Italian coffee history begins at the Salerno medical school when texts written between the 10th and 13th centuries mentioned the dark brew. Probably due to the high cost, coffee disappeared from Europe completely thereafter. Only in 1615 did Venetian merchants again bring coffee beans to the European continent.
At first, coffee roasting, grinding, and boiling was an art passed down from parents to children. The three processes went hand-in-hand. It was only in the 1960’s that coffee roasting (torrefazione) separated out from the rest of the brewing process. The reason: the invention of the tin can. The tin can allowed coffee to stay fresh for longer periods, so roasted beans could be transported over wider distances.
Enter the business of coffee roasting.
Today, Italy has more than six hundred coffee roasting companies. Competition is stiff and roasting recipes remain proprietary. Roasting companies buy their beans from wholesale distributors who acquire either raw Arabica beans (sweeter) or raw Robusta beans (more bitter) from countries in South America, Africa, and Asia. Thereafter, roasting companies create their blends using computerized machines that fill a large warehouse.
The art of roasting is complex. Companies must select their original mix of beans. They must choose the right temperature for roasting. They must decide how long to roast the beans. All this together creates a roast that gives off more than eight hundred flavors and aromas.
For the individual coffee drinker, the question becomes how to choose the right roasting company. The answer is equally complex, but if café owners are any indication, here are some things to know. Café owners in Italy use three main criteria in choosing their roasters:
- They tend to buy local;
- Roasters need to be family owned and run; and
- The company should have a long history–if they’ve been in existence for several decades, they are considered higher quality.
Café owners usually have placards both inside and outside their establishments telling customers which roaster they use. The roasting company then supplies the cups, saucers, and bean grinders that display their logo.
Southern Italian coffee has a reputation for using both Arabica and Robusta beans. Their blends are darker, stronger, and richer, tasting like semi-sweet chocolate. The North uses almost exclusively sweet Arabica beans, making their coffee lighter.
The most important part of selecting a brand of coffee roast is understanding a bit about taste. Coffee flavors are divided into low, medium, and high notes. Like well-educated sommeliers, coffee tasters must distinguish from flavors that range from acidic to sweet. They use terms such as bouquet, caramel, chocolate, creamy, bitter, astringent, fruity, rancid, or cherry to describe coffee blends.
Lavazza in the north and Café do Brasil in the south are probably the two best known roasters in Italy. But there are many more, including Tico, Castorino, Toraldo, Kenon, Izzo, Caffen, Passalacqua, Borbone, Moreno, and Greco. Smaller roasters, however, tend to sell only to café owners, so you’ll have to make a visit to Italy in order to enjoy their particular flavors. But mmmm. It’s well worth the trip!
How many coffee flavors can you distinguish?