Market Reports

Bringing specialty coffee to Italy

The irony of a Brit telling an Italian he can teach him or her something about espresso hasn’t escaped David Veal. As Executive Director of the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE), however, Veal is perhaps better placed than most to do just that. When the World of Coffee heads to Rimini this June, and will host the World Barista Championships (WBC) in Italy for the first time in nine years, Veal is hoping that the event will make its mark on Italian coffee culture. “The Italian market is coming to an interesting point,” says Veal. “While it’s still dominated by traditional values, thanks to the fantastic work of our members in Italy, people are starting to realise that there are other ways of making coffee other than the traditional Italian [way].” Whether it’s moving away from a high use of Robusta, introducing lighter roasts, or elaborating on ways to brew coffee other than espresso, Veal sees ample potential in the Italian market to incorporate specialty trends. He’s now hoping that hosting the WBC in Italy will help spread the values of specialty coffee. “The inception of the WBC was about educating people, spreading knowledge and enthusiasm about coffee,” says Veal. “It’s done that and also taken on a life of its own. For people who are passionate about coffee, this is their platform to share that passion.” Veal has witnessed the ability of the WBC to achieve this aim first-hand during his time running a wholesale specialty coffee business in the United Kingdom. “My customers would use the WBC as a way for their staff to improve their skills,” says Veal. “These baristas would go, and whether or not they did well, they would always come back really enthusiastic about coffee. They would go as competitors, and come back as champions of coffee.” Focusing efforts on Italy is part of a three-year strategic plan for the SCAE. As a pan-European organisation, the board has chosen a few select countries to focus their current efforts in terms of membership drive and education. Now in the second year of its strategic plan, the group’s efforts in Italy are going well. Come this June, when it hosts World of Coffee in Rimini, Veal says Italy will have the highest membership numbers of any of its member countries. Choosing to focus its efforts on key regions was a necessary move for the SCAE in dealing with so many countries. While many people may speak of a “European” coffee market, such a diverse population naturally makes it anything but homogeneous. “It does really add to the richness of it,” says Veal. At the home ground of espresso in Italy, Veal sees ample potential to improve a coffee culture that – although well entrenched – is far from its potential in offering quality specialty. “We’re seeing a lot of resistance, however there are a number of predominantly young coffee professionals who are looking to improve the quality of espresso coffee,” says Veal. One challenge that will be difficult to overcome will be the cap on the price of an espresso. With the general market understanding in Italy that an espresso should not cost more than 1 euro, Veal explains that operators simply aren’t motivated to invest more in their coffee, if they can’t charge any more for it. It would seem that the greatest challenges for the SCAE might lie in countries with the strongest coffee cultures. In 2012, the SCAE held the World of Coffee event in Vienna, Austria, a city known as the birthplace of the modern coffee house. The SCAE worked closely with the local coffee house association, and Veal says much of that work was trying to educate those coffee houses on improving the quality of their coffee. “These coffee houses are beautiful, but the coffee is not very good,” says Veal. “But these places are full of tourists all day, so why would they change?” It’s these market realities that present unique challenges the SCAE, and why the organisation is putting education on the top of its list of priorities. In 2011, it introduced a coffee diploma program, and has since issued an impressive 16,500 certificates. This is good news for Coffee Kids, an origin-country focused charity, as one euro from every one of those certificates issued is being donated to the group. The SCAE will introduce a third level this year, so participants can study either Foundation, Intermediate, or Professional level. “Our aim is to offer an accreditation system that employers will recognise,” says Veal. “We’re seeing lots of people who are starting to look at coffee as offering the potential for a long-term career.”
With the barista already an established profession in Italy, Veal now has his work cut out for him in introducing specialty teachings into the mix. “We’re hoping to leave at least a small mark,” he says.

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