The Dream of Coffee – Andrea Illy

Andrea Illy is Chairman of illycaffè S.p.A., a family-owned coffee business founded in Trieste in 1933. I spoke to him by telephone from Trieste and asked him about his family heritage.

My grandfather was Hungarian, but at the time of Austro-Hungarian empire. He lived most of his youth in Vienna; this is where he fell in love with coffee and where he decided that coffee was what he wanted to do in his life. When he came to Trieste, the city was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He started his coffee business with a Viennese heritage.

Trieste and my family share the same heritage: both started as Austro-Hungarian, but both became over the decades very much Italian. We nurture both. Our Italian heritage is about coffee and particularly expresso coffee. Our Austrian heritage is more about coffee as a hot drink: filter or café latté. We respect them both!

Why does illycaffè produce blended rather than single-origin coffee?

For three reasons:

Blending gives you the richness and the complexity of the aroma spectrum. If you listen to a single violinist, you can discern specific notes. However, if you listen to a symphony orchestra you get the richness and the complexity of the composition – the full spectrum of sounds. Blending is to coffee what a symphony orchestra is to music.

Blending gives you balance in the coffee. It enables you to compensate the disparities of the different origins. For example, Brazil is famous for its chocolatey aroma whereas Central America is famous for its flowery or fruity aroma. You can also compensate acidity with the bitterness, say, of a sun-dried coffee.

Blending gives you consistency. We want a product which is always of exactly the same quality.

You can only obtain these three fundamental attributes by blending. I don’t believe in pure origin. Pure origins are good as a kind of a tasting at a coffee experience, but if you are really seeking the best possible quality then it has to be a blend. Our blend is made of nine origins. Of course, the better the quality at origin the better the blend.

Could you tell me about your University of Coffee?

The University of Coffee is organized into three different departments: one for the growers;

one for the hospitality professionals; and one for coffee connoisseurs. For the last ten years we have run a master’s degree in coffee. We take twenty students from all over the world; they stay with us for six months.

We serve nearly 9 million cups of coffee per day. To make sure that each cup is as good as the last, we have to educate our farmers and we have to educate our baristas. But we also want to educate our consumers to appreciate coffee.

Coffee still has a long way to go to reach the same level of sophistication as exists in the wine industry. By that I mean sophistication in terms of product expertise: how you produce your wine and how you drink it.

I also mean sophistication in terms of narrative. A glass of wine in a restaurant will cost you a minimum of 6-8 euros, while a cup of coffee will cost you 2-3 euros. Coffee is as good as wine, and it should be as expensive as wine.

It is not good for your health to drink too much wine. But coffee makes you live better and longer. Coffee is a beverage of success: socially and professionally, and for your health.

My dream is to bring coffee culture to the same level of nobleness as premium wines. This means approaching coffee in a sophisticated way, and this is what we teach our students.

Is it your quality that enabled you to build the brand?

Yes, in order to build a successful brand, you need to have a narrative, an image, and a product. The question is, which comes first? Do you start with an incredible product that you narrate to the consumer, or do you start with a wonderful narrative that you then build the product around?  We were in the first case: we had this unique product; we started narrating the coffee culture, and we built our image, our point of difference and our credo around it.

illycaffè has been called the Armani of coffee. Is illycaffè a luxury brand?

It’s not a luxury brand. It is a high-end brand, what we call ‘altagamma’. ‘Luxury’ is more inaccessible and exclusive. Coffee is by its very nature inclusive. I’m proud to say that unwealthy people with a good palate can enjoy our coffee even though they pay a premium price for it.

Our coffee has all the paradigms of luxury – the superior quality and the savoir faire in both production and consumption. It has a wonderful image. It has everything that a luxury brand has except the exclusiveness. It is an inclusive product.

Your company motto is ‘Live Happily’. Could you please tell me a little about that?

Happiness has two philosophical definitions: one from Aristotle and one by Epicure. For Aristotle, happiness is living in a world of virtue, combining altruism, knowledge and wisdom – living for the greater good.

The Epicurean definition is about hedonism.  It is about the three pleasures in life: the natural necessary; the natural unnecessary; and the unnatural unnecessary. Epicure says that you should forget about the ‘unnatural unnecessary’; it will destroy you. You should be moderate with the ‘natural unnecessary’, but you should take full advantage of the natural necessary pleasure.

I consider coffee as a ‘natural unnecessary’ pleasure for the at least 1.5 billion coffee drinkers around the world – in terms of joy, in terms of energy, in terms of health, in terms of social life, in terms of mood.

And each cup that you drink helps the at least 25 million people in the coffee supply chains – people who depend on coffee for their human development and their quality of life. Most of these people live in poor countries and they have no alternative to coffee.  By taking your little treasure every day, several times a day, each time you know that you are helping a family in Ethiopia, or in Guatemala or wherever.

This is the dream of coffee.

Thank you, Andrea for your time and input!

© Commodity Conversations ® 2020

This is an extract of an interview that will be published in my upcoming book Merchants & Roasters – Conversations over Coffee

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