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The making of Caffè del Bar

25/11/2014

A Trip to Italy – the making of Caffè del Bar


We’re not going to hide that we’re biased here. We love Italy and we love coffee – so if some of the things we’ll be saying sound like a love song to one or the other, we just hope that you’ll understand.

To some people happiness means lying on the warm white sands of a tropical beach, to others it means a good concert, or a great fishing trip. Our version of paradise is staying at a bar, trying a great espresso, surrounded by friendly, open people, fresh coffee and the smell of pastries amongst wonderful architecture, and that can only be in Italy. That happiness is something we experienced first at a very young age and has been with us ever since.

After more trips to Italy a good while ago, we made a little discovery. Whereas in most other countries a bar or club or restaurant will have outside a sign bearing their own name or the name of a sponsoring drinks brand, in Italy each bar, caffetteria, pasticceria, and many restaurants have signs bearing a coffee brand. It was clear to us that Italians love coffee, but this showed us just how important coffee was for everybody in Italy. Unlike coffee found elsewhere in the world we realised that Italy is not dominated by a few global brands but has a great many smaller regional roasters.

After this realisation, we started exploring bars as a way to explore as many coffee brands as possible. Once we started exploring new cafés and new Italian espresso brands, we starting wondering how many coffee brands are there really in Italy? Their variety seemed staggering. We had our first idea for creating something around the joy of Italian coffee. We wanted to create a book as a complete encyclopedia of Italian coffee brands. We thought that we would research each brand, write an article on each, and bring life into the articles with photography of the bars where the brand is served. It was our way of sharing the happiness that we found in sipping so many Italian espressos – each slightly different from the other – in so many nice cafés.

So we spent our first euros on what was to become Caffè del Bar (without knowing we will get there) buying the Coffitalia Directory, a book that lists every single coffee roasting company in Italy. We were shocked: there were over 700 coffee roasters in Italy, from international (like Lavazza) to national, to regional, to the very local. We did a simple calculation – if we were to write the encyclopedia of Italian coffees, then spending just 2 hours on each of the 700 would have meant that this book will be a full time job for a person for a year at least. Since we both have day jobs, this was never going to be a practical option. We didn’t feel we had that time or the patience for such an undertaking, so the project was relegated for our retirement years, but the idea of creating a sort of living record of the Italian espresso culture stayed with us.

With this exploration we learned however something more important. That not all Italian coffees or bars are equal. To the delight of the coffee enthusiasts, any bar in Italy chosen at random will offer an espresso that’s much better than the average coffee one can get anywhere else. But we noticed there were coffee brands and blends that gave an espresso much richer and subtle in flavor than other brands. Similarly there were bars who were able to produce a superior espresso to others, using exactly the same coffee. The question that came to our mind at that point was how can one possibly find out which are the best coffee brands of Italy and which are the best bars to enjoy this coffee?

This curiosity lead us to explore further. We’ve read a lot of the literature published in Italy and abroad about Italian espresso and about the Italian bars. That’s how we finally came across a number of Italian institutions dedicated to separating the best from the rest. Among the most important, there is the Istituto Nazionale Espresso Italiano (INEI). This is an association that set standards for the Italian espresso quality and its members are mainly roasters (large and small) and coffee machine manufacturers. A key member of INEI is the Istituto Internazionale Assaggiatori Caffè (IIAC, or „International Coffee Tasters Institute“) who is a scientific body that researches the sensory (or organoleptic) characteristics of espresso, and attempts to create diagrammatic representations of taste for different coffees and blends. They are a sort of scientific custodians of coffee tasting notes in Italy. Importantly, IIAC organizes every two years since 2006 a well recognized international coffee tasting contest where hundreds of coffee blends are competing. An internation expert jury, in blind test conditions , picks their choices for the „best Italian espresso“.

We also discovered the bible of the very best Italian espresso bars or cafés – a guide called „Gambero Rosso Bar d’Italia“. It’s not available online, and is published annually in Italian. The guide scores each bar for coffee quality from 1 to 3 „coffee beans“ and the overall bar quality from 1 to 3 „coffee cups“. The guide scores about 1500 bars in Italy which is already a selection of the best, since the country has hundreds of thousands of bars, caffetterias, pasticcerias and others serving espresso. Any bar, café or bistro in Italy who’s ever been mentioned in the Gambero Rosso guide for its coffee will proudly display the sticker or diploma very proudly and visibly, as restaurants do with a Michelin Red Guide mention.

At this point, the idea for Caffè del Bar (which in Italian means simply „the coffee of the bar“) in its current form appeared. We would create a website that would present the best Italian bars, and we will introduce to coffee lovers the coffee brands used. This is our way to share with like minded people the happiness of having the best espresso in the best Italian cafés. It was instantly apparent that we were not going to have the time or financial resources, at least not from the start, to cover bars across the whole Italy, from Como to Palermo, and to get all those coffee brands. That’s because we were clear that we needed to visit each bar in person, taste the coffee, experience the atmosphere, observe the clientele and the surroundings, understand their history, culture and context , and to take pictures to be able to have our own point of view.

We would start small by covering a certain part of Italy, and if we were successful, we would go further. That’s why our website at the beginning covered cafés in Milan, Turin, Genova and Como. Other regions will follow as soon as we’re able to do our reaserch, take the trips to visit the bars in the next region, speak with their roasters, select the right products and expand the logistic chain. Once we decided on the four cities in northern Italy that we were going to start with, we got to work.

First, we’ve called over 60 bars in those cities, selected from the ones that scored at least 2 out of 3 in the Gambero Rosso most recent classification, and asked what coffee brands they’re using. The people there were usually very open and proud to share that information with us. Then we contacted the roasters that supplied those bars and agreed with them a selection of their best products that we would buy and have ready in stock for our clients. From each roaster we selected the coffees that those bars use, plus others of the very best quality, many of them award winning.

We also had to make some difficult decisions in product selection. Firstly, every roaster has their coffees available as whole beans, ground or capsules. We decided that we’ll only select their whole beans coffees – the quality of freshly ground coffee is unsurpassed. This is simply because ground coffee starts losing its flavor as quickly as 15 minutes after it’s left in contact with air. Coffee beans can be stored much longer after the bag is open, and that is a quality guarantee for a coffee lover.

Also, not all coffees used in Italian bars are available for sale outside that bar. There are bars (and we respect them for their choice) that have a particular blend designed uniquely for them, and they don’t want to sell those coffees other than in that bar. Fortunately, most of the best bars use coffees of the highest quality that we could obtain from the roasters, even if some of those coffees are relatively unknown or come from small local roasters. It is this very careful selection of coffees that we are making available to our clients on our website.

This is „the making of“ Caffè del Bar and we’re excited to share it with you. We’ll be always happy to share our inside stories from the wonderful world of Italian espresso and we can’t wait to go further with our exploration. The thought that we will sometime soon see Italian cities north to south from Venice, Triest, Padova and Bologna to Rome, Napoli, Bari or Palermo fills already our hearts with joyful anticipation.

Your Caffè del Bar team