No, Italy's coffee culture does not need to modernize

italian coffee shop
CC BY 2.0 Norbert Eder

The Washington Post has proposed the worst idea I've heard in a while.

One of the few things in the world that I do not wish I could magically fix is Italian coffee culture. In fact, I have in the past held it up as a model for the rest of the world, a coffee culture that we would do well to emulate. The prices are affordable, the calorie count is lower, the focus is on efficient caffeination with a healthy dose of community, and – perhaps most importantly – there is no hideous trail of trash.

So you can imagine my surprise when a Washington Post article popped up on my computer this morning, suggesting that Italian coffee culture is in desperate need of an overhaul – and that it should take this lesson from the United States! Scratching my head, I tried to make sense of author Chico Harlan's argument.

Italian coffee is terrible, he says. The prices (1 Euro for an espresso) and the brewing methods are frozen in the 1980s. There's no appreciation for specialty bean blends. The espresso is bitter and strong.

"Italian coffee tends to rely on blends that include the cheaper Robusta beans, noted for their bitterness and lack of acidity, and common in instant coffee. Kenneth David, the Berkeley, Calif.-based editor in chief of the Coffee Review consumer report, said a few big Italian roasters use 'pretty close to the worst [beans] in the world,' but Italian baristas have the machines and craftsmanship to make the most of what they have."

Nor are there places for laptop workers to sit or takeaway cups for people wanting to slurp on enormous, watered-down drinks while walking. (This is bad thing?)

Hence the article's celebration of new artisanal coffee shops that are slowly making inroads, Harlan claims, into Italian cities. These shops offer fancy cortados and pour-overs that are 3-4x more expensive than a regular espresso shot and come with an erudite lecture on bean origin, a strategy that one barista said "was necessary to justify the higher prices." (I guess the taste doesn't sell itself to people who already know what they like?) These ambitious storeowners hope that Italians will wake up to the fact that much better coffee exists and they should pay through the nose for it, like Americans do.

While there's nothing wrong with seeking to improve oneself and one's tastes, this strikes me as a particularly misguided mission. If Italian coffee is enjoyed widely by an entire nation, then who's to say it's bad? Is taste not subjective? And if convincing 60 million people that they have terrible taste means creating a consumer culture that never existed before – particularly one that's linked to rampant waste of single-use coffee cups – well, this is the root of many of the environmental problems that our planet currently faces.

I have no patience for this. One of the many things I love about Italy is that I can always count on a consistently decent cup of coffee, strong and bitter though it may be, in any highway truck stop, dive bar, or tiny restaurant. There's none of the watery swill that passes for coffee in the majority of places in the U.S. and Canada. I prefer to judge a country on the quality of its average, everyday, most accessible cup of coffee, not the stuff of snooty artisanal coffee bars.

Next thing you know, as one similarly irritated commenter wrote on the Post article, there's going to be "another article trying to make sense of why an outstanding pizza margherita in Naples can cost only 5 EUR, with arguments like excessively red tomatoes or pale mozzarella."

Basta! If it's not broke, don't fix it.

No, Italy's coffee culture does not need to modernize
The Washington Post has proposed the worst idea I've heard in a while.

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