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.
There are about 150,000 “bars” in Italy (149.154 according to data of FIPE, the Italian Federation of Public Exercises ) each serving 175 cups of coffee every day and that’s only counting simple espresso.
This clearly demonstrates the deep fondness Italians possess for coffee.
Italy has always been passionate about “bars” since they serve as perfect gathering spots to catch up with friends and neighbors, read the newspaper, watch the football match or play cards all while enjoying a coffee or grappa.
For an Italian, entering a “bar” for a coffee is ordinary, daily and almost ritualistic.
However, many don’t know the history of the “bar”.
The origin of coffee is far away, between Ethiopia, Turkey and Austria.
But when was the first “bar” opened in Italy?
How did it all begin?
How did the classic “bar” transform to what we are all used to nowadays?
The evolution of the “Italian bar” is an ancient story which starts, like most things, with the Romans.
The “prototype bar” of that era is what the ancient Romans called “taberna”. It served as a place of respite for weary travelers who could refresh themselves with wine as well as hot and cold meals after work or a long journey.
Remnants of places similar to the taberna can also be traced back to the Greeks and the Etruscans.
In order for the “bar” to truly resemble THE “bar”, coffee has to enter the picture.
And for that reason, the history of the “bar” begins outside of Europe.
By 1500 in the Middle East there were places where coffee was prepared precisely “Turkish style” and in front of the steaming cups were artists and businessmen.
It was a concept of an open place, a meeting point where people far from home met to consume precious drinks while laughing, thinking and discussing current events.
The Arab coffee shop already known throughout the Middle East up to Constantinople was imported to Europe by the Turks in the seventeenth century when in 1683 it besieged the city of Vienna.
In the beginning it was the “café”
This new fashion began to spread from Austria, where a Pole who worked as a courier during the Turkish-Prussian war learned the techniques for the preparation of coffee and opened the first café in 1684.
As the popularity of the “café” spread across the territory, its exotic drink was refined to please the taste of European palates.
To see the first “caffè” in Italy you have to wait until eighteenth century Venice where in 1720 the famous Caffè Florian opened strategically at the commerical port frequented by Turkish merchants. The idea caught on and was brought to life in Carlo Goldoni’s work, “La bottega del caffè” which captures the essence of these new places.
This is then followed by the Pedrocchi of Padua (1722), the Gilli in Florence (1733), the Greco in Rome (1760), etc.
In Rome, however, the history of the café finds an obstacle, namely the Church.
Because of the exciting properties of coffee, it has been considered a work of the devil and therefore banned. It is said that it was Pope Clement VIII who demolished the wall opposed to religion by this drink. After a clandestine taste, it seems he was pleasantly surprised to the point to decide to abolish the previously imposed ban.
Nothing so stops the expansion of coffee: after Italy it is the turn of France, where in Paris the Sicilian Procopio Coltelli inaugurates his Café Procope.
It is estimated that altogether at the turn of the century between 1800 and 1900 there were several thousand cafés open in Europe. The art of cocktails comes to life, tea and infusions are served, and more and more cafés take on the role of cultural centers, especially for intellectuals and aristocrats. They are living rooms in all respects, places where you can talk about politics, literature or organize a revolution.
From “caffè” to “bar”
The history of “bars” does not exclude the words used to define it.
In the beginning the word “caffè” commonly defined the establishments but with time “bar” makes its way to commonplace.
We can not talk about these kind of places without understanding where the word “bar” comes from.
In reality, “bar” has an uncertain etymology and there are many fascinating interpretations.
According to the first, “bar” is a contraction of English “barrier” which literally means “bar”. At the time of the first settlers in South America, in taverns, the corner reserved for the sale of alcohol was separated from the rest of the place by a bar which then ended up indicating the place itself.
While the second one leads to the English adjective “barred”, from which still by contraction the current “bar” originated. The period dates back to the nineteenth century when in England a law forbade the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages, so much so that on the doors of the places were nailed the boards with the inscription “sbarred”.
Both terms are of Latin derivation, from the Latin vulgar “bar”.
In Italy, however, the use of the term “bar” differs a lot from the English-speaking countries and indicates the two brass bars placed at the counter. It could therefore be assimilated to the concept of a counter that still today divides the barista and his work area from the customer.
Furthermore, the term would be the acronym of “Banco A Ristoro” (refreshment counter). The first to use the word “BAR” (and probably also to invent it) seems to have been an Italian entrepreneur, Alessandro Manaresi, who in 1898 opened the first “BAR” in Florence using the three letters as the acronym for “Banco A Ristoro”.
