Italians are definitely serious about their coffee. Most will have at least three cups of coffee a day. People often have a cappuccino in the morning. And many, many small cups of espresso, shots if you will, throughout the day. A shot of espresso can of course take different forms: a macchiato, a corretto, a ristretto, a lungo, and many more. At the center of any Italian coffee experience though is always a high-quality espresso. It is used to create all the other coffee-based drinks. To make authentic espresso, it is essential to use good quality Italian coffee. Check out a short summary about the history of Italian coffee below. Or jump straight to the tips that explain what to look out for when trying to buy the best Italian coffee. By keeping just four factors in mind, it should be a breeze. You already know that espresso can be very healthy, so go ahead and enjoy. Buon caffè!
Coffee in Italy
Italian coffee culture goes back to the 16th century. That’s when Italians started importing coffee to Europe via the big port in Venice. The first coffee houses started springing up soon after. However, the specific type of Italian coffee known all around the world today as espresso, did not become a thing until much later. Most people credit Turin’s own Angelo Moriondo for the method and patented kind of machinery that was able to quickly make a concentrated shot of coffee. His 1884 patent was the first of its kind for a steam-powered coffee machine. It inspired many, many different versions throughout the years. In 1938, a coffee bartender from Milan called Achille Gaggia filed the first patent for a steam-free coffee machine. His was the first machine that produced espresso with a small layer of cream-like foam on top called crema. Until today, this is the mark of a good espresso.
These days, Italy is synonymous with high-quality coffee. In fact, Italy’s influence on the world of coffee has become something of a global phenomenon. Most of the common coffee beverages are Italian if you think about it. Espresso, cappuccino, latte, macchiato, and mocha are just a few examples.
So, Italian coffee is definitely a thing. However, coffee is not actually grown in Italy. The beans are imported from big coffee-growing countries like Brazil, Vietnam, and Ethiopia. Italians instead have become known for the roasting of coffee beans. Coffee companies in Italy have been in the business for many, many decades now.
As you can see, there is nothing “Italian” about the coffee bean per se. But the way coffee is processed, roasted, and then consumed has everything to do with Italy and Italian coffee culture.
Your Guide to Buying the Best Italian Coffee
Factor #1: The Roast
As mentioned above, Italy does not grow coffee. For coffee to be labelled Italian then, the beans have to have been roasted in Italy. On the label it should state this specifically. Alternatively, if the label includes “Made in Italy”, this also implies the coffee was roasted here.
Italian roast does not refer to geography only. The term can also refer to the style of roast. In fact, the Italian Roast is one of the most popular roasts of coffee beans. So, if you’re looking for authentic Italian coffee, make sure the label says “Italian” or “Neapolitan” roast. An Italian Roast results in a bean that is very dark brown (almost black) in appearance, with a shiny surface (thanks to the oils of the bean). The flavor of coffee brewed from Italian Roast beans is very strong. This makes it perfect for espresso and espresso-based beverages. It is low in acidity and tastes kind of bittersweet. There tend to be also some burned or charred undertones. Italian Roast coffee contains less caffeine than beans that are roasted for shorter durations.
Factor #2: The Freshness
Ensuring freshness is important when purchasing Italian coffee. The best way to do that is to buy whole roasted beans. Then, you can grind them at home just before brewing the coffee. Not only does that result in tastier coffee, whole beans also tend to be fresher when sold. That means that you are less likely to end up with a stale batch when you buy the whole roasted beans.
Something else to keep in mind is that coffee beans start to become stale the moment they are roasted. This is why local coffee tends to be fresher than imported varieties. However, you can ensure that the imported Italian coffee is reasonably fresh by checking two things:
- The packaging. Look for secured tins or vacuum sealed packs. And never buy a large batch that might end up sitting around unused. It will grow staler and staler by the day.
- The roast date. Authentic packages of Italian coffee will almost always have a roast date listed. This roast date specifies when the coffee beans were roasted. If no roast date is listed, you can check the ‘use by’ date instead. But a far away “use by” date it is not as powerful an indication of freshness as a recent roast date.
Factor #3: The Preferred Flavor Profile
Two of the most common and popular coffee varieties are Arabica and Robusta. Both come from different regions and offer different flavor profiles. Arabica comes mostly from South and Central America. The taste is aromatic and rich, with hints of sweetness and acidity. Robusta comes from Asia, Indonesia, and Africa. The flavor profile is described as more on the bitter side. That’s because Robusta has a lot more caffeine than Arabica. And caffeine is bitter.
Experiment a little to find out which one you prefer. Many experts say that there is no contest. Arabica is the favorite. It tends to be slower and harder to grow and is more expensive – and easier on your taste buds. You’ll even see “100% Arabica” on many high-quality coffee brands. The fact that this is used as a point of distinction indicates how wide-spread the thought is that Arabica is a higher quality coffee bean than Robusta.
Italy imports coffee beans from all across the world and Italian coffee is available in both Arabica and Robusta flavor profiles. There are also many Arabica/Robusta blends. A quick look at the ingredients should tell you what your favorite coffee brand uses.
Factor #4: The Brand
Something else to consider is the brand. Many people play it safe by sticking to well known, top-quality Italian coffee brands. These best sellers include:
- Lavazza: Lavazza is probably the most popular and well-known Italian coffee brand. One of their slogans even is: “Italy’s favorite coffee”. Lavazza’s coffee beans come from South America. Coffee blends range from Robusta-Arabica mixes to 100% Arabica.
- Illy: Illy is another very famous Italian coffee brand. They produce a single signature blend, which is roasted to different stages (i.e., roast styles). Their beans come from India, Ethiopia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Brazil. Illy states on their website that they only use Arabica beans. This makes them one of very few coffee brands that do not use Robusta beans at all.
- Segafredo: Another massively popular Italian coffee brand is Segafredo. They have an annual turnover of around $1.2 billion. The company has branded coffee shops in airports worldwide. This has increased their brand recognition everywhere. Segafredo acquires their beans from Brazil, Peru, and Costa Rica. They even have their own coffee bean processing plant in Brazil. They use both Robusta and Arabica.
- Danesi: Founded in 1905, Danesi coffee comes in five signature blends. It has garnered worldwide popularity because of how easy to drink their coffee is. Their different blends use Robusta and Arabica beans.
- Kimbo: Backed by 50 years of experience, Kimbo is an Italian coffee brand that is growing in popularity in both Northern Italy and throughout the world. Kimbo uses Brazilian beans. Their coffee is served in many fancy European coffee bars. Kimbo’s different blends use Robusta and Arabica beans.
If the coffee you are considering is from a smaller brand, try to find out a little more about them. How long have they been around? Where do they get their coffee beans from? Do they roast the coffee beans themselves? Or does somebody do it for them? You can find excellent coffee made by a smaller company. You just have to do some digging to find out more about them.
One of my personal favorites is Cagliari, a local coffee producer from Emilia Romagna. They roast their coffee about once a week I think. Sometimes l smell it when driving by their company. Freshly roasted coffee… What a smell! I’ve even been to their mueseum that showcases beautiful old coffee machines from around the word. And amazing big coffee machines from Italian bars from way back when. Oh, and I attended an afternoon-long class on how to taste coffee at their museum. So, obviously, now Cagliari is the only coffee you find at my house.