In the land of €1 espresso, the sustainable coffee movement is gaining momentum.
When Starbucks first opened in Milan in 2018, critics derided the arrival of the coffee powerhouse for disrupting Italy’s traditional coffee culture. But the truth is, specialty coffee was already a growing trend – with consumers realizing the bottom line of cheap coffee had to change. Now that the pandemic has impacted supply chains at a local and global level, calling upon all of us to consider our habits and consumption, specialty coffee can help us identify the changes we should strive to implement in this new world.
That’s because at its core, specialty or third-wave coffee is grounded in sustainability. The movement champions traceability, ethical business and farming practices, and fundamentally empowers the consumer to be cognizant about his or her consumption. “Specialty coffee isn’t just a trend; it helps to educate the consumer and it’s a lens through which we can observe the world in a different way,” says Dafne Spadavecchia, one of the founders of Faro, a third-wave café that opened in Rome in 2017. Together with business partners Dario Fociani and Arturo Felicetta, she has sought to introduce a new way of drinking coffee in the capital.
“In Italy, most people think coffee should cost 90 cents but that’s the wrong benchmark. You can’t possibly cover costs compounded throughout the supply chain, which includes the farmers and cooperatives plus roasters, packaging and training for the barista,” says Dafne. That’s why she and her team take a “slow food” approach to their café and explain the process of harvesting, brewing and enjoying coffee to their customers through demonstrations. “Brewing coffee is an artform and a tremendous amount of effort goes into it. That’s why we need to make people more aware of what goes on behind-the-scenes, so they can understand what they’re ordering and drinking at the bar.”
Traceability is fundamental in all sectors, not least in the food & beverage industries where we tend to be disconnected from the realities of the food we eat and drink. The best way to ensure ethical business practices are in place is through direct contact with growers in the region. Agust, an artisanal coffee roaster company in Brescia, has been championing sustainable practices since 1956 and prides itself on building trust between its producers and also its customers. Now in its third generation, it is run by brothers Giovanni and Daniele Corsini who continue to innovate in ways that are socially and environmentally responsible.
“Both my grandfather and father traveled throughout the world to visit coffee producing countries and this helped us forge close relationships with our farmers, so we’ve been aware of what goes on behind-the-scenes of this booming business,” says Giovanni. “It’s important to take care of the coffee bean grower because he or she is the first ring of a long supply chain. That’s why the fair-trade movement is so important. By meeting the farmers’ needs directly we can bypass impersonal multinational companies and guarantee higher wages and more fair treatment for the individual workers on each level.”
In addition to the social and economic impact, Agust is also focused on environmental sustainability with 100% renewable energy sources and local reforestation initiatives funded by its organic Natura Equa line of coffee. Like Dafne, Giovanni tells me it’s fundamental to share the hidden world of coffee with consumers. “You raise the value of a product when you highlight what’s important. Coffee is following the same trajectory as wine, just 20 years later, and Italians are becoming more curious about fair-trade coffee. Just like wine, the terroir impacts the style of coffee that is grown and produced. That’s why we started our coffee academy, to help share the culture of coffee more widely with our consumers.”
The Agust Coffee Academy helmed by Fabio Dotti (winner of the Espresso Italiano Champion in 2017) hosts trainings for baristas to master the process of extraction, brewing and even making latte art in order to help them exalt the final product. “We’re very focused on empowering baristas because they are our intermediaries. As a roaster, we transform fresh berries into toasted coffee beans, while the baristas transform the grounds into a cup of coffee. They have the final power to influence the consumer so it’s important to train them as ambassadors to represent this niche product.”
While many derided the arrival of Starbucks in Italy, Giovanni saw it as a step in the right direction towards sensitizing their customers. “Starbucks opened a roastery and invited guests inside to learn about the process directly, which was the best thing they could do,” he says. “They’ve helped spur a conversation about sustainable coffee that didn’t exist before. Today, customers are familiar with single origin coffees and pour over techniques, which helps our cause, too.”
Faro, too, started a Flavor Project Academy to train students about the art of mixology and hospitality with a focus on sustainability. “Our society has long touted profit over everything else, but this crisis is a moment to reset behavior. We need to become more aware of our agricultural practices and the businesses we support,” says Dafne. “It may seem unlikely, but the specialty coffee sector can help pave the wave towards a better future.”
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