The Italian coffee tradition over the centuries has become a system of rituals and behaviors about coffee and its most famous preparations: moka coffee, espresso and cappuccino.
It is easy to say that the Italian espresso is a coffee extraction method.
But in truth it’s not that simple since espresso varies not only by country but even differs on a much more minute scale.
In fact, by merely changing cities, there are variations in the cup’s color, aroma, taste and quantity.
Italian espresso is two things: the beverage itself (which varies enormously from Naples to Bolzano) and then the ritual that goes with it, standing at the bar while you chat to the barista preparing it.
Even if the beverage may not be perfect, you still drink what you’re used to.
Every Italian is used to his own kind of coffee.
And if you want to break out of this cultural mindset, there are a lot of things that need to be done, preferably with the guidance of the barista since it’s not something you can easily do on your own.
It’s not just about personal tastes
The regionality of the Italian espresso has deep anthropological roots that are linked to the history of Italian states, cuisine, wines and political alliances and the possibility of supplying the raw material.
They are differences born of cultural and environmental factors, which date back to the mists of time.
To say that the Turines (the inhabitants of Turin) prefer the more acidic coffee because the bars were born from urbanized peasants accustomed to barbera wine may seem trivial, but many of the elderly roasters affirm it. However, they do not explain why coffee is less acidic, more roasty than Alessandria (far from Turin less than 100km).
There is a common vision linked to a certain type of environment and offer, which creates and generates the habit, a gustatory imprinting also given by a roasting company in the area. It is a hard core that cannot be broken by fashions, which will always remain.
The history of the first roasting companies in Italy begins mostly in drugstores dedicated to the sale of spices and raw coffee which, over time, identified the tastes of its customers to which they offered the practicality of mixtures already made and roasted based on their preferences.
In the espresso’s Italy, the fact that there are multiple styles (of espresso) does not mean that the Italian espresso known abroad does not exist. On the contrary, it is proof of how the multifaceted culture of Italians is also reflected in the cup, which strengthens and enriches the existence of the Italian espresso itself.
The significant differences in taste and consumption patterns in the various areas of Italy, in particular between North and South, are closely linked to the culture, traditions and habits of the people who consume it.
These differences depend above all else on factors cultural linked to the daily ritual of coffee, habits that change from region to region, influencing the characteristics of the blend, the methods of preparation, the body, the aroma, crema and taste of the coffee.
Thus in the North of Italy, Italians drink more acidic coffee with more intense aromas of flowers and fresh fruit with a sweet aftertaste and a medium roast.
In the South they love strong, creamy, round coffees with a strong aftertaste marked by a bitter taste with aromas that tend toward spices. For this reason, the blends contain mainly Robusta coffees and in the cup have greater body, an intense flavor and a particularly dark color.
If between the two extremes there are infinite styles of espresso, in the East we find espressos that tend to be darker, roasted in aroma, bitter and chocolatey; while in the West we find espressos that show a more marked acidity and a freshness that is accompanied by a more pronounced floral and fruity.
Beyond the aromatic notes, the variable that is most associated with taste is the body, lighter in the North and more and more weighty descending towards South.
And the body is one of the main elements (but not the only one) to mark the difference with most of the “blends for espresso” produced abroad which, although destined for an espresso preparation, can mostly not be declared compliant with the “Made in Italy” cup.
At the center of the differences also consider roasting: the most important quarter of an hour of a coffee’s life during which various roasting curves enhance different aromatic compositions, taking into account that there are more than a thousand flavors in the coffee and that they are released into different moments of roasting.
Moreover, let’s not forget that the variables that contribute to determining a particular preparation style are the different types of coffee used (considered as species, variety and origin), the roasting method, but also the different extraction parameters: grams of coffee, grinding size, temperature and water pressure, time and grams (or milliliters) in the cup.
The different styles of espresso mostly survive today
but over the years they have had to deal with an increasingly wide distribution of roasting companies, which led to the creation of different types of blends and relative roastings, both with the tastes of an increasingly heterogeneous population (therefore with different requests for body and taste).
It is therefore a reality that is ever more evolving, with a South more faithful to tradition and a North that is often only contaminated.
It might then seem that it no longer makes sense to speak of differences and that these nuances are destined to succumb to globalization and the arrival of the “perturbator” Starbucks, to the new wave of specialty products and to globalized and instagrammed fashions.
But let’s not forget that losing the regionality of the Italian espresso would mean losing an immense wealth!
The Italian espresso is the answer to globalization: if pleasure has more faces, the Italians can satisfy them all thanks to the art of roasting and blending of “Made in Italy”.
The regional differences of the espresso are the true tradition, carried on by the 20 million Italians who drink espresso every day in the 149,000 bars in Italy.
A tradition, that one of the Italian espresso, kept alive even by roasters and equipment manufacturers.
The roasters that do not disconnect from the time-consolidated quality models, which do not slavishly follow the fashions and do not surrender to the logic of low price.
And the manufacturers of equipment that innovate to improve the espresso in the cup without giving in to the lure of automation but focusing on the barista, essential to offer a perfect espresso.
Quality remains the central point
Tradition and innovation, after all, are two sides of the same coin: there is no innovation without tradition.
As long as there is a good quality coffee at the base then the customer is always more ready to recognize it no matter the region of Italy.
On the other hand, sometimes, unfortunately, tradition means mediocrity: coffees that are clones of one another, low quality blends passed by “secret recipe for generations” or over-roasted coffees to hide a poor quality raw material with the alibi of Italian espresso.
Hey barista! A professional barista is (or should be) technically prepared and impeccable, know the product, is able to create completely different coffees and, going beyond the 25cc espresso in 25 seconds, keeps the tradition of Italian espresso alive.
The future of Italian espresso must be made of attention to quality and to the consumer, because this tradition must be explained.
Tell the story of coffee by making it clear that the preparation is only the last 30 seconds of a long journey.
In fact, what is already happening in other sectors is happening in coffee: consumer culture is increasing and the quality of the offer is parallel.
Starbucks has already made things change before it even arrived, it has brought energy and a desire to innovate. It’s a stimulus for the whole sector.
To attract new consumers one must know how to welcome them. The new challenge is to make Italian cafés increasingly welcoming places, where one lingers to have a chat, work or simply read a book.
With qualified training, the barista must be in the center of the café, much like the coffee machine in the center of the bar. Not behind!
Regional differences exist for consolidated historical reasons, but it’s important to make the barista aware of this so he can choose the right coffee blend according to the dominant taste of his clientele.
Of course to do this it must be prepared for the correct transformation and follow the recipes that enhance the various characteristics: more or less roasted, chocolatey, aromatic.
Today the local tradition of espresso blends with the experimentation of single origins and alternative extractions simply because the espresso does not always cover all the needs of our times.
For the consumer at all levels, the variety of preparations available, the consistent quality of the transformed product and the possibility of finding his favorite coffee at the cafés is important.
There will always be a dominant taste in the customer’s culture, but the desire to experiment will grow.