Italy, renowned for its rich history, art, and culinary delights, is not just a haven for pasta and gelato enthusiasts; it's also home to a growing coffee culture that is deeply intertwined with the nation's passion for quality and tradition. However, much of the coffee served in espresso bars and even in the best cafe's throughout the country are, in fact, mass produced, industrial scale, by one of just a handful of large producer brands, the largest, far and away being 'house brands' and 'illy.' The coffee these firms provide are not grown in Italy. For a country who 'love' their coffee, so much, this strikes us as, well, interesting. In this blog post, let's take a journey into the rolling hills of Italy where coffee plants can thrive, exploring the art of growing and cultivating coffee beans in this picturesque Mediterranean landscape, by small farmers introducing several new cross breed varities, specially adapted to the unique micro climates across the countries varied landscapes and 100% Italian.
The Italian Coffee Renaissance:
Italy's love affair with coffee is nothing short of legendary. While the espresso culture dominates the scene, the country's coffee enthusiasts are increasingly turning to homegrown varieties, cultivating a diverse range of coffee plants that thrive in Italy's climate. The shift towards cultivating coffee locally not only supports sustainability but also reflects the Italian commitment to quality and authenticity.
The Perfect Terroir:
Just as grapes flourish in specific wine regions, coffee plants, too, have found their ideal terroir in Italy. The combination of altitude, climate, and soil composition in regions like Tuscany, Sicily, and the Amalfi Coast creates a unique environment that imparts distinct flavors to the coffee beans. The result is a coffee experience that reflects the nuances of the Italian landscape.
Varieties of Italian Coffee:
Italy's coffee cultivation is as diverse as its regions. Arabica and Robusta varieties are the primary cultivars, with Arabica being favored for its nuanced flavors and Robusta for its robustness. Italian coffee growers experiment with various blends, creating a spectrum of flavors from the fruity notes of southern Italian Arabica to the bold, chocolatey tones of the robust Robusta beans in the north.
The Craft of Growing Coffee:
Italian coffee farmers approach the cultivation of coffee with the same dedication and expertise as winemakers tending to their vineyards. The process involves careful attention to planting, nurturing, and harvesting. Sustainable practices, organic methods, and a respect for the land are key components of the Italian coffee-growing ethos.
Local Coffee Festivals and Culture:
Italy's dedication to coffee extends beyond the fields to the heart of its communities. Local coffee festivals celebrate the art of coffee cultivation, bringing together growers, roasters, and enthusiasts. These festivals showcase not only the diverse coffee varieties but also the cultural significance of coffee in Italian society, where a cup of espresso is a ritual, a moment of connection, and a symbol of hospitality.
The Future of Italian Coffee:
Imagine a shaded plot on the ground of a nunery, in front of you, are rows and rows of green leefy plants, some plants stand over seven feet tall, clumps with red berries; some as tall as a man, a few plants almost thirty years old, three decades ago they were just tiny seedlings.
Back in the day when growing coffee in Italy was just a crazy fantasy. The first commercial coffee harvest on Italian soil took place over three decades ago. Rallying coffee lovers and farmers to fights against nature itself. Last year the commercial harvest was just 200 (LB) of coffee beans from coffee plants on Italian soil, Sicilian to be more exact.
The history very ornate, baroque coffee houses first arrived in Italy in Venice and was a product for the elite, a luxury for the upper classes, stepped in linen bags like tea to bring out their delicate floral flavors or the ground could be boiled right in the water to deliver something like the Turkish cup; either way there was no doubt something to be savored and enjoyed and as a rare treat for the ‘upper crust’ Even by the 18th century the experience of drinking coffee in Italy had very little in common with the kind of coffee one can find today on every corner of your typical Italian neighborhood.
For that we have to look at the relatively recent past, when coffee become just another product for your average consumer. It’s not really until the late 19th century when this social dynamic starts to change, when a new style of coffee start to converge with the growth of a new style of drinking, around the turn of the 20th century a lot was changing in Italy.
A lot of Italians, especially in the poorer souther regions were moving abroad, to the new world, especially to the growing coffee regions in Brazil. There they developed a taste for the stronger Robusta varieties and send beans back by the sack load to family in Italy, even though many coffee snobs saw the robusta bean as inferior to the delicate arabica beans of old, the ubiquitous nature of the robusta varietal gave the ITALIAN coffee the distinctive, ‘punch you in the guts,’ acidity.
Today, an irreplaceable part of the classic espresso flavor and at the same time as the new world gave the Italian coffee its flavor, it gave the Italian cafe its characteristic culture too. You get the rise of the what are called in Italy American bars, which are essentially cocktail bars but the thing about these, the American bar, the characteristic of these, the American bar is not a sit down cafe. As Italians fell in love with the cocktail bar, they fell in love with both Liquor and coffee and these type of establishments popped up on nearly every street corner, here speed and simplicity became a virtue of service power by the newfangled technology of the steam powered espresso machine which help to make the most of those robusta beans flavors, cafes become the places of after work drinks and smoke breaks deals, churning out cup after cup of cheap hot coffee which could be sipped and forgotten in a minute or less, still coffees and the culture around them were largely an urban and cosmopolitan phenomenon, enjoyment.
Enough so, that under fascism, Italy in the 1920’s and 1940’s actually band the import and sale of some coffee as a symbol of foreign dependence and decadency. After WWII as Italy rebuilt coffee took on a new meaning, again, during Italys miraculous recovery, major brands like Lavattza. Sponsored the setting up of dozens of neighborhood cafes and in the process changed the idea of coffee, yet again, as a cheap, plentiful energy boost for the urban working class.
