As Starbucks goes to Italy, Italian coffee culture reigns here
Coffee giant helped popularize Italian coffee brewing styles over others in North America
During your last visit to a coffee shop, the odds aren't too bad that you used an Italian word to place your order, whether it was asking for a "grande" coffee, or something fancier — like an espresso, Americano or cappuccino. You might have been served by a "barista."
So how is it that Italian coffee culture became so dominant in North America?
As Starbucks prepares to make its first move into Italy next year, some wonder what the company can offer in the homeland of espresso.
Starbucks largely helped to hook North Americans on the coffee culture of Italy — a country that doesn't actually grow its own coffee.
But North Americans have adopted the espresso — and the myriad of espresso-based beverages — which are based on the concept that the best coffee is brewed using a machine that sends highly pressurized hot water through tightly packed ground coffee beans.
It's a simple process, but one that has led to the advent of machines that cost tens of thousands of dollars and international skills competitions for the people who use them — like Rob Kettner.
He owns the coffee shop Hey Happy in Victoria, B.C, and won the 2010 Canadian Barista Championship. And while he's obviously a fan of Italy's coffee culture, he disputes the assumption that Italian coffee-brewing methods are the only game in town.
"I have much respect for the Italian way of making coffee and the culture," he said. "But if you ask them who the best football team is, they'll probably say Italy too."
Coffee culture remains highly regional
Around the world, there are dozens of coffee cultures — most of which remain highly regional, because they've never been commercialized.
In Vietnam, for example, brewed coffee is mixed with egg yolk, condensed milk and sugar. In Morrocco, it's brewed with spices. In Ethiopia, coffee is roasted by hand on stovetops before grinding, brewing and straining. The special preparation and brewing techniques of Turkish coffee are actually a piece of cultural heritage protected by UNESCO.
But to Italians, Starbucks doesn't represent their own coffee culture, said Rob Kettner, it represents their coffee reimagined through American tastes.
"It's not [just] coffee. It's a social house, it's an environment, it's a culture. It's a new-school way of getting maybe younger Italians on board."
In other words, Starbucks represents a loosening of rules around coffee making in Italy and Kettner thinks a loosening of rules may lead to innovation.
Japanese brewing gaining steam
Here in North America, for example, innovation has meant the recent embrace of Japanese brewing methods. While many coffee shops likely still have a big Italian-made espresso machine, some shops are also now bringing in Japanese equipment, like gooseneck kettles and elegant ceramic coffee drippers, which are tools used in a painstaking pour-over brewing method that has evolved in Japan.
Kettner is watching for Japanese-style brewing to go mainstream.
"It's happening already," he said. "There's a company in the Bay Area called Blue Bottle. They're looking at opening hundreds of stores. They just opened one in Tokyo, and people wait hours to get a coffee there."
So as Italians re-discover espresso at Starbucks, North Americans may soon be discovering companies like Blue Bottle, where Japanese methods are inching out Italian ones.