Lessons under the green tree

by Carlo Odello

Trainer and member of the board of the International Institute of Coffee Tasters

The world of coffee shops in Italy is afflicted by a widespread lack of planning. A small number of coffee shop owners know their business and are able to plan and are joined by hordes of operators living hand to mouth. Although outside Italy the situation is not always at its best, it really depends on the country taken into account, you generally meet sharper operators who think in real terms of marketing.

GREENTREECaffè is one of these cases. Vittorio Ventura and Dana Hruba have created a chain of coffee shops in Bratislava; to be precise, five coffee shops in only two and a half years, in a very competitive market such as Bratislava. The Slovakian capital has only half a million inhabitants but is a remarkable tourist crossroads surrounded by Vienna, Prague and Budapest. This is why at least two other chains other than GREENTREECaffè exist, everyday playing “the coffee battle” in the city. It is obvious that the staff at GREENTREECaffè plays on Italian espresso and related products.

GREENTREECaffè is now the first Permanent Training Point of the International Institute of Coffee Tasters in Central Europe. The coffee shop in Venturska, with a splendid room with hundred-year-old vaults, within the last few days has entered into the International Institute of Coffee Taster’s network, bringing the number of the Permanent Training Points to 28 (four of which are outside of Italy: Stuttgart, Dneperpetrovsk, Tokyo and now Bratislava). To inaugurate the Institute new embassy, on Saturday 5th November a Espresso Italiano Tasting course was held to license new coffee tasters, which followed the course held last year by GREENTREECaffè. 

Vittorio Ventura receives the plaque for the GREENTREECaffè’s new Permanent Training Point in Bratislava. Photos of the new PTP are available on our Facebook page.

Italian espresso abroad: training will save us Italians

by Carlo Odello *

Some people still believe that simply by virtue of being Italian we are entitled to talk about espresso with greater authority than others. It is a comforting thought cherished by many. And yet it could not be further from the truth, at least in some of the markets much coveted by us Italians.

Let’s take Japan, for example, a country that loves Italy and its products: the food, wine, fashion, history (because history is also a product that has to be sold through adequate marketing; who knows, perhaps sooner or later some of our politicians will wake up to this fact). Italian espresso therefore has an advantage over the other products. And yet let no one believe for a moment that being Italian is enough in itself to sell coffee in the Land of the Rising Sun. The Japanese are careful buyers: their selection of products is extremely accurate, long and complex. But once they choose a product, they stick to it faithfully, unless of course the supplier himself turns out to be unreliable.

Let’s take the USA, which have a very strong home market boasting thousands of coffee roasters. The specialty coffee and the so-called Third Wave dominate the market. And the West Coast, from Portland to Vancouver via the legendary Seattle, is a stronghold of espresso made in the USA (but luckily there are exceptions, such as Caffè Umbria which stubbornly and successfully continues to offer the tradition of Italian-style espresso). So let’s face it: the Americans are only relatively interested in Italian espresso.

What is the best way to enter both the Japanese and the American markets? Training, of course. The Japanese want to have certainties rather than half-truths. They want to have the tools to judge the quality for themselves. For this reason they appreciate the tasting courses designed to teach how to assess the quality of Italian espresso. As for the Americans, we just need to explain to them our espresso: the training periods are therefore vital to explain to them the importance of our seven grams per cup, of our 25-millimeter extraction, the centrality of the blend, and so forth.

A student of mine, who is a celebrity barista, told me recently in California: “The coffee tasting course has opened my eyes on what you Italians mean by espresso”. There are still many more eyes to be opened. And only through training can real culture and experience be passed on. The rest is important but nowhere near as effective.

P.S. Talking about training: from 18th to 20th May there are advanced courses in Brescia run by the International Institute of Coffee Tasters.

* Trainer and member of the board of the International Institute of Coffee Tasters

Canada: customer protests for a coffee, banned for life from a coffee shop

He protested three times because his coffee seemed burnt. In reply he was banned for life from the coffee shop. This is Jimmy Craig’s misadventure in the Canadian chain of stores Tim Hortons.

Canadian media reported that Craig had complained because his coffee seemed a burnt brew. At first he talked to the manager, then with the owner. That, under a local law, handed him a letter with which he  warned him not to set foot in the coffee shop again. "This is not the way to treat people", commented seemingly the owner.

