Italy is sometimes regarded as the final frontier for specialty coffee, and at the first Milan Coffee Festival all signs pointed to progress—and a promising way forward for coffee culture in the nation that helped create it. Italy's decades-old espresso cultural laws and general unwillingness to change the flavor, preparation, and most restrictively the price of coffee are all directly under challenge by a new generation of entrepreneurs and globe-traveling coffee lovers. Contradicting this reputation, there is a rapidly growing group of coffee professionals of all ages and backgrounds dedicated to increasing quality and shaking up cultural coffee standards in Italy. It’s a really exciting time to be here to see it all unfold.
Change is in the air here, proliferating and circling throughout the industry for years, and now it's been given a consumer-friendly platform in the form of this new festival. The consensus is that the Milan Coffee Festival was able to provide a capsule snapshot of today's inspiring new movement and an opportunity for the public to explore the new Italian specialty coffee in an approachable format.
The event stayed busy across all three days, in a notably smaller space than, say, the juggernaut London Coffee Festival (also hosted by Allegra Events), yet there was plenty to explore and experience. Here are a few people and moments that left a strong impression.
Pasta, of course.
Mattia Angius and Martina Miccione of Milan’s slow food bistro and natural wine bar, Tipografia Alimentare, concocted one the most glorious surprises of the weekend with two of the greatest things on the planet: ravioli and broth. They were hand making delicious ravioli on the spot and cooking them in a bowl of salted water with an espresso machine steam wand. For the broth, Angius was dosing a tamping his dried vegetable mix into a portafilter, then pulling broth shots from the group. “It took a week to dial in the grind size particles of the vegetables for the perfect extraction,” he said. A splash of the wine they brought along to pair made it an ideal unexpected aperitivo.
There were some funky and fruity beans in almost every booth at the festival. But one coffee that truly stood out was an Ugandan coffee roasted by World Roasting Champion, Rubens Gardelli of Gardelli Specialty Coffee in Emilia Romagna. The brew was crafted by Piemontese barista Serena Gentile.
Ugandans use the Bantu word “Mzungu” when referring to someone of European descent, and for whatever inspired reason—perhaps a bit of self-satire—Gardelli decided to name the coffee “Mzungu Project.” Besides the coffee being made with rare and indigenous coffee varieties, it is also processed in a proprietary “secret” fermentation technique called the “Gardelli Natural Process.” After some research, it’s not really clear what that actually implies, however one thing for sure: it made for a shocking and unusual cup! Think layers of freshly toasted cocoa nibs, tepache (fermented pineapple), marjoram, and cherry mostarda arriving one after the other in delirious deliberation.
Women In Coffee
A long overdue focus on the women in the Italian coffee industry as a major component of the Milan Coffee Festival. This came as some relief to the many festival participants that were actively raising awareness around the lack of diversity in the European Coffee Symposium.
On Saturday in “The Lab,” a full crowd was focused attentively on a panel of eight women, roles ranging from barista trainers to CEOs, who were speaking about their personal experiences and discussing the landscape, challenges, issues, and opportunities for women working in coffee in Italy. The panel was organized and led by Valentina Palange of Specialty Pal. “Times are changing in Italy,” Paling told the crowd. “The barista woman is no longer wanted at times for her physical appearance but rather for her professional skills.” She went onto explain that there are still huge obstacles in the workplace including not being trusted to handle technical aspects, employee training, and machine maintenance.
A common discussion theme was dismissal of opinion or ability from customers or coworkers. Jessica Sartiani, panelist from Florence, emphasized this important point, “I have always felt that I had to fight for my place, unfortunately often having to be aggressive to avoid being walked on.” She concluded, “I would like to see skilled woman treated as they deserve and not forced into being some kind of warrior to prove your ability.”
Being the first festival in Milan, it was especially important to involve the community in grassroots advertising and by involving social media influencers that are passionate about coffee. Two of the most active participants in the organization of the festival were the aforementioned Valentina Palange and Luca Rinaldi of the coffee culture blog, Specialty Pal. Coming from a background of personal coffee research and passion to learn more, they were able to rally the whole community together for this event. They spent weeks before the event visiting almost every cafe and participant to deliver flyers and spread the word with a personal touch. Rinaldi was also the official photographer of the festival, and Palange hosted the Latte Art Live booth throughout the weekend.
