Ernesto Illy, eager, vigorous and pink-faced, sits in a Glendale Galleria coffee shop and slurps up an Illycaffe espresso with great relish. He's spent most of his 70 years in the coffee business and clearly enjoys his own family's brew.
He's holding court at a table seated with Illycaffe Co. employees, including his son Andrea. Each is wearing an inconspicuous silver lapel pin consisting of two intersecting circles, which gives them the vaguest air of a cult. The Illycaffe insignia actually represents two joined cups of coffee, symbolizing the conviviality of a shared espresso.
If you're into coffee, you've probably heard of the Illy family. Ernesto's father, Francesco, invented an early version of the modern espresso machine in 1935. The Illys hold numerous coffee-related patents. Illycaffe espresso is served at a lot of top-drawer restaurants, though not everyone likes it as much as Ernesto does.
The company may be most famous for the Illypod, which it introduced 15 years ago. It's a measured dose of espresso-grind coffee in a CO2-flushed paper pod that can be slapped right into an espresso machine designed to use the pods and then be neatly thrown away after the coffee is made. The speed and convenience of the pod (always filled with Illycaffe's own coffee) has made it particularly popular with restaurants.
"It's the next evolutionary step," Illy says firmly. "It's superior to the traditional way of measuring and tamping coffee into the brewing basket, just as the rifle cartridge was superior to the gunpowder, cloth wad and ball of an 18th century musket. You don't have to be skilled to use it. I myself am clumsy."
The management of the company is now in the hands of the next generation of Illys. Andrea, who trained as a research chemist, like his father, is in charge of research and development. One of his brothers, Francesco, is a photographer and the company's "image manager"; another, Riccardo, is the sales manager. (In 1990, Francesco and Riccardo collaborated on a, well, coffee-table book titled "From Coffee to Espresso.")
"They are globalizing the market," Ernesto says proudly. "We are in 41 countries now."
"Forty-eight," corrects Andrea quietly.
Internationalism comes naturally to the Illy family, Hungarian in origin (with Austrian, German and Irish elements) and based in the historically Italian-Austrian-Slovene-Croatian city of Trieste. Apart from his position in the family coffee company, Riccardo Illy happens to be the mayor of Trieste.
In addition to selling coffee, the Illy family continues to develop coffee technology. Recently, the company collaborated with the English company Sortex to come up with a high-speed laser coffee sorter. The sorter inspects the light reflected by each bean as it drops past an electronic eye; if the machine detects the characteristic spectrum of a flaw, an air jet instantly spits the offending bean into a reject basket.
And late last year, Academic Press published a rather technical book, "Espresso Coffee: The Chemistry of Quality," co-edited by Andrea Illy. It covers every aspect of espresso from the biology of the bean to the danger of polycyclic hydrocarbon contamination in over-roasting to exactly how soft the water should be for making espresso. With very soft or distilled water, it turns out, you have to use a coarser grind to compensate for the fact that softer water extracts flavoring elements--including the bitter ones--faster than harder water.
The book may be a bit daunting, but Ernesto insists that it is aimed at everybody in the "coffee sector." That means coffee growers, coffee roasters ("our competitors," as Andrea points out), espresso sellers and consumers. Ernesto says the Illy family is disclosing its technological secrets in the book in the hope that it will help the entire industry.
"People used to drink coffee for pleasure," he says, "but coffee consumption has been declining due to poor quality. Our dream is to make coffee consumption rise again--and last."
Even for someone who's not a true coffee nut, some of the sections in "Espresso Coffee" do have a curious, even macabre interest. Early on, the book lists a rogue's gallery of damaged bean varieties and the off-flavors they can produce. Black beans ("harsh, ashy") are caused by fungus attack, dark green beans ("astringent, reminiscent of rotten fish") were picked unripe and dried too hot, waxy beans (sometimes sulfurous) are dead beans undergoing fermentation. A rubbery flavor that used to show up in cheap Indonesian beans was said to be caused by a habit of drying them on the highway.
The worst-smelling beans, quaintly referred to as stinkers, fluoresce under ultraviolet light. It takes only one stinker bean to smell up a whole batch. "The sense of smell is basically for our defense, not for pleasure," explains Ernesto, spreading his fingers eloquently. "It is more sensitive to bad smells."