Luca D. Majer
Coffee  Music  and Other Things  

Italy will be lobbying to obtain for real “Espresso Italiano” the TSG (or “Traditional Speciality Guaranteed”) status accordingly to the European Union norms. Many rejoice. Nevertheless the road to international recognition will be hardly paved with smooth stones. Will it be a useful journey, too?

Espresso as "A solid light" (photo: courtesy of Tuttoespresso)


Standards –to which I tend to reconnect EU schemes such as the TSG- do not define state-of-the-art technology. They are a normative plateau upon which different interest groups agree, in order to maximize their returns. A political meeting point of consumer and industry agendas.

Our transalpine friends, the French, were the first to use laws against mendacious product-representation to the public, in 1824 - but it was not until the end of the XIX century with its epidemics of Phylloxera and the increase in dishonest users of the “Bordeaux wine” denomination, that  this issue became relevant and carefully scrutinized. Only after the Crimean War (in the latter half of the XIX century) and its steep rise in wheat prices, Chicago wheat traders showed an interest in setting standards for their commodities, to avoid uneven quality in their supplies.

In 1990 I witnessed the development of a European industry standard when, as Chairman of the EVMMA (the European Vending Machine Manufacturers’ Association), I suggested to issue a software protocol between machines and payment systems, i.e. coin-acceptor, change-giver, card reader, etc. Then hell broke loose. We approved this technical standard only after furious discussions, and –funny to remember- a voting session where by mistake the Council meeting endorsed the standard with a 66% majority even if it needed 75% (nobody argued, probably too stressed out to read the Association’s Statutes.) It was thus an un-sufficient quorum that allowed the MDB/ICP to become the (now famous) world-standard for vending coin-mechanisms.

Standards require measure, similarly to our lives. That is: where do we draw the line, between “good” and “bad”?

“Real Italian espresso” has been a tedious argument of insidious intent amongst roasters, and -as such- ludicrous rules of thumb have been popularized to define it. Think of “the 4 M’s” (in Italian: “macchina, macina, miscela, manico” that is: machine, grinder, blend and skill) or the merrier “3 C’s (in Napolitan: “Caz… come coce” that is: “f…, it’s really hot”.) Boutique roaster Gianni Frasi had a more extravagant definition, when he noted that espresso was the only coffee bearing on top “a golden disc”: “a solid light (…) sign of the coming of the celestial Jerusalem”.

Fact is that any coffee appropriately brewed under pressure by machines built after WWII will meet the 4 M’s, the three C’s  and even bear a metaphoric Jerusalem on its top. Sensorialists like Ted Lingle or Luigi Odello, sprinkling the topic with quality,  have suggested to draw an “edonic line” and define espresso by the sensorial pleasure delivered to the drinker. Great move, if you ask me.

But standards represent interest groups, hence requisites welcomed by some might be scornfully commented by others. Granted that a “real Espresso Italiano” will only use non-Italian coffee (Italians –since Mussolini’s occupation of Ethiopia- have no local coffee plantations), all the rest is debatable, including  defining as “Espresso Italiano” an espresso coffee brewed by an Ethiopian bar-tender in Buenos Aires, with India-roasted Bourbon-Arabica beans prepared in a Taiwan-made espresso machine.

STG “Italian Espresso” will probably follow guidelines similar to the ones used by process-certifications, the path beaten by standard-oriented coffees such as the Fairtrade ones. It said that it will take years. Should then “Espresso STG” use too-wide guide-lines, or be defined with rules pleasing to one particular interest group, coffee connoisseurs will not be caught off-guard: they already know that you don’t follow norms when seeking state-of-the-art espresso coffee.

Bob Dylan had said it some forty years ago: “You don’t need a weather man to tell which way the wind blows”.


(Published on Comunicaffè e-magazine, July 14th, 2009;