(Carlo Odello)

Italian baristas, smile: you are already in the future (if you want to be)

by Carlo Odello *

A flash of lightning across the serene sky of the American coffee scene: Starbucks, the giant of the 16,000 cafes scattered between the four corners of the earth, gambles its name.  As Jason Daley’s optimal article for Entrepreneur Magazine reports, this summer the colossus from Seattle opened a new cafe.  However, it was not called Starbucks; instead, they named it, "15th Ave Coffee and Tea," decorated in a completely different style and operated by a completely different mindset than the traditional cafes.

Why would an international chain whose very trademark became its driving force, a shamelessly global business that serialized the cafe concept, suddenly try to play it local?  One simple motive: it needs to return to the community and connect to its territories to make the consumer perceive it in a different way.  It is no longer the great homogenous chain, the coffee empire over which the sun will never set; instead, it is becoming a social place in service of the community.

The good news for Italian baristas: you are ahead of Starbucks. You are already local, you already serve your communities, you are already part of the social fabric; more accurately, you help build it.  Besides, the Seattle colossus admitted it: Italy is a difficult market, with a capillaceous presence, rooted and diffused in its tens of thousands of cafes.  Frankly put: a nightmare for the commercial logic of Starbucks.

The bad news for the Italian baristas: you are behind Starbucks.  Most of you do not do any marketing whatsoever.  The overwhelming majority of your cafes all look the same: even though they are not part of any chain, they are still characterized by that conformity typical of franchises, almost always offering the same banal and homologous products.  And yet, one could do so much more with very little: in addition to paying closer attention to the coffee, which wouldn’t hurt anyone, why not start thinking of ways to make these cafes truly unique?

Dear Italian baristas, take from Starbucks a different way of marketing. You have the advantage of being local, something for which the American giant now aspires. One step further and you will be in the future.

* Trainer and member of the board of the International Institute of Coffee Tasters

There is a market for the single origin. Or maybe not

By Carlo Odello and Giorgia Lavaroni 

Blend or single origin in the future of coffee? Which is to say: do consumers perceive the difference or a single origin market will never exist? This is an interesting question which involves the entire process, from production to roasting and to HoReCa. A pilot study conducted by the Tasters Study Centre in collaboration with the University of Padova made an attempt to provide the first-ever scientific answer to the question.

In order to test whether or not consumers perceive the difference between a blend and a single origin, 350 tastings have been made in Padova according to the methodology defined by the International Institute of Coffee tasters. On the tasting table there was a blend of pure Arabica with seven components and four pure origins (Santo Domingo Barahona Toral AA, Ethiopia Sidamo, Colombia Armenia Supremo and Haiti XXXXX). The group that did the tastings was evenly distributed between males and females with an age comprised between 18 and 64. Two thirds had a senior high school diploma or a university degree. In terms of jobs, 23% of them were self-employed, 21% employees, 15% students, 14% pensioners, 11% blue collars, 8% housewives and then other categories. The consumers-judges have been able to distinguish the blend from the single origin, in a statistically relevant way, preferring it to the single origin. They, however, demonstrated a considerable interest in “pure” coffees.

According to the study, there has been a remarkable evolution of the coffee consumer, more and more unfaithful and at the same time increasingly focused on taste to the extent that we can assume a considerable success of innovative consumption: the coffee menu at the restaurant, new niches in the bar sector, selection of the type of coffee based on your own sensory pleasure and on the time of the day and even new rituals in the family.

Operators from the sector were too extremely interested in the research. Even several roasters point out that there has been an evolution of the consumer who is increasingly more attentive and curious. The direction in which it is moving is not definable yet, however it is true that, in a society in which there is an increasing number of people who have a knowledge about taste, the quest for new sensory experiences involves also coffee. «We live in an era in which the consumers are increasingly more attentive, selective, aware and difficult to be conquered – says Roberto Morelli, director of the Università del Caffè – and their not being faithful, quite rightly highlighted by the study, is a challenge for those who make a bacon of quality and look for their loyalty through it». This is also a nice opportunity for those who are involved in training on coffee and on qualitative excellence. «There already is an audience interested in and motivated by these issues – Morelli carries on saying – Also from this point of view, I believe that single origins will generate in future more of a cultural interest, even curiosity, rather than a real consumption trend».

