Early on a recent Thursday morning, nine coffee experts gathered on the fortieth floor of the Edition Hotel in midtown. Their task was to drink—or sip at—twenty-seven cups from nine different countries. The first nine would be cold-brewed; the next nine, drip; the final nine, espresso. All the cups would be numbered, but the tasters would not know which countries the numbers represented. Their ratings would determine the winner of the eighth Ernesto Illy International Coffee Award. Each juror had been issued a curved, Illy-designed, low-scoop spoon, for precision sipping, and an iPad, for keeping score.
The evaluating nine were, per a press release, “multidisciplinary” and flown in from all over the world, and thus—fortuitously—jet-lagged. The initial vibe was Willy Wonka-esque. A life-style-magazine editor from Germany wasn’t sure why she got the golden ticket: “I love coffee. Who doesn’t?” Another tester had gone for a quick brushup at one of Illy’s seventeen Università del Caffè branches. On the other hand, Sunalini Menon, of Coffeelab, in Bangalore, is world-renowned. She estimates her career intake at north of a million cups. The key to her success? “Sipping, slurping, and looking wise thereafter.”
All eyes were on David Brussa, Illy’s chief total-quality and sustainability officer. Brussa, a trim man in a navy suit with a tiny gold cup lapel pin, told the judges to trust their instincts and not overthink. Also, sugar could be found, in an emergency. Eighty-one cups of cold-brewed coffee arrived, spoons were raised, silence fell, and they were off.
Meanwhile, the company’s illustrious chairman, Andrea Illy, had quietly snuck into a nook at the back of the suite where baristas were grinding and brewing. He was speed-sipping his way through the offerings, against the trademark gurgle of an espresso-maker. (His trademark—his grandfather invented the modern machine, in 1935.)
Illy wore an arabica-colored Zegna suit whose buttonhole held the same tiny gold cup as Brussa’s. He said that he had woken that morning and flung off the false luxury of sleep with an American drip coffee. “Americans form a large part of our clientele,” he explained in Italian. He leaned forward, his eyes narrowed, his nostrils flared. He held his tasting spoon as familiarly as if it had been his baby spoon, which it nearly was: he had his first taste of coffee at two and a half, from his mamma. When a particular cup piqued his curiosity, he would ask his barista for the key to the code.
“What’s No. 2?”
His eyebrows raised slightly (meaning unknown). He explained the origin of the tournament. In the early nineties, the state of the coffee bean was abysmal. Coffee is a commodity business, and, without enlightened leadership, bean growing is a race to the bottom. To rally the suppliers, his father instituted a competition. The prize was not fiscal but inspirational—bragging rights, basically. Production quality turned around, and so did the industry—at least in Brazil. Moral extruded, it was time to sip again. Cup No. 7 raised an eyebrow, too—but before Illy could finish his set he was gone.
Back to the main stage for the last cup of the espresso round. Nine tired and wired cognoscenti. Menon’s expertise was showing—she had arranged her first eight cups in a precise row. Finally, the last espresso arrived and was jointly degusted. The judges gathered for a photo, Brussa tabulated the results, and the winner was . . . wait! First, there was a trip across town, to a U.N. convocation on coffee sustainability, with such panelists as the economist Jeffrey Sachs. Illy spoke: “We all know that coffee makes us live better and longer. There are many studies. We don’t have to prove anything.” Next, twenty-seven grip-and-grins with the motivated growers. And the Golden Cup goes to . . . ? Not yet! Back to Fifth Avenue, for a gala at the New York Public Library. Illy women—Andrea’s wife and daughter—dressed in the company’s signature red. Two hundred and thirty other attendees. Roughly as many filets mignons. Many speeches. Finally, No. 9—Brazil—wins!
After the U.N., the traffic, and the photo ops, Illy needed a boost. Cans of Diet Coke were piled on a table, but an Illy espresso in a paper cup was brought to him. “It is the quintessence,” he said. He took in the aroma. “Dry fruits, chocolate notes. Take a little sip. Concentrate in the retronasal. This is the epiphany.” He drank. America, he noted, was a work in progress: “Thirty years ago, you used to drink coffee as a fuel. Now you drink it as a delicious product—with milk.” But how could the U.S. make the leap to Italian-level sophistication?
“Education. Education. Education,” he said. And lots of espresso—but no milk. ♦