Italiano Tasting classes. Moreover I am the communications manager of the Italian Espresso National Institute (www.espressoitaliano.org), that is why I know the Italian coffee scene so well. Feel free to stay in touch with me at carlo.odello@italiantasters.com. It is a pleasure to exchange thoughts with you, thanks to James for hosting this discussion.

  31. Everything has its place and I enjoy single estate Bolivian espresso and much as an espresso in Italy roasted using some Robusta. Many people tend to pooh pooh traditional Italian espresso because they find it crude, basic and sometimes poorly made but generally Italy offers espresso in a consistent fashion. It is the lifeblood of their social and home culture so with most Italians consuming 5 to 6 espressos per day. Yes it is priced at 1 euro or below to stand at the bar. (more expensive to sit down) The further north you go the higher ratio of Arabica is used in espresso blends and in the south of Italy much more Robusta is used. In the 50s and 60s southern Italy was poor so robusta was the main part of the blend. Still today some blends in the south carry up to 60% robusta as society is historically used to the taste. It does not make it wrong because its traditional to Italians. At least in Italy you generally get a well extracted espresso where as in London many coffee shops often offer a pooly extrated espresso. A lower grade coffee well made wins everytime. No point buying cup of excellence winning coffees if the grinder is not dialed in correctly.
    I like speciality coffees like the next person but I do get frustrated when people have a go at the idea of Robusta and Italian coffee tradition. Maybe a few more folk should try a bit of robusta, you might like it. A good starting point would be washed Robusta from the Kaapi Royale estate in India.
    Ask Gwilym, he tried it straight at the estate and like it very much.
    Anyway I am starting to rant now. Americans drink lots of drip coffee, the English drink lots of tea. Italians drink lots of espresso so no need to pick on them. Everything has its place!!

  32. There is an excellent book called ‘The Invention of Tradition’ by Eric Hobsbawm which seems pertinent to this discussion. Not a coffee book mind you but relevant all the same.

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