The Godfathers of Italian Coffee

Wednesday, 7 August, 2019

Much of the world’s café history and market has been dominated by imported Italian coffee brands like Illy, Lavazza, Segafredo and Kimbo. Jazz Kuschke investigates why Italy holds such a strong place in coffee culture history and continues to retain prominence.

Words by Jazz Kuschke

The world has Italy to thank for the espresso shot and to some extent, cafe culture. For many who cannot start the day without an espresso based beverage at their favourite local, this a debt that can never be fully repaid. The major Italian coffee brands are still visible all over the world and they don’t look to be going anywhere any time soon. Restaurants and hotels display their marketing as a badge of honour, internationally renowned names that hold real weight with customers. “We feel the consumer always knows when they see the sign, that they are getting the best quality.” says Michelangelo Kellaris, local Illy Sales Manager.

The coffees served in cafes the world over are Italian inventions. “The Italian (and greater European) market is all about ‘traditional’ drinks being served,” says Carlo Garbini, “Espresso, americanos and, to an extent, cappuccinos,” he explains. “Firm, strong and intense flavours developed from decades of perfecting roasting techniques from different origins and blending these together.” Carlo is the owner of Importalia which imports and services Italian espresso equipment in the hospitality industry. While South Africa has swiftly developed a strong cafe culture over the last decade, the history of coffee in Italy stems back to the late 17th century.

A (very) brief and incomplete history of coffee in Italy 

Not all agree on quite how coffee was first brought to Europe. Some say it arrived with the Turks during the Siege of Vienna from where it spread as wide as London.

However most historians say coffee was first brought to Europe (or at least became popular) through Italy by Arab traders from Egypt in the sixteenth century. Documented history outlines that the traders brought it to what is modern Venice, from where local merchants sold this ‘exciting new beverage’ to wealthy clients.

This was largely coffee of Ethiopian origin, but it is also documented that the Arab traders took Ethiopian seeds back to their own countries and cultivated it there. Indeed there is evidence of coffee-drinking appearing in Yemen in southern Arabia in the middle of the 15th century. It was also in Arabia that coffee seeds were first roasted and brewed in a similar way to how it is now prepared.

But Italy is certainly the country that gained the mantle as the home of espresso and coffee culture.

You might be surprised to learn this almost didn’t happen. Things got a bit murky in Catholic Italy and coffee was very nearly outlawed for religious reasons. Thankfully Pope Clement VIII tasted the beverage and deemed it good. We couldn’t agree more.  

The first café opened in Venice later that century (around the 1680s) and was named for the beverage it served. This was the birth of Italian café culture and, reads the annals, these places soon became synonymous with atmosphere and sophistication. This is the romanticised version no doubt but then that is perhaps the essence of the Italian way. One only has to look at the way the major brands are marketed today to see this love of life and elegance is still at the heart of what Italian coffee stands for.

Fast forward some 300 years and we can today thank Italy for the espresso shot. By the 19th century, the coffee and cafés business was booming across Europe, but the process of producing a cup of actual coffee was a slow one. At around the same time, various inventors started working on ways to speed up this process. Steam was the mechanism of the age, so it was to that which they went first.  While there must’ve been countless prototypes produced, it was one Angelo Moriondo of Turin who was granted the first patent. This was 1884. Moriondo is a name lost in the history of coffee however, because for whatever reason his machines never found market prominence. 

Luigi Bezzerra however, produced a machine that did. He is credited with ‘inventing the the single-shot espresso (in the early 1900s), as his machine had several improvements on Moriondo’s and produced the shot-to-cup. His idea was to force pressurised water through coffee powder to produce a small, concentrated shot ‘expressly’ fast.  Welcome espresso. 

As with the speed of the shot, the history sped up from there and, according to Alfredo Panzini’s Italian dictionary the term ‘espresso’ first officially entered the Italian lexicon around 1920 with a couple other contenders in the espresso machine stakes who claim to be the first to put patents on the equipment and evolving technology.

Why the world loves Italian 

“Italian coffee has a taste profile that appeals to the whole world,” says Carlo, explaining that in mass-market terms, Italian blended and roasted coffees are the most popular. He is quick to point out the importance of local roasters however and how crucial they are for the local market but believes that part of the reason why Italian brands remain popular is their consistency. This is echoed by all the major brands, they all trade on the promise and delivery of consistency. “With a brand that offers a 120 year history in the coffee industry, it is easy to trust in the experience of their master roasters and blenders to ensure delivery of a consistently high quality coffee”, says Nadine Jardim of Lavazza, South Africa.

