Let’s Talk About Coffee: Understanding the Italian Coffee Culture

The origin story:

Although the concept of coffee originated in the 15th century, its history in Italy began at the turn of the 20th century. In 1901, Luigi Bezzera, an inventor from Milan, concocted the idea to run pressurized water through coffee powder. Contrary to what some individuals think, espresso is not a bean or level or roasting, it is simply a method of brewing. The technique spawned the beverage now known as the espresso – as each shot was made “expressly” for the customer. At the time of its inception, Italians started drinking the “modern” beverage standing at counters (Al Banco), a tradition very much still in practice today. The bar concept derived from American style bars; consequently, those creating the drinks were called barman until Mussolini coined the term barista.

Culture:

Unlike the American behemoth sized “cup of joe” guzzled in the morning, a standard coffee in Italy is an espresso. Any customer who orders un caffé (sometimes called caffé normale) will receive a small shot of espresso.

Rather than consuming a massive amount of caffeine in the morning, Italians drink a few shots of espresso throughout the day – as an afternoon energizer or digestive. This actually provides a more stable amount of energy versus a massive caffeine high in the morning and drop in the afternoon. Also, the concept of to-go coffee does not really exist in Italy (except in tourist locations or train stations).

Another fact Americans may find interesting is that milk coffee beverages are typically consumed only before 11am. They are considered a breakfast drink to enjoy with a pastry. Any person ordering a cappuccino after lunch or dinner will be immediately tagged as a tourist. Why is this – most Italians would simply say a milk drink is too “heavy” for after a large meal.

One of the most obvious differences between American and Italian coffee cultures, at least for me, is the price. An espresso at Starbucks costs around $3 and takes several minutes to produce. Additionally, when I try to order an espresso at Starbucks, I get extremely confused looks and receive a giant cup with a bit of brown liquid at the bottom. In contrast, Italians pay 78 cents to $1.23 and receive their beverage in approximately 30 seconds (true to the “express” part of the name). Espresso is such a part of everyday life in Italy that municipalities, since 1911, are required to set a maximum espresso price.

Admittedly, I do go to Starbucks when I am at home. However, one of the saddest things about the giant American coffee chain is how it has twisted the Italian coffee experience into something unrecognizable. In Italy, espresso (and espresso-based drinks) is not the pricey drink you can occasionally splurge for at Starbucks. It’s the lifeblood of the working man/woman. In the process of making fruity or sugar-laden drinks, likely with the goal of larger profits, Starbucks distorted the “Italian” coffee experience into something unrecognizable. The issue is not that America’s coffee culture is different; rather, it is that cafés tout their products as Italian when, in fact, they are so far from it. Italo Calvino, an Italian author, commented on faux-Italian cafes in America: “It seems to me that no mental task is more complex than erasing any memory of what Italy is, like these guys do…and then inventing an unreal Italy, which corresponds to what Americans expect it to be.” Understandably, Italians strongly oppose Starbucks trying to enter the Italian market.

The Brews:

Even with the cultural differences, it’s important to note issues are not without a server of coffee creativity. After Bezzera’s initial creation, other Italian cities began experimenting, using the espresso as a base. A unique blend in the northern regions of Italy combines anise-flavor with espresso, while in Sicily, a caffé d’un parrinu adds cloves, cinnamon, and cocoa (Arabic inspired flavors).

In addition to the regional specialties and the well-known cappuccino, Italian cafes generally always offer a few other standards, which include:

Caffé macchiato – coffee with a splash of frothy milk [not classified as a breakfast only drink]
Caffé corretto – espresso with a dash of alcohol, like grappa or sambuca
Caffé americano – espresso diluted with hot water
Caffé lungo – espresso with hot water, but less diluted than an americano

The Machine:

Over the last few years, numerous brewing techniques have flooded the U.S. market, as well as brewing devices that resemble lab equipment. It’s certainly interesting to see these devices in action, and the coffee produced is often very smooth; however, in Italy, an “at-home coffee maker” is by default a Moka Pot (or what some Americans might call a percolator). One of the most well-known brands is Bialetti. While stainless steel pots are preferred, aluminum pots work too. This design boils water up and through the ground coffee, depositing a strong shot of liquid in the top of the pot. Moka Pots delivers quick, piping hot coffee in minutes. It is important to note, however, that the coffee is not technically espresso as it is not brewed at the same pressure as true espresso (like the machines at cafés).

Tips for using a Moka Pot:
1. Do not overfill the water reservoir – only fill it to the pressure valve
2. Do not use extremely fine coffee grounds, as it may clog the filter
3. Do not compress the coffee grounds, gently spoon it into the filter and wipe edges clean
4. Use low heat and remove from heat toward the end of brewing to prevent burnt undertones

Conclusion:

It’s always interesting to visit a country and explore the food and drink culture. However, no country is guilt-free of corrupting another country’s specialty (I’m sure if someone tried to get a hamburger in Italy, it would be mediocre in most cases). Yet, for those who cannot travel or for those who simply want a taste of home, I truly hope someone in America will open a cafe that actually represents the simplicity and deliciousness of an Italian coffee shop – a place where working people of every background can go to talk, laugh, and enjoy the simple pleasure of coffee.

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