Between (alleged) racism toward the mug and tradition, the Canadian who brought specialty to Milan looks to the Italian coffee sector. Confirming what we knew, with a few surprises.

We are the country of the eternal first wave. After inventing that technological miracle that is espresso coffee and having been the top of the class for a long time, we stopped in a stubborn and haughty immobility, considering coffee as our thing and indeclinable. An immobility that over time began to show its limits, especially when the rest of the world has moved forward. The specialty world arrived in Italy quietly thanks to a handful of innovators. Then Starbucks came, a sign that the time was ripe for a change of perspective. 

We asked Brent Jopson from Orsonero Coffee how has the specialty coffee scene evolved since he opened in Milan in 2016 and what future lies ahead.

“The Milan specialty coffee scene has evolved at a slower rate than we expected but I think it’s starting to gain momentum and will continue to grow in the next couple of years. In our shop we’ve definitely seen a steady increase in the number of local people coming in to try filter coffee or single origin espresso and we’re also selling a lot more retail coffee and brewing equipment than we used to. While today there are still only a couple of specialty coffee shops in the city, there are an increasing number of traditional businesses like bars, pastry shops, and restaurants, that are adding specialty coffee service to their operations. I suppose this is keeping in line with the local coffee culture where, unlike in North America for example, there hasn’t traditionally been much of a separation between coffee and bar service. That said, I think we still have a long way to go to catch up to the rest of Europe, where most countries have seen strong growth in specialty coffee in the last decade.

I guess I thought it would grow faster than it has but, given what I now know about the coffee culture here, I can’t say that I’m that surprised. It’s a complex issue that’s probably beyond the scope of this article but essentially the problem is that it’s difficult to make money serving coffee in Italy and so it hasn’t been a very attractive business for entrepreneurs up to this point. Most people believe the reason for this is that the price of coffee in Italy is too low. While that is certainly an important issue, in my opinion it’s a bit of an oversimplification as the problem is multifaceted and has a lot to do with the coffee culture itself, namely the ways in which people consume coffee and the kind of experience they expect to have at a coffee shop. The Italian coffee culture is unique in the world and therefore it’s difficult to compare the rate of growth to other markets where specialty coffee has boomed in recent years.

I will say that I am surprised at some aspects of our business that have grown dramatically since we opened. Filter coffee for example has become much more popular than I first imagined. When we were still in the planning stage of our business, most people told me that it wouldn’t catch on because Italians had a sort of cultural bias against it. While there is certainly some truth in that, I find that many of our customers are very open minded about it. The fact is that it can be quite difficult for the average Italian coffee drinker to appreciate a lightly roasted specialty coffee served as an espresso; it’s just so far removed from what they understand espresso to be. Filter coffee, however, is something new for most Italians so people don’t have as many preconceptions about it. Furthermore, filter coffee is not a product of the local culture so Italians don’t feel the need to be protective of it in the way they do about espresso.

This is just one example of the way in which Italian’s are embracing specialty coffee and I think that we are going to see the emergence of a uniquely Italian take on specialty coffee over the next few years as consumer awareness increases and businesses adapt their service to what works best in the local market.

The global specialty coffee culture has become quite homogenous and it’s exciting to think that we might see something slightly different come out of Italy”.

Anna Muzio

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