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Pacific Northeast Beat by Liz Clayton
The Science of Coffee: Andrea Illy in NYC
Posted: January 15, 2008
Article rating: 8.3
feedback: (27) comments | read | write

Odds are good if you've had a cup of coffee ever in your life, you've had a cup of Illy coffee — or at least benefited in some way from the developments of the Illy family. Awarding themselves credit for five of the last century's most significant innovations in coffee, Illy's company of chemists and inventors can safely claim one of the biggest names in the industry.  Their scientific and democratic approach has afforded them not only a consistent and likable cup, but also a bit of shielding from the the level of revilement so often associated with the idea of Big Coffee.

Last month, the New York Academy of Sciences hosted Andrea Illy, Illy Caffé CEO, for a public lecture on the Science of Coffee, as part of their tantalizing Science & The City food series. The presentation mysteriously coincided with an Illy press junket at the Time Warner Center to announce the company's new Hyper Espresso machines (from within the context of a temporary cafe staged in a cargo shipping container!) The combination of coffee technology and art isn't a new thing for Illy, and the chemist-cum-executive's speech at the NYAS tried to convey that elusive and indeed, artful, charm of coffee through scientific explanation.

Click for larger image Click for larger image
Andrea Illy demonstrates the new Hyper Espresso machine inside the temporary cafe, the Illy "Push-Button House".
The Push-Button House container closing for business.

Of course, as detailed as you can get about coffee harvesting, roasting and brewing, there's no confusing the reality that why people like coffee to begin with is a subtler combination of factors that fall well beyond the possibilities for perfect preparation, and Andrea Illy wove these ideas throughout the evening's talk. Illy opened his lecture with this admission, explaining that the world of coffee is based on a "polysensorial experience", floridly adding that people are drawn to the quality of the coffee "and the beauty that shoots around it." The Illy company philosophy then, lies in the meeting point of trained science and the search for the greater beauty of the coffee experience — though that night, in a tall tower in Manhattan's financial district, Illy himself stuck largely to PowerPoint and science, in plain language that even the not-yet-caffeinated could understand.

After a quick tour through history, Illy geared his talk towards contemporary practice and issues: blending, electronic sorting of beans, the Illy sourcing method, and the company's training centres, the University of Coffee, which will soon have trained 10,000 people worldwide in the preparation of Illy coffee.

The lecture fused basic physiological questions with the social: why do we drink coffee? What are the physical responses? And to a lesser extent, how does the coffee industry facilitate, and capitalize on, these responses?

Noting that caffeine is the "most widespread pharmacologically active substance", Illy addressed some of coffee's physiological charms — its effects as a vasoconstrictor, a diuretic  (hastily adding "that's not sexy"), and its potentials as an anti-carcinogen and in mitigating certain diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. He downplayed the potential drawbacks of coffee, asserting that caffeine withdrawal was not a "confirmed" medical phenomenon, and that overcaffeination is rare — i.e., our bodies are smart enough to self-regulate and tell us when to stop for the day. (Well, maybe his is.)

Click for larger image
Andrea Illy dropping some coffee science to members of the NYAS in December 2007.
Click for larger image
A coffee chemistry PowerPoint? Hells yeah!

Combining both social and pharmacological motives, Mr. Illy pointed out that in Scandinavian countries people drink a lot more coffee — but they also drink a lot more alcohol. "There's a compensating effect," said the chemist, adding that it's also, you know. Cold up there.

Of particular interest was Illy's guided through the processes in coffee that lead us to particular tastes: how washing coffee develops fresher and fruitier notes, the formation of coffee aroma through the roasting process, the reaction of sugars within a Maillard reaction, and so on. From off-gassing to decaffeination, the audience of scientists and coffee enthusiasts were led through the factors that make and break coffee: all those tiny little steps from plantation to cup, which as much as science can explain them do not remove the romance and mystery of the drink itself.

So beyond the nuts and bolts of how how much caffeine is in a luongo shot, and how many chromosomes are in an arabica bean versus a robusta, Illy kept returning to the notion that coffee is more than simply a physiological agent and that it's tied up in the essence of human nature itself, the need to socialize and be part of an act of something beautiful.

"Coffee is the official beverage of culture," said Illy, insisting the substance makes people not only more social but more creative. It's a drug of sensory pleasures and friendly ritual, the sum of physical pleasure and intellectual stimulation shared among peers.

Yet he wouldn't be a businessman if he weren't a businessman — and Illy confidently devoted a segment of his presentation to lauding his company's developments in coffee technology — most recently the Hyper Espresso automatic machines the company had promoted earlier the week in Midtown.

Click for larger image
The Illy Hyper Espresso home-use cartridge machine.