“South Africans travelling more and more abroad have widened their coffee experience and taste profiles and are therefore continuously requesting more flavour and consistency from our market,” Carlo says. “Single coffee origins are never the same. The batches therefore require skilled roasters to take the time to consistently monitor, tweak and change the profiles to insure the overall blend remains the same,” he adds pointing out how highly regarded international roasters are, almost like distillers in famous rum and whisky houses.

Large imported coffee suppliers tend to go through more stringent quality controls due to the fact that world wide distribution is a large part of the business. “Large brands have the buying power that smaller roasteries do not and this makes it difficult for them to be consistent in their quality and taste profiles. In Segafredo's case, the company has their own plantations all over the world with their largest and most prominent in Brazil.” says Roberto Reffo of Adriatic, the company that imports Segafredo. “We are also continuously investing in developing the skills of our client's baristas through constant and regular training. It is our support, customer service and other added benefits that accompany the quality and brand guarantee that allows us to be successful.”

That comes at a price. The imported brands come with a higher price point per kilogram than local roasters. This often includes marketing assets like branded cups, but there is a much more practical explanation on hand when asked about this price difference.

“There is the American trend of high grammage per cup. A traditional Italian espresso uses 7g per shot. You wouldn’t mess with a baking recipe and add more sugar, or add more eggs, the result wouldn’t balance. But because of the style of roasting with some micro-roasters they use closer to 12g for a single, making that difference of being double the price not really true anymore.” explains Michelangelo. The style of roasting and the style of espresso that the Italians are aiming for isn’t asking to be compared to the current speciality scene.

With Great Power comes Great Responsibility

Working on such a large global scale, the companies have to be invested in sustainability and trading ethically. illycaffè has been named one of the world's most ethical companies by The Ethisphere Institute for the 6th consecutive year and is DNV certified providing a full sustainability chain from the farmer right through to the restauranteer selling you the cup. Lavazza has its Tierra brand and project developed in association with the Rainforest Alliance NGO launched back in 2002. This brand has the aim of improving social and environmental conditions of several international coffee-growing communities. Segafredo owns and operates its own plantations worldwide, which allows for control in the way that the coffee is produced and how the farmers are treated. They provide housing, medical facilities, and schooling for the coffee farmers as well as their families. Kimbo supports Project Waterfall which helps bring clean drinking water and sanitation to coffee growing communities around the world. With such large footprints, these Italian coffee giants need to do business as responsibly as possible especially in today’s climate of informed consumers.

It appears that Italian coffee is here to stay. Restaurants and hotels with many other things to worry about on a daily basis need one thing from their coffee, that it remains consistent.

The Dons


Pronunced  ‘laˈvattsa’ the company was founded in Turin in 1895 by Luigi Lavazza, it was initially run from a small grocery store at Via San Tommaso. The business is still in the same family and is today run by the third and fourth generations of the Lavazza family. It is said that Luigi was an entrepreneur at heart and knew that to be successful he had to find out what his customers wanted. So he worked to discover the different origins and characteristics of the coffee plant, and studied the art of blending to meet the tastes of his customers by creating the blends. The Lavazza coffee we drink today is the result of that: blending coffees from different parts of the world. As a global brand icon, Lavazza is a premium coffee offering within our market but quality is an intrinsic factor in every part of its production and delivery. These services and benefits are all made possible through the local Lavazza distributor, Ciro Full Service Beverage Co, who is well-versed within the coffee industry.


Italian coffee merchant, Massimo Zanetti – a descendant from a family with more than two generations in the coffee trade business – launched the first Segafredo Café in 1988 in Paris. In that vein he is seen as something of an "Ambassador of the Italian Coffee Culture” with the idea that the Italia lifestyle is reflected in Segafredo cafés. Adriatic, the local distributor of the brand, is a family business founded in 1970 by Renzo Reffo. Later on Maurizio and Roberto Reffo joined the family business and moulded the company into the finest importers and distributors of Italian foods, wines, coffee and catering equipment in South Africa.

Illycaffè (branded as illy) was founded by Francesco Illy in 1933. It was later taken over by his son Ernesto Illy and today, Andrea Illy (as Chairman) is the third generation of family at the head of this brand. Illy produces one blend in three roast variations (normal, dark roast, and decaffeinated). The company also markets single-origin arabica beans from six different countries: Ethiopia, Colombia, Brazil, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and India. In South Africa, the Illy brand is also a family affair, run by Chris Kellaris, his son Michelangelo, Doxoula Lentzakis & Mano Paxinos like one big happy Greek family.


In Naples, espresso bars provide the heartbeat of this incredible lively and exciting city. Here, over fifty years ago, one family developed a passionate coffee roasting business to meet the local demand. This thriving business grew and continues today. Through seeking the finest green coffees from around the world, they blend, roast and package fine espresso coffee that makes Kimbo a leader in the Italian market. Carlo Garbini is the local distributor through his business Importalia.

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