Some attempts to introduce single origin coffees in bars and restaurants have started been made some time ago. Caffè River has installed in some bar san additional coffee grinder in order to give the consumer the opportunity to ask for a single origin espresso, with a choice – varying on a monthly bases – between Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Costa Rica and other Arabicas. «At the beginning, there was a certain interest, mainly driven by curiosity. This was detrimental for the standard blend which was cannibalised by a product which was perceived as being alternative to ordinary consumption – says Marco Dalla Ragione from Caffè River – In a short while, months if not even weeks, the interest in single origins weakened significantly without having even created a consumption niche alongside ordinary consumption ».

To support to what extent the market of single origins is still a controversial one, there is the extremely different experience of Evancaffè that introduced a menu of coffees in top notch restaurants. At first, clients were a bit wary, after which, the interest in single origins grew as years went by. It should be said that the enthusiasm and the desire to propose the single origins of the maîtres and of those who ran the restaurants played a crucial role in this. However, sometimes there is a lack of enthusiasm. «Based on my experience, Italian consumers are interested in single origins while, when it comes to coffee shops and restaurants, what you see is a complete lack of this sort of interest – claims Alessandro Borea de La Genovese – the single origins need to be ‘explained’ to the consumer».

Even for the large scale retail there are extremely different experiences. «Our interest in single origins is not recently born, we have a range of them which are having big success also in large scale retail– says Marco Comellini, marketing manager of Segafredo Zanetti – This is the sort of product you can sell without having to resort to the habitual promotional process». According to Comellini the consumers, rather than preferring blends to single origins, prefer having the opportunity to choose, on the coffee menu, the sort of product they want to drink in that very moment. So, while Segafredo Zanetti had a very positive experience, Vergnano is more prudent. «Distribution is very attentive to sales profitability so it’s extremely unlikely for it to afford to keep among its range products that do not attaint a certain level of sales volume – replies Francesca Panucci, marketing manager of Vergnano – Single origins will just carry on being a niche product which will give the opportunity to train consumers and to make the market evolve».

A very peculiar market, both in the HoReCa and in large scale retail. «Consumers are more attentive nowadays, they check and compare several brands and blends – says Fabrizio Polojaz of Primo Aroma – The curious consumers are fascinated by the single origins, more for the ideas they are connected with, rather than for a genuine desire to satisfy their needs». The key to this special market can be precisely these sensory needs. Only those who will be able to identify them will be able to enter or successfully stay in this market.

Dont’ trust the origin

by Luigi Odello

Secretary General of the International Institute of Coffee Tasters, he is also a lecturer at the University of Udine, Verona and at the Cattolica in Piacenza. In addition he is the Chairman of the Taster Study Center and Secretary General of the Italian Espresso National Institute

For the moment being it’s a niche, but we believe it’s bound to become big. We are speaking about single origin coffees. A recent investigation conducted by the University of Padova highlighted that also consumers are able to distinguish between a blend and single origin coffee. In this case too, from a sensory point of view, the winner, with statistically relevant results, was the blend. This clearly means that our roasters are truly very good at choosing coffees from all over the world, at making each type express its best characteristics and at creating unbeatable blends. However, there has been a genuine interest for single origins and this makes us think that this trend will lead to having a coffee menu at restaurants, a better-aware consumption of coffee at the coffee shop and to valuing the ritual of coffee at home.

The debate must be a serious one. Otherwise, the origin simply turns into a meaningless coat of arms thus losing its natural value. In this respect, the first thing to do is focus on how the issue is currently tackled: mentioning the origin conveys a false sense of homogeneity. Basically, when the end users read on a package “Brazil”, they immediately think that all the coffee from this big producer has its own common and homogeneous characteristics; specific features which make it possible to distinguish it from other coffees. This is not the case. But even when we speak about Guatemala Antigua, which is more specific, we cannot claim that there are specific traits which make it easy to distinguish it from other coffees of the same category. More than that, roasting methods have a major impact on the final result, something similar to the crucial influence that the fermentation technique has on the grapes and the type of wine. Put it in other words, we could have greater sensory differences between two coffees from Costa Rica which went through different types of roasting procedures compared to the differences between a Costa Rica and an Ethiopia which have been roasted in the same way.