"Espresso is a nightmare in terms of preparation," explained Illy. "To grind, to dose, to tamp," he lamented, adding that the process is "messy" and "inelegant".

To this end, the company's invention allows the home user to insert a plastic capsule into a special machine, which then infuses it with water to produce an espresso extraction. The idea is to produce a consistent taste by eliminating more and more of the variable factors in espresso preparation — and if there's one thing Illy coffee is after it's that consistent taste.

Whether the future truly holds more automated coffee preparation methods that improve flavour remains to be seen. But for now, the Illy people are trying to make consistency, and even robotic preparation methods, an art form. And even if that's not your thing, there's no denying they're doing a pretty good job of that.

You can listen to a podcast of Andrea Illy's lecture at the New York Academy of Sciences here.

Andrea Illy took a moment to sit down with CoffeeGeek for a little Q&A while he was in New York City. Here's how it went down.

CoffeeGeek: This year's container-ship cafe and last year's temporary Illy cafe space in New York City both emphasize Illy's focus on art acts as well as coffee. How do you see this combination of interests in art-architecture and coffee as working together?

Andrea Illy: We are not focusing on tradition only; we are focusing on tradition and innovation, there is always art and science, tradition and innovation, so if you are only focusing on tradition you get old! You constantly have to challenge and rejuvenate tradition through new initiatives. The reason for these initiatives are because they're experiential — and can contact many people. Once it has been seen, it's time to change. Like the circus. It's a daily circus.

CG: Your new Hyper Espresso system is based on disposable plastic cartridges. How does this fit into your company's models of sustainability?

Illy: It is recyclable! All the packaging produced by Illy and all the materials are recyclable. It's either metal or plastics, which are the most recyclable materials on the planet; plastic can be recycled over and over and over and over.

There are two ways plastic can die, either it is recycled, which depends on the consumer — you have to have collaboration from the consumer side. The other is thermal valorization. Because plastic is a combustible, it helps heat the temperature in the garbage...you can get energy from it. There is a lot of energy now which is generated by waste, and plastic is only positive. In this case instead of using oil to burn directly, you burn plastic, plastic helps increase the burning capacity of the waste.

The other reason why the cartridge is plastic is because there is actually an injection, the valve is a silicone-B injection, an injection of the two different plastics in the same part which is something you can only do with plastic. The last reason we use this is because it's transparent and you can appreciate what is inside, which is the pure coffee. People want to know what is inside.

CG: Illy only makes one coffee. Can you talk a little bit about your espresso blend?

Illy: There are nine ingredients in our espresso blend, sourced in 14 different countries, so we can make possible substitutions. Nine ingredients allow us to have the perfect balance because we have the chocolate and almond flavours typical of the Brazilian coffees, and you have the flowery and fruity notes typical of washed coffee both of Eastern Africa and Central America, that help us balance acidity with bitterness. And the fact that there are nine ingredients allows us to have a very good stability over time, because our goal is not only to make the best coffee possible but to make it always the same level of quality. And technology will help us get the same level of consistency not only in the packaged product but in the cup. The nightmare for the consumer is, "How do I get a consistent cup?"

We are global, working in 140 countries, and the marketing mix is always the same all over the world, starting from the Illy blend which is absolutely the same all over no matter where you consume it. The reason why so many countries enjoy pure Italian espresso is because they want to get the real thing.

Italy is very much perceived as a country of coffee for good reasons. A lot of coffee was developed in Italy starting from coffee consumption in the mid-seventeenth century, evolving into cafe bars. There is a cafe for every 400 citizens in Italy, passing along the coffee technology. In Italy the most popular way to prepare coffee is espresso in the mokpot or Napolitana. Coffee culture is imbedded into the population, in tradition and history. That means that the authentic Italian experience is the promise of [the Illy] product.

When we design products, we always think of two countries: Italy and North America. Because North America is quite different in terms of sophistication, in terms of culture. So the job is to convey total Italian authenticity and quality in a way which is consistent with American consumer behaviour and demand. So it must be clean, it must be simple, it must be consistent, it must be reliable, it must be beautiful, it must be authentic.

If you succeed both in Italy and North America, you have a good chance of succeeding anywhere else.

CG: In Italy, where do you go to get coffee?

Illy: At home! For breakfast I use the moka, which we developed a new system with in partnership with Bialetti, and then immediately after breakfast I start getting my espressos, here or at the bar with a professional machine.

CG: Thank you for your time, Mr. Illy — and don't forget to take us up on that New York City cafe crawl next time you're in town!

Article rating: 8.3
Posted: January 15, 2008
feedback: (27) comments | read | write
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