Skip to content

The pursuit of beauty, through coffee

Andrea Illy, the president and CEO of Italian coffee company illycaffè, speaks in the Alumni Lounge on Thursday. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

At the latest installment of a conversation series called “The World in Your Cup,” Andrea Illy, the third-generation president and CEO of Italian coffee company illycaffè, presented the audience with a question that reflected organizer Erika Koss’s remarks connecting poetry, beauty, and coffee: “What is the link between a poem and coffee? What is the link between beauty and coffee, for that matter?”

Perhaps it wouldn’t seem like there is a connection between artistic expression and our daily cup of joe, but both Koss, assistant dean in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, and Illy argued otherwise.

“Coffee is the official beverage of culture,” Illy said. “If it’s really good coffee, it can trigger an inspiration, and if you’re inspired you become very creative. Coffee is the official beverage of Italy, of the Scientific Revolution, of culture. It is the beverage of the modern age.”

Beauty and goodness are two sides of the same coin. Will beauty save the world? My answer is, ‘Why not?’
—Andrea Illy, president and CEO of illycaffè

If it sounds like Illy speaks of coffee with the passion of someone who is obsessed with the beverage, it’s because he is. If it sounds like coffee runs through his veins, it’s because it does—sort of.

Illycaffè was founded in Trieste, a port town in Italy in 1933, when Illy’s grandfather, Francesco Illy, developed the modern espresso machine. It utilized pressure, instead of brute heat, to prepare the espresso—a method that better preserved the aromatic and flavorful oils found naturally in coffee beans.

Andrea Illy

Francesco’s dream, his grandson said Thursday, was to offer the greatest coffee in the world. “It’s a simple idea, but the truth is you have to leave something here—you either leave quantity or you leave quality and we chose quality,” he said.

The company continued to innovate when Francesco’s son, Ernesto, took over the operation. With a doctorate in chemistry, Ernesto founded an in-house laboratory dedicated to studying coffee chemistry. He worked to get the coffee into people’s houses, both with the introduction of canned grounds in 1955 and pre-measured espresso pods in 1974.

The latter invention, Illy said, revolutionized how people experienced espresso. “When you’re making espresso, the barista needs to take care of 15 to 16 different variables—the consistency of the grind, the water temperature, tamping the espresso, all these things—so exporting this without a barista was a nightmare.” The espresso pod, he said, took the guesswork out of the process and made for a more consistent brew.

It’s a simple idea, but the truth is you have to leave something here—you either leave quantity or you leave quality and we chose quality.
—Andrea Illy, president and CEO of illycaffè

As coffee fanatics know, equally important as the preparation of a cup of coffee or espresso is the cultivation of high-quality beans. Illy said his company uses a blend of nine varieties of coffee beans, coming from a total of 50 farms across 20 countries. The way he sees it, it’s important to invest in more than just fair trade certified beans, which have flooded the market recently, often at the expense of the farmers.

“Fair trade is a good step toward sustainability, but it’s not sustainable itself,” he said. To illustrate that point, he added, “More than 40 percent of all coffee grown is certified fair trade, but only 15 percent of it is regularly purchased.”

In 2011, an independent, international certification body conferred its Responsible Supply Chain Process Certification to illycaffè for its cultivation process. Illy said the honor was just another example of his company’s effort to create the word’s best coffee experience from beginning to end.

“Beauty and goodness are two sides of the same coin,” he said. “Will beauty save the world? My answer is, ‘Why not?’”

Created last year, “The World in Your Cup” lecture series features conversations with leaders in the coffee industry. It is co-sponsored by the Northeastern Consortium on Food Systems, Sustainability, Health, and Equity; the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs; and the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion.

Cookies on Northeastern sites

This website uses cookies and similar technologies to understand your use of our website and give you a better experience. By continuing to use the site or closing this banner without changing your cookie settings, you agree to our use of cookies and other technologies. To find out more about our use of cookies and how to change your settings, please go to our Privacy Statement.