Illy’s recipe for happiness

In its second annual Ernesto Illy International Coffee Award competition in October, illycaffé presented José Abelardo Díaz Enamorado with the prestigious award. After rounds of blind tastings, the competition’s independent panel of judges designated the coffee beans grown on the Honduran farmer’s plot in the western region of Erandique as the ‘Best of the Best’.

Enamorado and his wife have been growing coffee there since 1966. And for the first year, the competition included a ‘Coffee Lovers Choice’ award for the coffee tasted and selected by hundreds of guests at the New York City Food & Wine Festival, which took place the weekend prior to the competition.

The consumer vote named Juan Carlos Alvarez’s coffee from Costa Rica as the winner.

Enamorado and Alvarez were among 27 of the top farms from the nine countries that illycaffé directly sources its beans from to make the unique blend the Italian roaster is known for.

In addition to Honduras and Costa Rica, illycaffé also sources beans from Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia, Guatemala, India, Nicaragua and Rwanda.

The Ernesto Illy International Coffee Award came about after 25 years of working with, and recognising, Brazilian coffee farmers for high-quality coffee with the Brazil Quality Award for Espresso Coffee.

That quality award came about after Ernesto Illy’s travels into the depths of Brazil to find the highest-quality beans and share with growers the lucrative opportunities in the burgeoning premium coffee market.

“Because quality beans were [difficult to source] and illy was growing, we started stimulating coffee growers who were used to producing coffee as a commodity,” explains Andrea Illy, who is the third generation of his family to lead the company. “[We told them], ‘You can do much better and we are going to buy your coffee for premium prices and award you for it.’ ”

At that point in 1991, illycaffé started purchasing 100 per cent of its green beans directly from its Brazilian growers. To further the collaboration and loyalty of its farmers and ensure the consistency of its coffee quality, illycaffé rolled out two supplementary initiatives over subsequent years.

In 1999, it launched the University of Coffee to provide coffee education to growers and others in the industry. Then, in 2000, it launched the Illy Club in Brazil, a program that provides training, resources and educational events for the community’s more than 600 Brazilian coffee growers.

Following an “incredibly positive” response, the natural next step was to expand it at the international level. In 2016, illycaffé brought the various components of the Brazilian quality award to the global coffee industry, from educational seminars to an international club to hosting a competition for the highest quality beans.

That year, at the 25th annual Brazilian competition in April, Illy announced the first Ernesto Illy International Coffee Award, which would take place in October.

The Brazil Quality Award for Espresso Coffee still takes place every April in order to continue motivating Brazilian growers to strive for their best while “maintaining the tradition we started 25 years ago,” Illy tells Global Coffee Report.

“The Brazilian award teases the international one since it happens in April and the three finalists automatically get to participate in the [international] competition in New York in October.”

Through this international competition, Illy says, “we’re helping coffee growers fulfill a dream of visiting and getting to know the consumer market, while helping the consumers – the other stakeholder – in their dream of knowing more about coffee and hearing the narration personally.”

Fostering pursuit of these stakeholders’ dreams is, in effect, fostering pursuit of founder Francesco Illy’s dream of offering the greatest coffee to the world.

“My grandfather first fell in love with coffee in Vienna, which was one of the most important cities in Europe for coffee culture,” says Illy, “and then he fell in love with it all over again when he came to Trieste, which is the Mediterranean capital of coffee because it is the leading port for coffee imports.”

It is then that he also fell in love with the city and with the woman who would become his wife.

“He found the three loves of his life in Trieste,” Illy tells GCR, “so he settled down to pursue his dream of offering the greatest coffee to the world.”

Francesco launched illycaffé in 1933 and sought out to fulfill that dream with the support of three pillars: the best beans nature can provide; high-pressure espresso and pressurisation.

According to Andrea Illy’s 2015 book, A Coffee Dream, Francesco didn’t have a science background but, rather, had interest and abilities in technology, which are responsible for the two patents behind the second two pillars.

In 1935, he patented the Illetta, the coffee industry’s first espresso machine that featured automatic water dosing at a precise temperature and pressure.

Forty years later, Francesco’s eldest child, and only son, Ernesto, created illy’s ‘third greatest invention’, the first single-serve pod system for espresso.

“Everything I know about my grandfather I learned from my father, who was also an extraordinary innovator and creative person,” Illy writes in his book. “He enhanced and handed down to us children all the moral and entrepreneurial teachings of Grandfather Francesco, who he greatly esteemed.”

In 23 years at the helm, Illy, like his father, has made his own contributions, including the aforementioned quality and educational initiatives.

Also like his father, Illy has a science background to complement illy’s strength in technology. In 1994 he completed a degree in chemistry and wrote the first book on science and the quality of espresso, Espresso Coffee: The Chemistry of Quality.

