The Current

Why some Italians are calling for UNESCO World Heritage status for their espresso

A group of Italian politicians and industry professionals argue espresso should be given UNESCO World Heritage status, because it's an intangible part of Italy's cultural history.

Consortium argues that the Italian drink, and the rituals surrounding it, deserve World Heritage status

Turkish coffee and Neapolitan pizza already have World Heritage status, but now a group of Italians want espresso added to that list. (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images)

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Normally when you think of UNESCO, you probably think of the safeguarding of iconic monuments.

But in Italy, two groups are asking for World Heritage status for something close to many Italians' hearts: espresso.

In Rome earlier this month, a group of usually-clashing members of parliament banded together to make the case to UNESCO that the tiny cup of dark, bitter liquid — and the rituals that surround it — are an intangible part of Italy's cultural history.

"We need to have this fantastic beverage recognized as immaterial heritage of humanity," Maria Chiara Gadda, an MP with the Italia Viva party, told The Current

"In Italy, coffee is sociality, it's tradition, and it is a manner of production. So we need to distinguish ... traditional Italian coffee [from] other coffee," she said.

The groups pushing for espresso to get World Heritage status argue the drink is an intangible part of Italy's cultural history. (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images)

Neapolitan pizza already has a World Heritage listing, as does Turkish coffee. 

And the Consortium for the Safeguarding of Traditional Italian Espresso Coffee — the industry group that is working with politicians to lobby for the UNESCO status — argues that the unique specifications of Italian espresso make it deserving of that designation itself.

The consortium makes those specifications very clear: among other rules, a cup of espresso should be made with seven to nine grams of beans, making 13 to 25 millilitres of liquid coffee. The espresso must be brewed within 20 to 27 seconds. The cup itself must be warmed and made of porcelain.

And, perhaps most importantly, it must be topped with crema, that light, rich froth that forms on top of a proper espresso. To pass the test of a real espresso, the crema "must be uniform and persistent for at least 120 seconds from the time the coffee has been dispensed without stirring," according to a news release.

The culture of Italian coffee

It's not just the beverage itself that the consortium wants to preserve. It's also espresso culture.

"When we talk about the ceremony to Italian traditional espresso coffee, we talk about three key words: democracy, forms of sociability and generosity," sociologist Massimo Cerulo, who the Italian politicians have enlisted to bolster their UNESCO case, told The Current.

A crowd gathers by the bar at Caffè Gambrinus in Naples, Italy. (Megan Williams/CBC)

Italian espresso is about democracy, Cerulo said, because people come together at the coffee bar and speak with strangers who might be very different from them. In Italy, he said, "the concept of [the] public sphere is born in the coffee house and born in front of a little cup of coffee."

Unlike in Canada, the Italian coffee shop is not somewhere to go to pull out your laptop, put your head down and get work done. "Free Wi-Fi is a concept [that] today is not common to [the] concept of Italian espresso coffee," Cerulo said.

And most people don't drink their coffee sitting at a table with a friend, or ordering a paper cup to go. They're far more likely to down a quick espresso at the bar. 

Servers behind the bar at Naples's iconic Caffè Gambrinus. (Megan Williams/CBC)

In Italy, a 1911 law allows municipalities to set a maximum price for "coffee without service" — that is, standing at the bar — and it rarely costs more than $1, making a quick coffee surrounded by strangers the norm.

It's that sort of ritual that makes "a public space where a lot of people can talk about several arguments without [thinking about their] differences about class, about culture, about the financial situation, about religion," said Cerulo.

Economic motivators

There is, in part, an economic reason to try to get World Heritage status for the drink, says Jonathan Morris, a professor at the University of Hertfordshire in England and the author of several books on coffee, including Coffee: A Global History.

As coffee capsules and fancy "hipster" coffee gain dominance around the world, Italian producers hope the UNESCO initiative "will enable them to maintain their position, not just in the Italian market, but also in the world market — because obviously that's where the profits are to be made at this point," said Morris.

Paying a coffee forward in Naples

The same week that the consortium launched its coffee campaign in Rome, a different group in the southern Italian city of Naples put forward their own, separate bid to get Neapolitan coffee recognized by UNESCO.

The Neapolitan group argues that the local culture surrounding coffee, which often includes spending time over a coffee at home in the morning with loved ones, is separate from the high-speed coffee culture of northern Italy, and deserves special recognition.

"There are comedians who do skits showing how the Milanese get dressed and do four other things while drinking their morning coffee," said Francesco Emilio Borrelli, a regional politician and the head of the Neapolitan coffee group pushing for this separate heritage status.  

"In Naples, it's the opposite. It's about relating to those close to you," he said.

Included in the Naples bid is a tradition that some local cafés have been trying to revive, known as caffè sospeso, or "suspended coffee."

Antonio, 68, comes to Gambrinus often for a caffè sospeso. People can pay for an extra coffee and put the receipt in a bronze pot. Later, someone like Antonio can come in and use the receipt to get a free coffee. (CBC/Megan Williams)

The idea is that you pay for two coffees, but you leave the receipt for the second coffee in a big container at the café. Later on, someone else can come by and use that receipt to get a free coffee. 

Traditionally, "it was an anonymous gift for someone who came by later and couldn't afford a coffee," said Gennaro Ponziani, manager of the iconic Neapolitan Caffè Gambrinus, which claims to be the birthplace of the caffè sospeso.

When Caffè Gambrinus celebrated its 150th anniversary 10 years ago, it decided to bring the caffè sospeso tradition back to life. Now the practice is being picked up in some other coffee shops in the city.

Antonio, a 68-year-old man from Naples, told The Current that he comes to Gambrinus nearly every day to get a caffè sospeso

"I've had some bad luck in life, so I'm glad for this tradition," he said. 

Reported by Megan Williams. Written by Allie Jaynes.