My Rouses Everyday, March | April 2018

When Luigi Lavazza opened his grocery store in 1895, radio had not yet been invented and Puccini was writing La bohème. To the west, post-Impressionists seized the art world, and names like Cezanne and Gauguin filled the void left by Van Gogh and Seurat. Bookshops carried the new works by Tolstoy, Kipling, Verne and Salgari. And in his little store, Lavazza began experimenting with imported sacks of coffee and roasting them for his Torinese clientele.

Good coffee is as much a part of the Italian culture as linguine or pesto. To survive — let alone define — that culture is a sign of just how good Lavazza’s coffee was, and remains. He pioneered the practice of blending coffee. Like wine, a coffee bean’s natural aroma is drawn from a region’s soil, water, climate and weather. A trip to Brazil confirmed this for him, and Lavazza went on to explore the chemistry of coffee and the happy intersections of regional flavors. Soon the little Lavazza store on Via San Tommaso garnered a following far beyond the town of Turin. Lavazza was a man of his time, elevating coffee into art, and giving the world something it had never before experienced.

The Family Business

In 1927, Luigi Lavazza incorporated his burgeoning coffee company, and the long and lonely journey of the coffee bean — from South America to Europe to Northern Italy — suddenly became one mile too short. It wasn’t enough to reach his shop, where Luigi might test blends and find harmony. The coffee now had somehow to get to the homes of his customers and countrymen. Lavazza learned to carve a corporate path that involved sales, packing, shipping and marketing. It wasn’t enough to build a business. He was building a business that scaled, a business that would last.

And last it did. Today, Lavazza dominates the Italian coffee market, and is the seventh-largest roaster in the world. You’ve probably had it while traveling abroad, or plucked it from a local grocery store shelf: ground or whole, espresso or decaf. Twenty-seven billion cups of Lavazza coffee are consumed annually, and it can be found in 90 countries.

For a company to cross the century mark and reach those sorts of numbers, it has to have figured a few things out. Part of the coffee’s longevity is the Lavazza name. While Luigi puzzled together first a little market and later a coffee brand, he and his wife raised a family. A daughter and two sons came into their own alongside the company, and were raised hearing about blends and roasts and learning about the lands where the beans took root. Luigi’s children eventually came to control the family business; then his grandchildren, and then his great-grandchildren. Love has kept the company going, thriving — and daring, where faceless conglomerates might have taken safer roads.

There were setbacks along the way, and lessons yet to be learned. Picasso was still painting when the company nearly went bankrupt in the early 1970s. A turn of harsh winters wiped out the Brazilian coffee industry and threatened to take the enterprising importer down with it. Tricky negotiation and a lot of luck kept Lavazza afloat. In the early 2000s, recovered and thriving, the Lavazza family slowed and looked at the conditions of farm workers abroad who make blends possible. What they found was not always pretty, and the family started the Giuseppe and Pericle Lavazza Foundation and a coffee project called ¡Tierra!, dedicated to raising the standards of living in developing nations.

How To Drink Coffee

Here is what you can expect from a cup of Lavazza coffee.

The Lavazza Single Origin Santa Marta ground coffee blend comes from one place: Colombia. It is 100% Arabica, which refers to the coffee plant of origin (in the same way that Merlot or Syrah refers to a variety of grape). It is a medium roast leaning toward dark, full and nutty with chocolate notes.

Gran Aroma is a straight-down-the-middle medium roast. This is a good coffee to start with. Before you drown it in cream or kill it with sugar, give it a go on its own. You’ll notice a distinct absence of that bitterness you find with the cheap stuff. This coffee will surprise you. If your palate is up for it, try to find the coffee’s citrus undertones.

Lavazza’s Gran Selezione is a dark roast. A coffee’s color — light, medium or dark — is determined by the length of time its beans were roasted. Lighter roasts will hit you over the head with a coffee’s origin — you’ll know immediately, for example, if you’re drinking coffee from East Africa versus South America — whereas dark blends are all about the coffee’s aroma and flavor: chocolate or woody or tobacco, and so on. Gran Selezione has distinct dark chocolate notes, and is non-GMO and Rainforest Alliance Certified, meaning the beans were harvested in an ecologically and socially sustainable manner. Finally, you can feel good about something in your life.

Perfetto is an espresso roast, which is dark and characterized by obvious caramel notes. In taste and mouthfeel — that is, its aftertaste and body — this is the most Italian of the lot. The easy question to ask when choosing this roast versus another is: “Do I like espresso?” If the answer is yes, you know what to do.

Like wine across vintages, there is no set and permanent flavor of coffee. As the Earth changes over time, that which we pull from the soil will reflect these changes. Any coffee company’s aims are a consistency of roast and an artistry of blend. To that end, Lavazza, with one foot planted in the 19th century and the other in the 21st, keeps its traditions alive at the Lavazza Training Center, headquartered in Turin and with 50 branches around the world. Part history course, part laboratory and part master class in roasting, tasting and preparation, the Center teaches new employees the “old ways” alongside the new, so that new traditions grounded in the Lavazza legacy might take root and grow.

Style, culture, borders and mores are ever in motion, and yet we still listen to La bohème, admire Cezanne and read Jules Verne. We walk through the Met and admire the cat made by Giacometti. Picasso is both gone and here forever. While all this was happening, and 123 years after Luigi Lavazza elevated coffee into art, we still buy it, drink it, and commune with the land and hands that brought it to our table.

You Are Probably Eating Biscotti Wrong

Do you dip your biscotti in your coffee? At home, nobody will judge you, but in Sicily, you might get a few glares. Every culture takes its cuisine and food culture seriously. You eat nigiri with your hands, not with chopsticks. You never fill a wine glass more than halfway. There’s no reason you can’t eat a cheeseburger with a fork and knife, but it feels wrong when you see it at the next table.
Italian food culture dictates that biscotti, or cantuccini, is dipped traditionally in Vin Santo, a Tuscan dessert wine. The taste and texture of the two treats complement one another. Biscotti is very hard on the teeth, and is helped along by a sweet drop of the stronger stuff. After dinner, once plates are cleared away, coffee comes last, and alone.

logo for Italian Trade Association