The Last Mile
As cliché as it may sound, coffee is in my blood. Some of my earliest and warmest memories are of my grandmother’s kitchen, a well-worn moka pot gently bubbling (which I would later discover isn’t a good thing!) on the stove, filling the room with rich and familiar aromas. My mother Silva worked her entire career in quality control at illy Caffé’s headquarters in Trieste, the Adriatic port city in northeastern Italy where coffee first entered Europe in the 16th century. Coffee was all around me, and I loved it. Therefore, becoming a barista was the natural thing to do, and a decision that pays rewards every single day; with every student who learns to create that perfect espresso, rich crema beautifully intact, and every smile on the faces of coffee lovers, their tongues painted with a little something that brings pure pleasure.
I was honored when the owner of CoffeeTalk invited me to contribute a recurring column that gives the barista’s point of view on our industry. This kind of regular voice is vital in America; where baristas don’t enjoy the professional standing that baristi do in my home country, even though they have become a part of everyday life, everywhere, from cutting edge downtowns to suburban malls.
I’ve spent almost four years as illy’s Master Barista for North America. The experience has been energizing. For one, I’ve gained immense appreciation and respect for the passionate community of baristas, café owners, hospitality executives, and others who make up the coffee profession in this country. There is an incredible desire to learn, innovate, delight, and take the craft of coffee to a higher place. It is a spirit that is last felt in my country in the 1930s and 1940s, when Italian-engineered refinements to espresso making (some pioneered by my company’s founder, Francesco Illy) gave rise to an era of rapid innovation and growth. You can find excellent coffee throughout much of Italy, a kind of birthright, like great burgers here in the United States, but you don’t find the energy that comes with, what might be called, the “young adulthood” phase that coffee in the U.S. is in today.
Illy brought me to the U.S. for reasons that explain this column’s title: making sure that our coffee’s very last, most critical, transformational steps are handled properly. My company is maniacal (in the best of ways) about optimizing quality at every link along the coffee chain. We purchase beans directly from farmers on four continents who meet our high standards for quality, many of whom we educate on sustainable agronomical and business practices; teach and financially support ecologically-responsible processing, like the semi-washed method that we helped revive; roast and perform more than 100 quality checks at our one plant in Trieste; and package our coffee with inert gas to prolong its freshness.
But none of it is any good if preparation is subpar, if that last mile isn’t walked in the right shoes. My main mission is to spread barista best practices, if you will, to make sure that every whole bean ground, every shot pulled, every Chemex poured, and every coffee drink created does justice to every step that came before and creates pleasure in the cup. I spend about half of my days on the road, visiting illy accounts of all varieties, from major resorts to corner cafes, diagnosing equipment, gauging knowledge, conducting on-site training, and teaching coffee beverage creation that connects the dots from what happens at the farm to the cup right in front of us. The idea is to provide a bigger picture of the understanding of coffee that puts into context every detail and action behind the bar, and indeed help baristas, managers, and owners see why no detail is too small.
My goal is to bring that philosophy to life in ways that matter for loyal readers of CoffeeTalk. Whether you are a roaster, an equipment manufacturer, logistician, distributor, or cafe owner, I hope that seeing the world through a barista’s eye can help inform decision making, inspire innovation, or simply provide an occasional thought worth clipping and keeping.
Topics will be as wide-ranging as coffee itself. One issue may bring practical advice on principles of beverage creation; the next, could be a bigger-picture take on the industry itself. I’ll write about dynamic baristas and other professionals that I meet on the road and at home in New York, with inspiring stories to share. And I won’t shy away from taking a stand. (Sneak preview: playing around with the classic formula for espresso preparation: not always a good idea!)
I look forward to your comments and opinions, and I invite you to follow me on Twitter (@Giorgio_Milos) and at masterbarista.tumblr.com.
Giorgio Milos is illy’s award-winning Master Barista and illy’s North American Barista in Residence who regularly ventures beyond the cup to study the biology and chemistry of the coffee bean, continually striving to master the beverage that is his passion and profession.