That same year he stepped into the role of CEO at illycaffé. As Chairman today, Illy oversees the legacy that his grandfather Francesco created 84 years ago and that his father Ernesto enhanced and passed down.

While Francesco’s dream and the company vision and values remain at the core of every initiative and decision, Illy is also pursuing his own dream of helping make the world better through coffee.

This ‘life project’, as he calls it, is a major driver behind the company’s more recent focus on happiness. In fact, the company adopted the motto ‘LIVE HAPPilly’, which aligned perfectly with Illy’s personal objective. However, he was cautious not to make the advertising mistake of overpromising for sake of a catchy slogan.

“As a company, could we really say that we are selling happiness? Could we really hope to make people happy by offering them a coffee?” he details in A Coffee Dream.

“I reviewed the entire value chain of our coffee, from the plantation to the cup, and in the end I decided that yes, through the quality of our product we were creating a virtuous circle that tied the wellbeing of the consumer to the development of the cultivator. These are two of the ingredients of happiness.”

As part of the motto, and also part of the company’s sustainability efforts, illycaffé issued a three-year grant to the Sustainable Development Solutions Network for its research in happiness. In March, the nonprofit released its fifth-annual World Happiness Report.

“There are many reasons that make me feel passionate about this partnership,” says Illy.

“Because coffee and happiness go hand in hand, illy decided to embrace the idea of happiness from the beginning. Illy has always been promoting the ‘virtuous circle of coffee’, which brings wellbeing to consumers while generating social and economic development within the producing communities. This important mix of happiness, health and sustainability generated by coffee is central to our support of the report.”

Those three virtues – pleasure, health and sustainability – are what he sees as driving the global industry’s growth.

“In the past 25 years, coffee has been able to decommoditise itself and develop these virtues,” he tells GCR. “There is much better quality and more differentiation now, so the coffee experience is much more exciting. It is now clearer after [thousands] of scientific studies that coffee isn’t bad for you and actually has some health benefits. And last but not least, sustainability has significantly improved in the past 25 years.”

On the sustainability front, illy considers itself a pioneer that holds itself to unprecedented standards. Rather than put the burden of sustainability certification on the industry’s third-world coffee farmers, illycaffé took certification upon itself.

In 2011, after two years of building an entirely new, rigorous protocol for sustainability certification and measuring the global coffee roaster against more than 60 KPIs, quality assurance company DNV GL gave illycaffé the world’s first Responsible Supply Chain Process certification.

Although the stringent protocol and certification were created specifically for illy to measure its triple bottom line in sustainability, “other companies could use the protocol,” says Adam Paige, Director of Corporate Communications and PR for illycaffé North America.

“But to our knowledge, no other company would have enough controls, processes, etc., to gain the certification.”

For the Illy family, nothing but complete sustainability was an option – just as nothing but the highest quality was an option.

“Sustainability for us is the other face of quality,” says Illy. “You cannot have quality without sustainability and vice versa.”

In effect, illycaffé cannot pursue its founder’s dream of offering the greatest coffee to the world without quality and, thus, without sustainability.

Illy sees the definition of sustainability as “satisfying our needs without compromising the ones of future generations.” And to do so, illy takes a triple-bottom-line approach to the benefit of all the company’s stakeholders: consumers, customers, staff, suppliers, communities and shareholders.

For all six groups of stakeholders, illy is focused on economic, social and environmental sustainability, which are each based on core principles.

“Economic sustainability [is achieved] through the principle of shared value,” he explains. “We have to be profitable to finance our growth, but profit needs to be evenly distributed among all stakeholders.”

Growth is the principle behind social sustainability, with the emphasis on human growth and development.

“It’s very much about learning and improving our behaviour and knowledge and competencies,” he says, pointing to the University of Coffee and the Ernesto Illy Foundation as examples of initiatives that support and facilitate human growth.

According to Illy, environmental sustainability is based on the principle of respect, where efforts such as using renewable sources and limiting pollution and waste show respect to the earth and future generations.

Fulfilling those principles “requires special technology, special processes, special practices and a special value chain with a high level of quality in every single thing we buy,” Illy tells GCR. “So you can say that the company is entirely formed, carved and shaped by these sustainability quality principles.”

Just as they have over the past decades, these principles will continue to guide and shape the growing coffee giant as it works with growers to maintain quality, as it expands across more than 140 countries, as it ‘sells’ and promotes happiness, and as it supports the triple bottom line.

In doing so, illycaffé will continue to shift and grow in line with the greater coffee industry, while holding true to grandfather Francesco’s dream of offering the greatest coffee to the world.

For more information on illycaffé, click here.

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