June 2010 Newsletter
First a few announcements: there will be no special coffee
(again!) this month, despite a lot of searching I simply haven't
been able to find a coffee I consider good enough. There IS a May
newsletter as well, but since it's a photo essay about the SCAA
conference it's only available on the website.
Finally, I will no longer be selling Rancilio products. This in
no way reflects on the quality of these products; it's a purely
commercial decision. For those interested in the Rancilio
espresso range I recommend www.coffeeparts.com as excellent
suppliers. We will continue to repair and service those machines
we sold in the past.
Since 2002 I've managed to visit Italy every couple of years, and
I've been noticing an accelerated rate of change in the overall
Italian espresso market. Once you would find multi group espresso
machines almost everywhere you could stop for a coffee, manned by
skilled baristas. Train and bus stations, highway service
centres, tourist drop off points, airports etc. Most hotels would
also have a lobby bar with an espresso machine and accompanying
barista on call.
A lot of these espresso stations have been replaced with
superautomatic or pod machines, accompanied by automatic milk
frothing equipment and run by what I would describe as unskilled
This trend has occurred in parallel with a surprising lack of
innovation from the traditional espresso machine manufacturers,
at least so far as conventional espresso machines are concerned.
Most of the new research and development effort seems to be
concentrated on superautomatics and pod machines. True innovation
seems to be coming mostly from the USA.
I'm quite sure I don't have a clue about all the market forces
driving these developments, but I can think of a couple right
away. The first is the difficulty in finding young people willing
to make a career of being a barista. Young Italians are as
integrated into the global economy as anyone else, and aren't
inclined to spend several years training with a senior barista in
the nuances of espresso to end up in a relatively low status job.
The second reason is pure economics. The price of a "stand-up"
espresso at a bar or café in Italy appears to have been fixed at
less than 1 Euro for at least the last 8 years or longer. During
this time all of the costs of making an espresso have risen
Italy is a "mature" espresso market, with little chance of major
sales growth, and the combination of fixed selling price, fixed
sales volume and increasing costs leads inevitably to reducing
costs in the only area available, personnel.
Removing the skilled and relatively expensive barista(s) from the
equation and replacing them with minimum wage button pushers
appears to be an ongoing process. The machine manufacturers are
responding to what they see as market demand for less of a
So is the espresso quality affected? To my taste buds, the answer
is certainly yes. The actual quality of Italian espresso has only
been at the "good average" level for several years now, probably
because Italian coffee roasters simply don't buy the best beans
due to the constraints of the fixed beverage price.
Talking to Italian espresso drinkers, they were shocked at the
Aussie espresso prices (2 Euro!?) which leads me to believe that
they accept the further reduced quality in return for the low
price, a sad state of affairs.