Like inked art on a barista’s forearm, high-end cafes are showing up everywhere. On both coasts and in the middle, over the past two decades Americans have embraced better brew, turning what was once a tiny niche into a mighty market. Nearly half the coffee consumed in the United States today comes from specialty beans ranked well above the commodity grade that once was standard. Don’t believe me? Just take a tour of cafes near your office. Or walk down the aisle of your supermarket and check out what’s for sale. In Northern Europe, Japan, Australia, the same story: Specialty coffee rules.
But in Italy? In the land that introduced generations to the transcendent possibilities of a perfectly executed espresso or cappuccino, specialty coffee is not a thing. Who needs change when you already have perfection?
Now an American entrepreneur — an American! — is trying to (politely) persuade Italians that their beloved cafe espresso needs an upgrade. Sounds preposterous? Not when you realize the American is Kent Bakke, the recently retired CEO and majority stockholder of La Marzocco International, the Italian company that helped spread the gospel of specialty coffee by selling gleaming handmade espresso machines around the world.
Based in Seattle and Florence, Bakke understands that many Italians and visitors cherish the memory of an espresso or cappuccino perfectly executed by a barista and consumed standing at the bar. “Espresso,” he says, “is more than a beverage. It’s an experience.” He wants to perpetuate that memory and that experience. But first, he says, change must come. “What we are doing,” he told me in Florence, “is trying to bring modernity to Italian coffee.”
So who is this guy who thinks Leonardo needs a refresher course in painting? “Kent has spent decades as espresso’s unofficial ambassador,” says Peter Giuliano, chief research officer for the Specialty Coffee Association. “Back in the late ’70s, when the specialty industry was just starting up, he introduced Americans to Italian coffee and the Italian coffee culture, the way Julia Child and Jacques Pepin introduced us to French cuisine.” The coffee community “respects and loves him,” Giuliano adds, and they believe his motives are pure.
Specialty coffee, in case you are confused, refers to high-quality beans with cupping scores of 80 or above for which roasters pay 25 percent or more above the commodities rate. The beans used to make espresso can be specialty grade or not; traditionally in Italy they are not. Technically, espresso isn’t even a kind of coffee; it’s a brewing technique developed more than 100 years ago for making coffee quickly (espresso means quick) and cheaply (more flavor is extracted from fewer beans). To make a traditional Italian cafe espresso, nearly boiling water (between 190 and 197 degrees F) is forced through seven grams of finely ground coffee, under 9 bars of pressure, for 25 to 30 seconds. The result: 2½ viscous ounces of fragrant coffee topped with a layer of honey-colored foam called crema. From this small cup, a mighty cult has grown.
Bakke’s passion for espresso helped drive the explosive rise of specialty coffee in America that began in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s. He gave the industry a huge boost in 1984 when as a La Marzocco distributor, he figured out how to adapt his machines to accommodate Starbucks cups. That advance enabled Starbucks to make and sell Italian-style cafe lattes and other espresso drinks. Starbucks bought all its machines, some 3,000 of them, from Bakke, until 2003, when the company switched to automatic machines.
Espresso’s Italian connection gave the specialty industry its stylistic edge: baristas jockeying sexy machines, drinks with names known only to insiders (ristretto, macchiato), cutting-edge design, latte art, cool T-shirts. But it was the culinary focus of the specialty industry, with its curiosity about terroir (the impact of place on flavor) and roast styles and its emphasis on experimentation, that gave espresso in the United States, northern Europe and elsewhere its forward momentum, far beyond Starbucks.
In Italy, there has been little forward momentum. Italians live by the old rules. Dinner is eaten at 8 p.m. Cappuccino is consumed before noon. A shot of espresso costs one euro. (Many believe the price is set by law, but La Marzocco marketing director Chris Salierno calls that an urban legend.) “When I started in this business, Italian coffee was it!” Bakke remembers. But as coffee prices worldwide went up, coffee quality in Italy went down, with some roasters adding more and more inferior-grade robusta beans that Bakke explains “are genetically different” from the superior arabica beans.
Of courses, Italian coffee is not a monolith. Illy, which has a huge worldwide presence, continues to roast 100 percent specialty-grade arabica coffee. Says SCA’s Giuliano, “I object to the portrait of Italy as the country that has lost its [coffee] soul . . . There’s still magic to be had,” he says, recalling a recent visit to the small Tuscan city of Lucca, where he happened upon a small cafe across from a school roasting its own arabica, selling “utterly delicious espresso and cappuccinos.”
