I first travelled to Italy when I was 18. Along with my two best friends, and my girlfriend we bought an interail ticket and journeyed by train from Slovenia, down to Venezia, over to Verona, through Firenze, to Sorrento and finally Rome. I was only really into latte art then but had a fairly good sense of what espresso should be, at least in UK and Ireland terms. I sadly had that young barista arrogance where I’d snob entire cafes just because their grounds chambers were full, regardless of how nice the space might be. How I didn’t notice that practically every grounds chamber in Italy was full is beyond me.
But it wasn’t all bad. I remember noticing how I never got the big long pale shots that sadly still swamp the market here. The shots were short and the extractions seemed good. But what stuck in my mind the most, was the cappuccinos.
On my last morning in Italy, I was waiting for the Ryanair flight home in some small airport outside Rome. There was a small cafe bar at the gate with a semi automatic 2 group, a grinder, a fridge with a few sandwiches and a barista. Its likely that I was recovering from the previous night’s last night drinks, but I remember that wasn’t the reason I ordered around 4 cappuccinos in a row. They were so small, so sweet, and so wonderfully not boiling.
So essentially I always had good memories of coffee in Italy. As I learned more about coffee I think I probably thought back on some of the technical practices in Italy and ultimately labeled the country’s coffee scene as good but a little sloppy. So it was very interesting to have the opportunity to go back to Italy and not only re-check the scene, but do so at a coffee exposition.
As mentioned in the previous post, I was working for Glasgow based EspressoWarehouse, who are a sister company of MatthewAlgie Coffee Co. and who in turn distribute Elektra machines in the UK. So the deal for Trieste was that I’d be working on Elektra’s new concept K machine and making drinks for any customers Espresso Warehouse might have. Fool around on a prototype machine and play with the latest espresso parephenalia? Yes please.
We flew in last Wednesday and were picked up by Frederico (Mr. Elektra) and went straight to the Elektra Factory. It was a public holiday and so apart from a few guys, the place was closed up, leaving the place free for us to stroll about. I’ve never seen a neater or cleaner factory ever. (I’ve probably visited around 4 factories ever, but still) Frederico showed us some very old, very beautiful machines and it was interesting to see just how significant Elektra’s role was in espresso machine development. For example, they own the patent on the three way solonoid valve. They prioritise the look and style of their machines as much as they do the function.
Unlike other companies they also build every part for their machines, even down to the screws. They might not be my first choice of machine but I was pretty excited about their new grinder. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures of it but if I were to open a cafe tomorrow, this would be the grinder of choice. (300 rpm, conical, doserless, a very steep chute and particularly fancy, a built in fan under the motor.)
We finished the evening with a fantastic meal and a few glasses of wine around Treviso, including one house wine for only 70c, which amazingly wasn’t bad. The following morning we were picked up by Elektra and travelled to Trieste.
The show wasn’t huge but then that was kind of a relief in itself. The new machine is still a prototype and so some parts were still cast in plastic. As you can see, both steam wands and the hot water dispenser are on one side, which is intended to better facilitate two baristas working simultaneously. I loved the toggle steam switches and as far as I know this is the first machine with a built in water filtration system. It analyses the water and adds or subtracts nutrients, also notifying you if it needs a cycle. Another variable looked after it seems.
I didn’t see many exciting new products save a few nice cup designs and the odd new pitcher. Reneka had a new machine which at this point all I’m qualified to say is that it was very pretty. I saw a few nice tampers from Coffee consulate and Steffen Schwartz very kindly gave me a nice 54mm tamper which I need for the Dalla Corte currently installed in the cafe.
I also luckily got a chance to check out a fantastic old machine exhibition in the city centre. Jim’s already talked about this on his blog but I need to say too that some of the machines were just beautiful. The artistry that went into them far outdoes any modern machines on the market. Even this early Cimbali got me. I love the lines and the colours.
So how was the coffee? With 6 years in the coffee industry did I still see the Italian coffee scene as good but sloppy? Yes and no. I got a lot of weird looks for grinding each shot to order, flushing between shots and taking such care in my distribution and leveling. One criticism I was glad of though was when I was making my milk too hot for my cappuccinos. I generally make my cappuccinos a little cooler but evidently not cool enough. Since getting home I’ve tried going cooler but feel now that I still like around 135f – 140f.
I think the general standard in Italy is far better than any other country I’ve visited. There is an understanding of what espresso should look like and roughly taste like. Obviously there must be competition baristas who are aware of wbc standards and practice them in their cafes, but you get the clear impression that Italian coffee has been the same way for quite a while now and really feels no need to change. And thats fine with me. Its something worthy of a lot more discussion but alas I need to sleep.
check my trieste and elektra sets on flickr for more pics