Today, I’m not (unfortunately) going to talk about speciality coffee-related topic but about the Italian coffee culture.
How is the coffee drinking culture in Italy?
Even if questionable, Italian people has its own coffee culture no matter how it works in the rest of the world.
Italian Coffee Culture: A bit of history
The Italian coffee history seems to begin around the 16th century in Venice where it was the port in which the green beans were firstly imported and, not surprisingly, Caffè Florian was one of the first coffee shops that opened in Europe.
The Italian country has been influenced since ages from the south of Italy, with Naples known as one of the key influencers.
Still today, nothing has changed (or nearly) in Naples. Over there the coffee culture is quite the same with many coffee shops that keep adding sugar in your coffee while the extraction is in the process, or before serving it (regardless of your request).
Generally speaking, a lever machine is still the preferred kind of espresso machine in operation in Naples and the south of Italy, serving a blend made of (at least) 50-60 per cent of robusta and up to 100 per cent.
How is the coffee drinking culture in the rest of the country?
Let’s have a look at what makes the Italian coffee culture so different concerning any other country in the world.
Some aspects of Italian Coffee Culture
- Going for a coffee in Italy is quite a ritual: coffee is mostly consumed standing at the “bar”, which is not only the counter but also the Italian translation of the English word (coffee shop);
- Coffee is just coffee so there’s no reason to sell a cup of coffee higher than 1 euro (I’m talking about commercial coffee shops and not about the few speciality ones that are spread out over the country);
- baristas do not need to be trained. If you know how to steam fluffy milk and serve at the table you’re ready to go.
- Italian people tend to drink their coffee quickly as they think that it has to be consumed when hot;
I’m not sure about the reason behind that but I synthesize what it could be in two points as my perspective:
1 – The lack of knowledge and interest:
Italian people have always made me think of someone that doesn’t care that much about the coffee experience claiming “it’s just coffee, and being such, it’s just a stimulant that kickstarts your morning or keeps your day going.
But I would rather think of the total lack of knowledge of what’s behind this beverage.
Italians don’t know that coffee comes from a fruit, more specifically, a berry and as being such, when talking about coffee, we say a coffee has low/medium/high acidity and sweetness with low bitterness or even no bitterness at all and with distinctive fruit and/or floral notes (coffee is a fruit, remember?).
Now the question is: Why it’s not possible in Italy to experience that?
There are two main things to consider.
As I said before, drinking coffee in Italy is very cheap. So, how a coffee shop can have a margin on this? Simply by buying low-quality coffee beans. So, in most of the cases what happen is that what you are going to drink is made of a good percentage of Robusta which is cheaper than the Arabica and give to the cup a bitter taste and a thicker crema. That’s why Italian people still think that the espresso must taste bitter to be considered of good quality if not, it’s not a good one. This is one of the key aspects of what makes this culture so far from the others.
Well, putting aside for a second how margin you can do from low-quality beans and why you should avoid following this way, I just see two downsides such as the roasting profile: poor quality beans mean we are in the case of several defects that are going to affects the cup.
Most of the people don’t know about this but in Italy, we roast darker (over the second crack) precisely because we want to avoid those coffee flavour defects (off-flavour). By roasting darker we hide these unpleasant flavours with the bitterness that comes out right from the roasting profile. So, the coffee is going to taste bitter, ashy and woody which is why Italian people are used to and think are good descriptors;
2 – the strength of the Italian coffee culture:
that’s directly correlated with the first point. We take for granted that coffee is good only when it comes out with that full-body/bitterness in the cup but we never focus on the same way when drinking wine, which it also comes out from a fruit and grows truly similar to as coffee does; well, I don’t think wine drinker would drink wine if the taste was the same.
Also, we think we appreciate the bitterness as much that we add three-four spoons of sugar to balance out what we don’t like: the bitterness.
- Most of the Italians opt for an espresso-based drink and never drink milky beverage after lunch or later on as they think it’s indigestive to assume milk; the real reason behind that comes from another bad Italian habit: ordering extra hot milk beverage.
There’s no reason why you should ask baristas to steam your milk that much, except if you want the formation of the casein tannate in your drink that makes it indigestible to you and may in the long term cause intolerance to dairy;
- There’s another aspect to keep in mind when talking about bitterness. A dark roast profile is the first thing that brings bitterness out of your beans but it’s not the only one; as I said before, robusta beans are commonly mixed in a blend for the reason that is cheaper but also because Italian people love the crema that stands on the surface. Robusta beans have roughly twice the amount of caffeine compared on any Arabica beans which is why the beverage is going to results bitter as caffeine tastes bitter;
- education should be at the forefront of the culture of a company. It would be great to enter in a commercial coffee shop and talk about coffee with the barista, asking him advices on what to drink or drink milk beverages at the right temperature.
It’s usually good to keep the traditions but that’s not the case when talking about coffee. The sooner we understand that the more chances to bring speciality coffee in Italy.
I am an Italian coffee lover that pushed for the love of this “amazing drug” decided to come to London to study about coffee and its different extraction procedures and tastes.