Still, Bakke says, “There are important advances that Italy is missing out on.”
Bakke is not a guy who pops off for the fun of it. He is a down-to-earth Pacific Northwesterner who wears a goofy red wool cap visiting espresso bars on a damp, wet day in Florence. Raised in Modesto, Calif., he graduated from a small evangelical college and then moved to Seattle. Like his father, he loved tinkering with machinery and preferred to work for himself. In 1974, a new college graduate, he discovered a “mysterious brass thing with a vertical boiler” in the kitchen of the Seattle sandwich joint he and two friends had just bought. At the time, Bakke recalls, “there were maybe eight espresso machines in Seattle.” He became the go-to repairman.
Touring Europe in 1978 — and curious to learn more about espresso machines — Bakke showed up unannounced at the La Marzocco factory outside of Florence. Piero Bambi, son and nephew of La Marzocco’s two founders, gave him a tour, proudly explaining the company’s recent technical advance: two boilers per machine, one for steam and one for coffee, to ensure temperature stability. Bakke returned to Seattle with two machines. “It took me a year to sell one.” Then Starbucks exploded, and soon the factory couldn’t keep up with demand. More than a decade later , Bambi, needing cash and lacking an heir, allowed Bakke to open a La Marzocco factory in Seattle on the condition that Bakke buy the company. Bakke put together a group of investors who bought 90 percent of the company, and he was named CEO.
As for upgrading Italian espresso, Bakke plays a long game. “I sense stirrings,” he says, seated at Ditta Artigianale, a specialty-style cafe featuring the sorts of coffee drinks available in Seattle, Copenhagen or Melbourne. Rather than blends, roaster/owner Francesco Sanapo, Bakke’s friend and mentee, sells single-origin coffees from named farms at all three of his cafes. “Things are changing,” Bakke says. Italian young people “are exposed to a whole new world of coffee when they travel, and they bring that knowledge home to Italy.”
A few years ago, Sanapo was one such traveler. The son of a coffee bar owner so traditional he insisted his son sweep floors for 10 years before touching the espresso machine, Sanapo left home to learn the family business. After a year or two as a barista, he entered Italy’s national barista competition and came in dead last. That’s when he got serious about learning his craft. He won three Italian barista competitions, began competing internationally and traveled extensively, visiting coffee farms in Latin America and cafes and roasteries in the United States, learning, among other things, about the culinary possibilities of lighter roasts. Not everyone is thrilled with his international style of roasting. “One Italian roaster accused me of spitting on the plate where I eat,” Sanapo says.
Sanapo believes Italians can be persuaded by the contents of the cup. Such was the case with a customer who visited his newly opened cafe in 2014 and was shocked to discover that Sanapo charged 1.5 euros for espresso. “‘You are a Mafioso, a thief!’ the customer screamed at me,” Sanapo recalls. “Eight months later, I see this guy out the window. I go out outside and offer him a coffee for free.” One thing led to another and now, “He loves my espresso and is my best customer.”
Salierno, the marketing director, says other “great micro roasters” are popping up all over the country. “Espresso originated in Italy,” he says. “Now it has been internationalized, and best practices are being brought back from outside. . . . We are on the eve of a huge change here. I’d put my money on it.”
La Marzocco’s leaders — new CEO Guido Bernardinelli, Bakke and Salierno — find it ironic that their company has experienced annual growth of 20 percent over the past decade, but not at home. It now produces 18,000 hand-welded espresso machines a year that are fetishized by baristas in 92 countries — including some who get tattoos featuring La Marzocco’s lion logo. But in Italy, sales are flat.
At the same time, in September, Starbucks will open a giant roastery and several cafes in Milan.
“I think in Italy we are where we were in the States 10 years ago,” says Bakke. “People don’t get specialty yet, but they will.”
In the meantime, Bakke, newly remarried and newly released from the daily grind of being CEO, has been thinking about burr grinders and single-origin espressos, wondering how to optimize their individual flavor profiles. He has been thinking about the biology and biochemistry of coffee; La Marzocco, at his behest, has just donated $750,000 to the University of California at Davis, to help fund coffee science research. As he has every day since 1974, he’s been thinking about espresso.
Weissman is a freelance journalist who lives in Chevy Chase, Md. She is the author of three books, including “God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee.”