Though some local brands survived, these national brands could easily import and process coffee at a fraction of the cost of the small family roasters and they benefited from laws from the First World War which allowed municipalities to set maximum prices for certain everyday essential goods, that made cheaper coffees a more attractive proposition for most cafe operators. So, you get the growth of the neighborhood coffee bars as the place which serves coffee as the relatively cheap drink for working people even today municipal authorities set the maximum price for a cup served standing at the bar, after years of high inflation it is still more or less the same price as it was a decade ago about 1 euro per cup, so its not really about quality essential it is about price.
The modern Italian attitude towards coffee is that all cups are created equal, that coffee should be cheap, but the big brands that have made that possible also have made it harder for smaller producers to survive and when they die out, a lot of knowledge is also lost. Meanwhile in Sicily, the tradition of thoughtfully selecting the best beans has lived on in a few small mom and pop operations. In a quest for the perfect cup, some producers attempts to onshore the growing of this hand selected arabica beans in Sicily, is quietly defiant in the shadow of the hundred year history of the big producers and their one euro cheap and plentiful coffee.
The few producers using Italian grown coffee take the red ‘cherries’ which green coffee is called, just of the plant, each ‘cherry’ has two bean inside. The roasters in this region have traditionally used a drum roaster, which can leave some beans unevenly roasted or burned, but recently a switch was made to a hot fluid air bed roaster which envelopes each bean in even electric heat and produces a better roast, bringing out the delicate flavors of the beans grown in Sicily.
The climate in Sicily, which is changing, rapidly, may be a hinderance to the large scale adoption of coffee planting on a much larger scale, next to the ubiquitous vineyards. In recent decades Sicily is undergoing unpredictable changes with regards to climate, it seems that each year is its own climactic outlier, in 2023 it was flooding caused by torrential atmospheric rivers, before a summer of wildfires which boiled the tarmac and destroyed vineyards across the region.
Despite these challenges, two eighty year old coffee plants survived the onslaught and come from the original seedlings brought to this regions some eight decades ago from Brazil, these plants have been grown in a well protected greenhouse which mimics the climactic conditions in the Ethiopian highlands (1200 AMSL). As Sicily’s average temperature rise and rainfall amounts increases, tropical plants like coffee may well be the future. After all the iconic crops of Sicily today, oranges, lemons even wheat, were all once themselves crops from foreign land, adapted to to Sicily by crossbreeding and the hards work of its farmers over generations.
Could a new way develop a new future, where Sicilian coffee could be a thriving industry of its own. In our lifetime we could see these experimental fields become something larger, a reimagining, a different visions of what can be grown on and in Sicilian soil. Can homegrown Sicilian coffee revolutionize not only its coffee culture, but its agricultural industry. We went to visit a warehouse in the foothills of Mt. Etna supplying Italian farmers with seeds for stone-fruit and other tropical plants like citrus.
A single plant can take up to five years to start producing a crop, right now, coffee plants need to start out in greenhouses to maintain the correct temperatures which are needed to be in a narrow band, especially during the first five years after germination. Italy may never be able to grow enough coffee to satisfy its own demand, not to mention enough stock for the export market.
Delicate floral flavors, the tropical flavors of Sicily, Italy has been the world leader of turning local produce, telling a detailed narrative about said products and turning that uniqueness into million dollar ‘brands’ Coffee may never be a major export, like Sicilian blood oranges.
But, imagine if you will going into the interior of a Sicily to a coffee farm next to fields of other tropical plants, lychee, oranges, papaya and in the shade of these other crops, coffee plants thriving under the Italian sun, you can see yourself taking a tour of this plantation and learning the history of this farm, its terroir, the local Appalachia, its volcanic soil and buying a bag or two of the farm-to-table produced beans to bring back to your at home brewer to make the perfect cup.
As the demand for specialty coffee grows globally, Italian coffee farmers find themselves at the forefront of a new era. The melding of traditional espresso culture with innovative cultivation practices positions Italy as an exciting player in the international coffee scene. With an emphasis on sustainability, quality, and a deep connection to the land, Italian coffee is poised to captivate the palates of coffee connoisseurs around the world.
From the sun-kissed slopes of Sicily to the verdant hills of Tuscany, Italy's coffee cultivation reflects a harmonious blend of tradition and innovation. As we sip our espressos in charming Italian cafes, let's not just savor the flavors but also appreciate the dedication of the farmers who cultivate the beans that make our coffee experience truly exceptional. Italy's journey into coffee cultivation is a testament to the nation's commitment to excellence, offering us a delightful taste of la dolce vita with every sip.
Six reasons for making Clear Lake Coffee Roasters - CLCR - your go-to coffee roaster:
☕️ We are a local family-run business located in the heart of Clear Lake, Iowa.
☕️ We go to great lengths to find only the finest and ethically sourced coffee around, from the top 2% of coffee beans in the world.
☕️ We only source 100% certified Arabica coffee beans, carefully hand-selecting each coffee based on specific quality and taste attributes.
☕️ Our roasting process has been refined over the years and each roast profile is individually designed to complement the nuances of the coffee we source, from Cup of Excellence (COE) award-winning producers.
☕️ By roasting in smaller batches, we can ensure our coffee is ALWAYS fresh, in fact, we roast your coffee only after you place an order - the same day your order ships out.
☕️ At CLCR, we are dedicated to a single mission: the unyielding pursuit of coffee perfection in every cup.
We would give you more reasons, but rather than reading it's better if you visit our website, purchase a bag or two, and experience a unique caffeinated or half-caff journey for yourself 😊!
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