From The Times
February 25, 2008
Obituary: Ernesto Illy
Italian coffee merchant who helped to introduce espresso to the world
Ernesto Illy was an evangelist for espresso coffee, with which his family name is synonymous in Italy. Both scientist and businessman, he dedicated his life to creating the perfect cup, in the process helping to turn a drink hitherto largely appreciated only by his countrymen into one regarded around the world as the chic quintessence of Italy.
Illy had firm views about espresso, born of decades of research and tasting. For him, the water temperature should be between 90C and 95C and the coffee the sand-sized grinds of exactly 50 beans roasted at 220C, with 25ml to 30ml of espresso then extracted from it under 9 atmospheres of pressure. The temperature of the coffee to be sipped must be between 80C and 85C, and Illy even designed the shape of a cup for the ideal taste. Milk and sugar he regarded as contaminants.
Beans passing through Illys warehouse in Trieste were subjected to 114 separate checks in laboratory-style conditions. He believed that if just one was too fermented it would spoil the taste of a cup, and scanners using ultraviolet light accordingly rejected 1.5 per cent of each intake.
These procedures guaranteed consistency of quality, although they also made Illys coffee twice as expensive as other brands.
Yet such attention to detail was not merely being pernickety but was based on chemistry. Coffee is composed of about 1,500 different elements, with 800 compounds alone contributing to its aroma. Vital to the smell and flavour of espresso is the crema, the amber film that lies on top of it.
Though often overlooked by the dilettante drinker, this serves to trap the concentrated oils that give the coffee much of its taste. Illy accordingly selected his blend of nine types of arabica beans - from countries such as Brazil, India and Guatemala - because of the higher density of oil in them than the latterly fashionable and fiercer robusta bean, mostly grown in Vietnam.
Arabica also has less caffeine in it, although Illys blend is nonetheless pungent and ink-dark. “A fine espresso,” he liked to say, “paints the tongue”, and every day more than five million customers let him do so. He himself began his mornings with a large cup of India tea.
Ernesto Illy was born in Trieste in 1925. His mother was a half-German, half-Irish pianist, while his father, Francesco, was the founder of the family business and one of the pioneers of espresso culture.
Until the late 19th century, the brewing of coffee was a haphazard affair that left much to chance and frequently even more to be desired. The invention of the percolation method brought much-needed regularity to its taste, but it was not until the 1930s that the first modern espresso maker was created.
Using compressed air instead of steam to create the required pressure, and capable of making multiple cups at once, it was designed by Francesco Illy, who had been born in Timisoara, now in Romania.
After fighting with the AustroHungarian forces in the Great War, he had moved to Trieste (until then within the Habsburg empire) intending to start a chocolate business, only to discover that the port also handled all the coffee destined for Italy and Vienna. He set up as a coffee merchant in 1933, and soon devised the companys patent method for keeping its product fresh in cans pressurised with inert gases.
After reading chemistry at Bologna University, and completing a doctorate on synthetic morphines, his son, Ernesto, joined the family firm after the war. He spent his first four years learning how to sell coffee, touring the bars and cafés of Italy, France and Switzerland, and wearing out six Fiat Topolinos in the process. As well as the Italian, English and German that he had been exposed to at home, he also taught himself French (for selling coffee), Portuguese (for buying it), Spanish (for business) and Slovene (for fun).
After his fathers death, Ernesto became managing director of Illy Caffè in 1956, and chairman seven years later. His first important decision was to bring control of the entire production process in-house, leading him to travel widely to develop contacts with coffee farmers. In 1965 Illy began to sell coffee for domestic consumption, and in the early 1970s he developed the first single-dose pods now commonly used in homes and offices.
A man of style, intelligence and tremendous enthusiasm, who bounded along like a greyhound in the sports shoes that he always wore, Ernesto Illy was living proof of the health benefits that he attributed to coffee (as well as of going to bed at 10pm).