So, if for wines there is Barbera (vine variety) of the Monferrato (area) of a certain producer, we should have something very similar for coffee. It is extremely important to never neglect the brand which conveys its philosophy and know-how to the final product. If we really want to value this new market segment, then the product should come with some explanatory notes on the specific characteristics of the origin, on the roasting methods and on the sensory traits that can be spotted when drinking the product from the cup. The info provided should be correct and mirror reality, it should not be general and some sort of poetry coming from creativity. A lot of work must be done on this: we are spotting severe mistakes with taste being mixed up with aromas and, especially, there is no correspondence between what is written and what is highlighted with sensory analysis. This disappoints the consumer and jeopardises not only the credibility of the reference but also of the entire market segment.

Schultz, Starbucks CEO: Italian baristas are very good, Italian coffee is awful

Howard Schultz, Starbucks CEO, was in Italy with a group of partners to study the coffee market in the country. In the last months he has been working on the repositioning of Starbucks, trying to face the threats coming from aggressive competitors as McDonald’s. Coffee Taster republishes the letter from Howard Schultz.

* * * *

Dear Partners,

As I write you this note, I’m flying back to Seattle with a small group of Starbucks partners after spending a few days in Italy. No, we were not there to open our first store in Rome, although I’m quite certain that day will surely come. We were there to conduct a market visit to take in “all things coffee,” and to have strategic discussions with leading food and beverage companies.

We tasted and consumed coffee in every coffee bar we encountered. We saw elegant designs, experienced the artistry of baristas, ate fantastic food, and were introduced to new and interesting product ideas for the future. It was exciting for me to, once again, return to where it all began. The Italian people are wonderful. Their passion for life, their love of food and wine, and their coffee, is contagious.

During our visit, I made the following observations:

The Barista — The Barista is highly trained and very skilled. He presents each cup of espresso with great care and pride after intently watching the pour of the shot. He steams the milk as an artisan to produce a velvety foam, and from time to time, truly elevates his work to “art.”

The Coffee — This will probably surprise you (and hopefully you will not view my assessment as arrogant, but rather as honest), but the coffee was not that good. It turns out that most Italian coffee roasters blend their coffee with robusta beans. This is most likely because of a need for increased profit, but as a result of this decision, much is lost in the cup. The coffee leaves you with a strong, acidic, somewhat sour taste on the side of your tongue. This taste was unpleasant and disagreeable, but prominent in almost all the coffee we tasted.

Despite the change in the taste of the coffee, the experience we had was overwhelmingly positive on both a personal and professional level. We all felt a strong sense of pride in our company and in all of you. For many years now, we have been a respectful inheritor of the Italian coffee culture. We have built our business honoring the very things we saw and experienced. And, in some cases, I am humbled to say, we have improved it.

All of you deliver a world class experience to our customers — one that I believe Italians would praise. We have challenges and opportunities ahead of us, but as long as we embrace our heritage and tradition, have faith in our coffee, our values, and our core purpose, we will continue to win the hearts and minds of our customers. As for the coffee, we never have and never will blend our coffee with robusta beans. We will leave that for others. It is important to note that today; we ethically source higher quality arabica coffee than in any other time in our history. And, in my view, we roast it at a quality level that is better than in the past because of new technology.

So, this trip brought me back to where it all began, but at the same time reinforced how good we are and how far we have come. We learned a lot. And, we will utilize much of this learning to keep pushing for innovation, while at the same time embracing our core, our people, and our coffee. All of which I am proud to say would stand tall even in the greatest coffee theatre of them all.

Thank you for all that you do.



Starbucks launches US nationwide education event

Launching the next phase of Starbucks ongoing efforts to transform the company and renew its focus on the customer, Starbucks today announced an historic in-store education and training event for its more than 135,000 store partners (employees) across the United States. The company will close each of its nearly 7,100 company-operated stores in the U.S. on Tuesday, February 26 at 5:30 p.m. local time to conduct a nationwide education event, designed to energize partners and transform the customer experience. Stores with evening hours will re-open at 8:30 p.m.

(Carlo Odello)