A symbol of Italian culture
In 1900 the word “caffè” began to disappear in favor of “bar”, establishing itself in the collective imagination as one of the symbols of Italy.
The history of the “bar” in Italy knows its moment of splendor in the middle of the nineteenth century, when the now well-known bourgeoisie used to find themselves at the café tables to savor the worldliness. Many of the cafés of the time have hosted great personalities of the cultural world.
Even women in the mid-nineteenth century are allowed entry and many of them become regular customers.
After the Second World War the “bar” transformed from an elitist place to a popular destination where a cross section of society including politicians, actors and artists as well as people from all walks of life met and thrived.
With the years of the economic boom between 1950 and 1960, the pace of life changed and with them the habits. As people started to spend less time for breakfast at home, they found their quick energy at the “bar” on their way to work.
This is how the “bar” was chosen by the Italians as the place to start the day with a “caffè al volo” (a fast espresso) or “cappuccino e cornetto”.
This custom was definitively affirmed during the following decade with the addition of an unmissable coffee break during the day.
One could say that the history of the “bar” has followed the evolution of Italian society, capturing changes and innovations.
Today, especially in population centers, the “bar” plays a fundamental role in Italians’ life, sometimes the barista becomes a friend, a confidant and the place itself becomes a regular appointment, a moment of escape from everyday stress, a distraction.
To say it with the words of Luciano De Crescenzo: “have you ever wondered what coffee is? Coffee is an excuse. An excuse to tell a friend that you love him”.
The “Italian bar”
Italy has played an essential part in the history of “bars”, differentiating itself from other countries in creating a tradition that has become over time typically Italian.
In fact in Italy, the term “bar” means a place with a very wide selection of both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks as well as coffee, cappuccino, sweet food (“cornetti” and other pastries for breakfast) and savory food (sandwiches and pizzas for lunch). A “bar” can also have spaces for consumption, inside or outside the place and is considered in Italian culture as one of the main points of aggregation, meeting and entertainment, especially during the day and pre-evening hours. The “Italian bar” is in fact a place to read the newspaper, to watch sports on TV (so-called “Bar-Sport”), to chat with friends or to play cards. It sometimes has the commercial function of tobacconist (so-called “Bar-Tabaccheria”).
The “bar” is unquestionably one of the symbols of Italy associated with the pleasure of Italians to give yourself a coffee at any time of day or an aperitif at sunset, and it is certainly the type of place that most represents Italy and Italians abroad.
In fact, even abroad there are “Italian bars”, but in the English, German and Spanish speaking countries, the equivalent of the “Italian bar” is more or less associated with the term “café” (or “caffè” in Italian).
It is no coincidence that Howard Schultz’s (founder of Starbucks) first 1983 trip to Milan, Italy found him fascinated and inspired not only by the culture of espresso but above all by the atmosphere, sense of community and human contact so genuine among the baristas and customers he found in Italian “bars”. And this was inspired by then to bring Starbucks all over the world.
What does it mean today to create a quality “bar”, café or cafeteria in Italy?
What are the fundamental parameters to evaluate when considering a “bar”?
The quality of coffee, first of all
Today’s “bar” must be a place to stop for a gourmet break of great quality, from breakfast to aperitif.
It’s a fundamental, essential element. However, it’s not enough.
A culmination of various factors including taste, experimentation, service and customer care must all work cohesively together in order to provide a worthy experience.
The value of the experience
The “bar” must be a unique, memorable and tellable experience with clear and distinctive features in order for it to generate word of mouth which has always been the best form of advertising.
If the raw material is good and processed with care and professionalism, the espresso will be pleasant regardless of the coffee blend chosen.
However, a further step of offering moments and exclusive situations must be taken to stand out among consumers.
The training of the barista
If coffee continues to be the main reason why you enter a “bar”, you need to study and practice continuously to enhance it.
Because behind every good extraction, there are as many unsuccessful attempts and tests, but also experiments, books read, calculations and proportions.
A professional barista is first and foremost a researcher.
The processing of artisan products requires technique, exercise and precision. Factors that can not be improvised. It means knowing the journey of the coffee bean from the plantations to the cup, and then aspects of botany, agronomy, chemistry, physics and the complex production process that leads to the perfect espresso. It means training.
The role of the barista is fundamental in the success of a good espresso because the barista is the last link in the coffee production chain.