Another huge contributor and activator of the festival was Michael Gardenia of Fusillo Lab. During the month leading up to the festival, Gardenia hosted a series of coffee awareness events featuring previous coffee champions and current educators like Francesco Sanapo and Matteo Beluffi. As content creators, the Fusillo Lab events were a collaboration with the festival that were geared towards bloggers and journalists to offer a hands-on experience in the world of specialty coffee.
On Sunday, Gardenia was present at the festival in a pop up Fusillo Cafe. He collaborated with local coffee roaster, Peacocks Coffee, to make a private label Fusillo Coffee bag with a blank frame in which guests could create their own label design for the coffee bag and submit it to a contest to win a lot of splendid swag.
New(ish) Equipment in the Wild
Any Italian coffee festival worth its salt should be awash with exciting coffee gear, and Milan Coffee Festival did not disappoint. It was good to meet face to face with a couple of unfamiliar pieces of equipment!
One machine that was exciting to play with was the Dalla Corte XT. Simone Guidi, coffee roaster at La Sosta in Florence, walked me through some of the wild features that really allow the barista to dig into extraction parameters. Since the machine has independent boiler for each group, there is an easy interface that allows to maintain three groups at three different temperatures.
It also comes equipped with a patented flowmeter technology that provides extremely accurate results. You press a button on a screen above the grouphead when the first droplet of espresso arrives on the portafilter spout, and that is when the flowmeter starts to count rotations. We pulled 10 shots and weighed them afterwards and they were all spot on.
Guidi then started unscrewing a mini allen wrench key from the DC tamper that you can use as a dial to adjust each group heads flow rate live during extraction.
The machine can also communicate with the DC grinder to adjust coffee grind size automatically if the machine detects fluctuations in a profile that you can program into the machine.
No doubt it demonstrates stunning technology, but I wonder if it underwent Paolo Dalla Cortes crowbar test.
Meanwhile, the Bugan Coffee Lab from the nearby city of Bergamo went all out on their booth that was stationed directly across from the CMx stage. Portafilter and gasket ring toss, Panettone from their wholesale customers at Bologna’s cafe and artisan bakery Forno Brisa, daring cold brew in a flask, and latte art throwdowns with Dritan Alsela were just some of the highlights during their residency. They were also seen enthusiastically slinging spro on a Modbar AV (or Ah-Voo as they say here), and grinding coffee for filter with a Ceado E37Z Hero grinder (roughly $6,500 USD). Through the lab and field trials that Bugan Coffee Lab has been conducting with Ceado, head roaster Gian Andrea Sala described it as being very versatile and a unique grinder.
One showstopper on the show floor was FAEMA’s completely functional Saturno lever machine. Only a few units of the machine were originally manufactured in 1950, and this one was brought into working order for the festival by espresso machine collector and curator of the MUMAC museum, Enrico Maltoni.
This was the first FAEMA that used the design of the double boiler to lower the machine body and to give the coffee machine a better aesthetic, and was the first coffee machine with patent “pistol taps.”
“Everybody loved it!” Maltoni said. “The Saturno represents a piece of history not only for FAEMA but also in the coffee machine industry.”
The groundbreaking competition series Coffee Masters debuted the CMx Italia contest at the Milan Coffee Festival. After passing through 7 disciplines during the competition, Matteo Pavoni of Peacocks Coffee Roasters came in second place to CMx champion, Carlos Alvarado of Checchi Downtown in Brescia. Carlos is originally from El Salvador and has been working in coffee since he arrived in Italy. From high paced traffic at a highway side Autogrill, to working at boutique specialty coffee shops in the center of Milan, there’s not much he can’t handle behind the bar. Carlos will be moving on to compete in the Coffee Masters at the 2019 London Coffee Festival. Bravo Carlos!