At first sight, you’d never guess he was Italian. The gorgeous clothes hint at it – impeccably-cut charcoal suit, open-necked shirt with the crispest of white cuffs. But his eyes are an almost colourless steel-blue, his features are Hungarian, and his manner is utterly, almost unnervingly, calm. When he opens his mouth you see that he talks with his hands as much as any Italian, churning up the air with gesticulations. But the movements are exact and clarifying, revealing his precise and orderly mind. He frames a subject between his palms, pins a point between two fingertips, makes a graceful sweep with his hand to introduce a wider issue. He’s wonderful to watch.
The Chairman and C.E.O. of Illycaffè, Andrea Illy is the grandson of espresso-innovator Francesco Illy, who started this slick and highly-regarded coffee company in Trieste back in 1933. Even if you don’t know Illy’s coffee, you’ll can’t fail to have spotted their memorable little red square logo emblazoned on cafés round the globe – the only logo in the world, apparently, to have been designed by a contemporary artist rather than a graphic designer. “It’s like a little painting,” Andrea confides with a smile. Urbane and art-savvy, as well as every inch the scientist, Andrea’s in London today to attend an exhibition of photography by Sebastião Salgado – an artist sponsored by Illycaffè to document the lives and work of coffee growers round the world.
We meet in the almost unbearably hip, urban-arty space of Wapping Hydraulic Power Station. Once providing heavyweight lifting services across London, it’s now an industrial-chic café – with its own gallery space downstairs, of course. Huge machines with big bolts and esoteric dials stand around ageing gracefully, their ancient paintwork a patina of greens and russets. Victorian-looking brick-tiles climb the walls and big silver pipes reach to the high ceiling. Above it all, like the benign god of the place, an imperious-looking Andy Warhol gazes out from a giant hanging silkscreen. It couldn’t be a better venue for our interview, with its mixture of awesome engineering and contemporary art. It’s Illy in a nutshell.
I make the mistake of asking, at the outset, about Andrea’s scientific interest in coffee. It’s like asking Richard Dawkins about his interest in atheism. His answer is so long and detailed I worry I won’t get the chance to ask anything else. “Innovation at Illy coffee has always been driven by quality-improvement,” he begins. “Our mission is to produce the very best coffee we can. Three of the most radical innovations in coffee-making over the last century have come from Illy. My grandfather introduced the formula for espresso-making which is still used all over the world today – water at 90°C and pressure at 9 atmospheres. Before this, steam used to be pressed through coffee – the temperature was too high, so the coffee was burnt and tasted bitter.
“Our second innovation was pressurized packaging.” He holds up a sleek silver tin of Illy beans. “Coffee makes as many as 1,000 flavours, but they’re volatile. If you leave coffee in the air, they evaporate. With solid, pressurized packaging you force the flavours to stay in the beans until the moment of coffee-making. Our third innovation was coffee pods, making it possible for the non-professional coffee-maker to make perfect coffee every time. What is the job of a barista? Grinding, dosing, and tamping down the ground coffee before extraction. All these are done for you in the little pods. It’s a system as simple as putting a CD Rom into your computer.”
But this is merely an introduction. In lucid technical detail, I’m told about Illy’s other recent hi-tech innovations: the lightning-speed spectral analysis of every bean in order to reject any with duff flavours, and the company’s pioneering work in ‘hyper-infusion’ to maximize the flavour extracted from ground coffee and ‘emulsion’ to maximize the ‘crema’ or golden halo that sits atop well-made espresso. Andrea pulls out his beautiful platinum Dupont pen and draws me neat diagrams of how old-style espresso-makers work compared with Illy’s ‘hyper-espresso’ machines.
As he draws meticulous cross-sections of machinery and tidy arrows indicating the movement of water, it strikes me that this man could have been a great university lecturer. He has a real gift for explaining complex ideas, building them up element by element. His clarity of understanding is infectious, but his laser-beam focus can be intimidating. Early on in the talk of scientific innovations, I had been a flibbertigibbet and asked what it felt like to be part of such a high-achieving family. My trivial question had bounced off him like dirt off stainless steel. Without any hint of rudeness, he continued with his orderly catalogue of scientific progress. Having started his answer to an earlier question, he wasn’t going to be distracted from completing it in full.
Chemistry, mechanics and engineering aren’t the only sciences with which Illycaffè have earned their high reputation, of course. They’ve also been cunning with botany, horticulture, and with softer sciences like supplier-motivation and business-sustainability. Under the auspices of Illy’s ‘University of Coffee’, a team of highly-trained professionals roam the coffee-growing countries of the world teaching growers which bean varieties to choose, how to manage their plantations, and how to process crops after harvest. “Sometimes we like to challenge ourselves with difficult projects,” Andrea says. “Like Ethiopia. It’s a source of excellent coffee, but most of what they produce is low-quality because of poor processing. We’re installing equipment, and teaching them better drying techniques. It’s a very long-term project. We want to improve the future of coffee-growers there, and ultimately have an impact on the country’s sustainability.”
