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GEI: Andrea Illy Speaks on Creating the Perfect Coffee, Sustainability and Farming

The company’s mission of creating the best coffee in the world remains universal, regardless of location

On Wednesday morning, GEI (Gruppo Esponenti Italiani) held a breakfast panel at the Racquet & Tennis Club in New York. They hosted Andrea Illy, Chairman of Illycaffe S.p.A, as their main speaker. Illycaffe is a family-founded coffee business established in Trieste, Italy in 1933 which today is one of the global leaders in coffee bean purchasing and production, with a heavy emphasis on quality.

Mr. Illy, through conversations with GEI President Mario Platero, touched on many different aspects of the coffee creation process as well as the supply chain dynamics. He danced between artistry and science, first discussing the immense complication of arriving at the “perfect” coffee and then expanding the scope to discuss the difficulties farmers face at the bottom of the supply line.

The countless number of individual farmers living in impoverished conditions throughout the global south produce the coffee beans that form the backbone of multi-billion dollar corporations such as Illy or Mars Inc. (in the case of cacao beans and chocolate production) yet they are largely forgotten in the collective conversation. Illy, however, is pushing itself to improve the lives of the people it depends on, believing that alleviating the conditions of any stakeholders along the supply chain will enhance the sustainability of the project.

This is particularly noteworthy when Illy is compared to some of its competitors, which are aiming to eliminate the liability of relying on an assorted collection of individual farmers entirely as they plan to gradually reduce the percentage of beans bought at market until they are capable of producing the same amounts in their own industrial farms.

Mr. Illy says they were among the first to pioneer direct purchasing in 1991. In their mission to create the best coffee in the world, rather than relying on bulk purchases of beans that would vary in quality, Illy would purchase directly from farmers supplying the highest quality produce. To underscore the importance of this selection, he compared the process to panning in a river for gold flecks.

In the last decade, Illycaffe set out to work more directly with farmers, establishing a network of trusted sellers and a “Coffee University” to teach them the best farming practices. Through the Università, they also train individuals to be professional baristas. In Japan, for example, Illy found that their workers had significant difficulties in adapting to the Italian format of coffee brewing, especially under Illy’s high-quality standards, and their training programs became indispensable.

Within the family business, Andrea Illy might be a member of the third generation but his disposition is not that of the archetypal family administrator or a steward-son. His passion for the intricacies of his product is on full display and he speaks about coffee as if he were either a mad scientist or a sommelier (Andrea graduated with a degree in Chemistry from the University of Trieste). He says that making the perfect coffee is like making a souffle.

Illy has 30+ locations spread across the U.S. but Mr. Illy says their continued expansion into the North American market is a little bit of a dilemma for the company. On one hand, they wish to provide foreigners with the authentic Illy experience, something they can only guarantee through their own stores. On the other hand, they understand America has a different culture surrounding coffee than in Italy; they are therefore simultaneously  eager for North American expansion yet proceeding prudently.

Illy says the company’s mission of creating the best coffee in the world remains universal, regardless of location. When they first entered the American market in the 1990s they certainly had to make “adjustments” to their business and marketing techniques, he added, yet at no point did Illy “compromise” its purpose or ethos.

It will always seek perfection in the world of coffee.

Article written by Giacomo Ferragamo for La Voce di New York