The hand of the barista by definition, because it contemplates the human factor, does not guarantee constancy, but for this it gives an added value to the drink and it increases the sensory experience of the consumer.
Hey barista, tell the coffee!
The barista, as the last link in the supply chain, is the connection between producer and consumer. It must therefore also fulfill the task of divulgator. To him, the responsibility of telling and explaining the origin of the product he is serving, the quality and the work concentrated in the cup.
The communication is the strong point of a “bar”.
People who go to have breakfast at the “bar” have to come out enriched with information and emotions.
With patience, humility and constancy, the barista can train conscious consumers without forgetting to respond to their needs.
Sector growth: opportunity and challenge
The data says that out of home consumption continues to increase. That of coffee, and more generally of “bars”, is a universe in turmoil.
But for the growth and progress of the sector to continue, the collaboration between coffee roasters and baristas is essential. It should not be just a solid and lasting relationship over time.
Coffee roasters like SpecialCoffee are investing more and more in the training of baristas.
It is therefore time for the baristas to commit themselves to the maximum by participating in courses, events and conferences. The study and research must be a choice and not an obligation.
You cannot always expect to be spurred. It is right that those who work in the coffee sector move independently to enhance and increase their skills and knowledge through a non-stop comparison.
Keywords: continue to evolve, openness, always do better, challenge oneself, experiment, risk, flexibility, keep abreast of the times and renew oneself.
While maintaining their identity and remaining true to themselves.
Comparison with foreign countries
Meanwhile, coffee continues to garner consumer enthusiasm abroad especially where the trend of filter coffee and of methods of extraction alternative to espresso, is developing more and more.
For a company like SpecialCoffee which exports more than 70% of its coffee to foreign countries the comparison with other cultures is basic.
The world of coffee is a vast, varied and multifaceted world in which everyone can find their own way and where one path does not exclude the other.
There are many ways to drink and appreciate quality coffee: single-serve, moka pot, filtered coffee, specialty coffee or perhaps an espresso at the “bar”.
Countries that until a few years ago were far behind in terms of coffee evolution have skipped many steps and suddenly reached the level of countries where the culture of coffee is much more deeply rooted.
The “Italian bar” remains a model of great relevance for the values and the size of the offer: a universe of “bars” and cafés that perform a precious social function and that every year serve 6 billion cups of coffee.
But what will the “bar” of tomorrow be?
Tomorrow’s “bar”? Not just a place but a consumer experience.
Will it return to being the unmissable meeting of the community as it once was or will it become a hi-tech stage for the new hyper-connected generations?
Will it all focus on hybridization, transforming itself during the day to meet different consumption occasions or will it be a super-specialized place that will play all over one of the big trends, from single-product to free-from, from healthy to veggie?
The identikit of the “Italian bar” of the future is for now far from defined.
In the highly competitive market of the coming years, there will hardly be space for the “soulless” places, which will be increasingly relegated to marginal niches based on low prices.
In fact, often the point is not so much to open a place, but to be able to keep it open.
In essence, it is about being able to make one’s voice clear and definite above the “background noise”.
To ensure sustainable activity even in the medium to long term, the keys to good margins will be identity and recognition with respect to one of the “lifestyle tribes” to which consumers will follow.
Compared to an offer of products divided into different places, hybridization is no longer a trend but is now an acquired situation. In particular, it is reducing the gap between café and bakery to conquer the most valuable targets, like millennials.
Increasingly, shops are integrating cafeterias or vice versa. A combination of fast purchase and consumption means a longer stay and therefore an increase in sales probability.
And then places where what the customer consumes directly can also take it home to relive the experience. This concerns high quality and “made in Italy” products, in which the protagonist is the controlled ingredient and the producer.
In this scenario it is above all on the image and the detail that the differentiation is played out.
The most promising hybrids are those that offer an experience that deeply touches every meaning, to leave an indelible memory.
The opportunity is to interpret the different needs with the right product.
But of course Italy is a very differentiated country and trends are not the same in different geographical areas.
In the South, the traditional “bar” is still very rooted and, as an evolution of the “Italian bar” in the coming years, more than hybridization could be a greater care of the quality of coffee, with the appearance of different methods of extraction, to which they must be educated first the baristas and then the customers.
Quality, identity, clarity on the targets to which we want to address seem to be the key words to present themselves as a consumer experience across the board, from design to ingredients, that the consumer can feel akin to his “tribe”.