Ah, the S word. Sustainability. The great hope for the future. I know that Illy have some clever ideas on this, so I ask Andrea what he thinks of the Fair Trade movement. “We are not particularly in favour of fair trade,” he says. “It’s a very positive first step, but just a first step. It creates awareness, but only solves one part of the problem. You get better sustainability when you give the consumer something they really desire, a superb coffee, so they’re happy to pay a premium, which we pass on to the growers. We guarantee our growers a good price always, but pay them extra for a better product, which motivates them. It’s a virtuous circle – unlike the solidarity approach, where the consumer buys a third-rate coffee just to feel good with himself. If growers are paid the same regardless of quality, they don’t learn how to grow better. So when the consumers grow tired of paying more for mediocre coffee and stop buying it, the growers lose their customers. If we give the growers expert knowledge, they use it on the coffee they produce for the whole market, not just for us. And they transfer it to the next generation. This really drives sustainability.” Wise words. And canny ones, because now I want to really support the future of farmers in hot countries by buying only Illy coffee.
One of the café’s expert baristas is due to give me a masterclass in espresso-making in a moment, and I only have a few minutes left to ask Andrea about Illycaffe’s high-profile involvement in art and design. A true academic, he charmingly begins his reply with an allusion to Aristotle. Εΰδαιμονία is, apparently, the concept of creating pleasure through many channels simultaneously. With coffee we stimulate various senses and aspects of mind – it hits us with smell and taste, with memory-associations and enervating caffeine, but it can also titillate our vision by being served in pretty cups. Illy’s official cups were scientifically designed (of course) to maximize coffee flavour and retain heat. But some are also adorned with the original work of leading contemporary artists. Special collections come out several times a year, with previous artists including giant names like Jeff Koons, Robert Rauschenberg, Federico Fellini and Francis Ford Coppola. Add this to Illy’s regular sponsorship of the Venice Biennale art festival, and its work with photographer Sebastião Salgado, and you have one very cool company utterly au fait with art and science.
“The cup, the accessories – everything has to be included in our search-for-beauty approach,” Andrea explains. “Coffee has intellectual pleasures too. There’s the pleasure of becoming a connoisseur, the pleasure of taking part in a very cosmopolitan activity – everybody in Europe drinks coffee, and the majority of cultural movements in our society have begun with artists and thinkers meeting in cafés. There’s the pleasure of exoticism in thinking about coffee-growing countries. Meanwhile, the drink is strongly rooted in our daily life, our family and our memories…”
My lesson in espresso-making is certainly interesting, and I learn an awful lot about grinding beans, pressing down grounds, frothing milk and pouring it, but I can’t help feeling it’s nothing compared to what I could learn by chatting with Andrea Illy for another hour. This erudite and urbane scientist, with his exquisite focus and unflappable calm, is someone I could listen to all day. He’s a great loss to academia.
For very best results, freshly grind your coffee beans just before making espresso. The oils that give coffee its complex flavours deteriorate rapidly in contact with air, and are best kept locked inside the beans until just before coffee-making. Invest in a little bean-grinder, or even a ‘bean-to-cup’ espresso machine.
Only a proper espresso machine able to exert high pressure will give you the richest and smoothest espresso. But if you’ve fallen for the retro charm of a dinky octagonal coffee-pot used on the hob (called a moka), you can still make a decent cup. Keep it scrupulously clean inside; never use detergents. Fill the filter to its rim with ground coffee; don’t pack it down. Turn down the heat as soon as liquid coffee starts to form.
A well-made espresso has a good crema. This is the thin layer of golden brown foam that sits atop the coffee for a couple of minutes after making. If the crema is thin and light-coloured, you have under-extracted coffee, with little aroma and a flat taste. Dark foam with a black hole in the middle means over-extracted coffee, and a bitter taste. Note the crema on every espresso you drink in cafés or restaurants from now on, and you’ll quickly learn to spot a good espresso on sight.
The espresso is the basic starting point for all Italian coffees. Having made perfect espresso, try making these familiar – and not so familiar – drinks:
Add a dash of hot water to an espresso and you’ve got a caffè lungo. Add a bit more, giving it the consistency of filter coffee, and you’ve made a caffè americano. Forget the water, and bung in a shot of spirit instead – grappa is usual – and you’ll have a caffè corretto, beloved by elderly Italian men.
Caffè freddo is best made by putting ice cubes, rather than cold water, into your espresso. (Melt in any sugar first.) You could drink like a Sicilian by adding crushed ice, topping it with whipped cream and calling it a caffè granita. Or try a wonderful local speciality from Brindisi: pour espresso over almond milk and ice. The almond milk sweetens the coffee and adds a lovely flavour.
The international darling of Italian coffees, a cappuccino sees steamed milk – liquid and foam – added to espresso. (Italians only drink this one in the a.m.) A little steamed milk foam makes an espresso a caffè macchiato, while a big glug of hot milk makes it a caffè latte. Bung some hot milk and whipped cream into your espresso and you’ll have a Viennese cappuccino.