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Coffee at the Moment by Mark Prince
Dr. Ernesto Illy
Posted: February 4, 2008
Article rating: 9.4
feedback: (16) comments | read | write

Dr. Ernesto Illy

Today was a very sad day, but also one of good reflection and some back to basics education for me. And in the end, it became a thankful day.

I woke up this morning to the news that Dr. Ernesto Illy - the second generation of the Illy family, and an absolute giant in the world of espresso and coffee research and science - has passed away.

Perhaps the readers of CoffeeGeek don't know much about this man. I'm sure some, perhaps even many of you do, but I cannot overstate his contributions to the world of coffee and espresso. In the days that follow, I hope there will be sufficient tributes and obituaries for this man in the mainstream press. All I can offer right now is my own thoughts on what Dr. Ernesto Illy meant for espresso and coffee - for me.

Illycaffe has done so much research, both scientific and culturally, into espresso that it's difficult to think of another company, body, or trade organization that can come close. Of course, they have done it to improve their own brands, or explore new arenas for espresso crafting and production, but what is really admirable about illycaffe is that most of their research is put out there for the public to read and learn from.

Probably the most direct evidence of this is the volume of information wealth found in the books written by the Illys (both Dr. Ernesto and his son, Dr. Andrea Illy), and none sets the tone better than the Espresso: The Chemistry of Quality book that Andrea Illy, along with help from his father, others, and the results of the illycaffe labs, has published in two editions.

Dr. Ernesto Illy always strived, his entire life, to make espresso better, more approachable, easier, and more understood. The results of our pool of knowledge today on where espresso is can be traced back to many, many contributions this giant of the industry has performed.

He is also one of the earliest pioneers in encouraging, celebrating, and recognizing the efforts of the coffee farmer. There are many examples of this, but one that comes to mind is his personal efforts back in the early 1990s to work with specialty coffee farmers in Brasil to overcome the collapse of the world coffee price standards, and produce a superior bean that would command fair market prices. Illy was travelling to origin, and writing about it in such positive, enlightening ways long before anyone ever dreamed up the term "third wave".

Other things you may not have known about Dr. Illy: He founded the Association Scientifique International du Cafe (ASIC), the leading scientific body that looks into the chemistry and quality of coffee. He's been given numerous awards and lifetime achievement recognitions, including the Cavaliere del Lavoro of Italy (Knight of Industry) and the SCAA's Lifetime Achievement Award. And he's been awarded many honourary doctorates and masters degrees from various universities, including most recently the University of Udine.

Affectionately known as "Papa Bean" to his students and friends, when he was once asked how to make a perfect espresso, his answer was simple and eloquent: "Why, it takes love, of course!"

Personal thoughts

I met Dr. Illy once, and was always hoping for the chance to meet him again and have a more engaging conversation. It was at the Boston SCAA show where he was awarded a prize for his lifelong contributions to coffee, and feted at a luncheon event. I had maybe three minutes' of his time, and more conversations with his assistants. He signed two copies of the Espresso, Chemistry of Quality book for me, and told me that he'd visited CoffeeGeek.com once or twice, and thought I was doing good things for coffee.

I was simply stunned and blown away. And that really drove me for a few years - this giant, this amazing man of coffee science and knowledge, would actually say something like this.

I was hoping that, during my trip to Bern and Italy last year, I'd be able to visit Trieste and spend some time in the Illy Lab and University, and perhaps share another moment or two with Dr. Illy, talking about the science of espresso. Unfortunately, that was not to be, but even as recently as last week, I was still thinking - yes, I'll get to Italy again soon, and this time, I will get to Trieste, will get to the Illy labs, and I will be able to shake Dr. Illy's hand just one more time and thank him for all that he's done for the advancement of coffee and espresso.

Today, we no longer have that chance. If one wants to thank Dr. Illy, we have to do it symbolically.

On my own part, I spent some time this morning working with, and attempting to pull the "perfect" shot of espresso from a relatively fresh can of Illy whole bean coffee. I also did it old school, pulling the shots on a 1982 Olympia Cremina lever espresso machine. I needed to do the man honour and justice.

I took a sip, and then poured the rest into the earth so that Dr. Illy could symbolically share the fruits of his research, inventiveness, passion, and science towards the world of espresso - heaven in a cup. I've spent most of the rest of this afternoon going through my small library of books he's written or contributed to, and watched some interviews he's done in movies like Black Gold, Black Coffee, Espresso 501 (Bellissimo Infogroup) and other sources. And once again, I revelled in how much this man has contributed to this amazing expression of what coffee can be.

Your contributions to the world of coffee are dearly appreciated Dr. Illy, and you will be missed. Everyone at CoffeeGeek offers their deepest sympathies to your family and friends during this time, but we also celebrate with them your lasting effect and legacy.

Cin cin e salute!

Article rating: 9.4
Posted: February 4, 2008
feedback: (16) comments | read | write
Coffee at the Moment Column Archives email author
Mark PrinceColumn Description
Whether it's up to the minute, happening this day, this week, or in the recent past, this column's goal is to present coffee and attempts to make the experience truly culinary. You'll find short reviews about past events, interesting coffees coming on the market, new and different ways to enjoy espresso and other brewing methods, and give an insight into efforts around the globe to make coffee a truly culinary thing. Column written by Mark Prince.

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