Coffee Culture Comes Home

By Jesse Dart
Anthropology Department, University of Sydney

Milan-interior

Starbucks opened in Italy a few months ago. While the hype has worn off a bit, some days you still find a line of people waiting to get in. It is the first one in Italy and it is meant to respect the Italian coffee culture. Yet, a lot of those who stood in line on the first day was arguably upset over the lack of frappuccinos —  they aren’t served here.

It’s not normal Starbucks like you find in so many cities. There is no drive-through window, there is no stack of newspapers to buy. The plentiful number of staff are polite, courteous and helpful. There is a coffee roaster, there are bathrooms you can use without buying anything (a rarity in Italy) and there are a lot of tourists.

One day, a couple of weeks ago, I had an hour to kill before a meeting so I wondered in. It was around 10 am – there was no line. The first person I see is a greeter, who welcomes me in English. I switch to Italian, but they keep up the English. “Is this your first visit?” she asked me. “Yes”, I replied, a bit taken by the space. “I’ll just give you a brief layout of the store”, which she proceeded to do.

On one side, a more typical Italian espresso bar — for espresso drinks only. Like most bars around Italy, people were standing and drinking their coffee while eating a cornetto (an Italian style croissant). It was quick, even if the espresso is €1.80 as opposed to the nearly ubiquitous €1. Next, there was a bean bar with freshly roasted beans to buy and take home. On the other side of the room, a beautiful marble countertop bar in an oval shape with copper flourishes all around and that day’s bean selection waiting in glass urns to be brewed in one of several methods. You could choose between the Clover Machine, Modbar Pour-over, Chemex, Coffee Press or Siphon as well as the usual espresso machine. Upstairs, a cocktail/aperitivo bar and in the middle of the building, the coffee roaster. Running along the ceiling were exposed tubes and pipes for the coffee roaster – with direct access to the urns of beans behind the bar. It is overwhelming but orderly.

I got in line at the coffee bar and waited about five minutes for my order to be taken. I started off in Italian, again, because I am in Italy, but the cashier started off in English, accented in what sounded like a New York accent. “Where am I”, I thought.

milan_roastery_opening_hero_02

At my table, €5 coffee in hand, I took a moment to consider the clientele. There were a large number of Asian tourists and Americans (judging by their accents) and a few Italians – it seemed to be a popular place for a business meeting, despite the lines and noise level. Over at the espresso bar, people lingered at high cafe tables while new piles of pastries were brought out of an oven. A few kids were asking questions to the coffee roaster. By the time I finished my cup and got up to leave, there was a long line of people waiting at the coffee bar, probably close to 50, and outside, a number of people waiting to get into the building past the security guard.

It all felt so produced and constructed. It felt like I was on a film set, not at a cafe in Milan. Cafes in Milan (and across Italy) are usually smaller spaces, for one, and have at its center, the bar itself – where people stand to drink a coffee because it’s cheaper and quicker. There is no security guard, there is usually not vats of freshly roasted beans, let alone a coffee roaster in glimmering copper.

It is peak globalization, I wrote on the back of a napkin, as a reminder to myself. And while most cafes in Milan don’t seem to have been affected by its opening, there are more in the works including one at the central train station and the airport.

I don’t see a bit of competition to be a problem, in fact, it’s not the first American style coffee house chain to open in Italy. 12oz. Coffee Joint, a franchise company has been around for some time. They serve “American” style coffee, something like a frappuccino, bagel sandwiches and have outlets for your laptop at all the tables – it is a “third space”. Their motto is “L’esperienza autentica del vero caffè americano” (The Authentic Experience of American Coffee). Just recently Five Guys opened their first store in Italy, just down the street from the Starbucks in Milan. There are Burger King’s, Subway’s and of course, McDonald’s. Starbucks’s opening seemed inevitable when you take all this into consideration. But with its opening, and the future stores they are promising, Milan feels like it’s being threatened with the boring nothingness that these companies seem to bring with them – a kind of homogeneity that makes food and drink choices the same everywhere.

Overall, I can’t help but think that one of the reasons people come to Italy is that it keeps and has kept, for the most part, a lot of its historic charm and institutions intact – especially in areas related to food. The bar is one of the most visible and in my opinion, one of the most brilliant institutions around. The bar is humanizing and grounding. There are more luxurious renditions, sure, but overall the best bars are the busy bars, full of regulars with cornetticrumbs on the floor and the clinking of coffee cups coming out of a washing machine. You can pick up gossip, breakfast, an afternoon espresso, evening aperitivoor an after-dinner drink all in the same place. Oh, and if your lucky, they sell gum, lotto tickets and newspapers too. It acts as a hub of social interaction that spaces, like the new Starbucks, struggle to achieve under the weight of the corporate machine behind it. It’s not welcoming, despite the person opening the door for you. Starbucks will always lack a certain kind of community spirit that I think is built through the space itself and a lack of pretension.

When asked about the opening of Starbucks in Milan, I just say that it is complementary to the established cafe and coffee culture – instead of competing against it. Reporters and journalists often overlook that Italy is a country of deeply ingrained food rituals. And while many of those are being challenged, in various ways, Starbucks is not going to change the way people drink coffee overnight. A quick Internet search for Italian coffee culture will give you loads of articles telling you how to deal with coffee culture in Italy. Lonely Planet’s article is titled “How To Drink Coffee Like a True Italian.”

Rituals help guide us in life – they tell us what to do when. They help orient us. Coffee rituals in Italy not only help guide you but facilitate a sense of community with others who share the same rituals. I have no doubt that the local bar will remain the hub of social life in Italy and that Starbucks will find its place in the coffee culture of Milan and elsewhere. But the rituals of daily life are slow to change; I imagine that the local bar will remain a hub of social life and community for a long time.

1 Comment

Filed under anthropology

One response to “Coffee Culture Comes Home

  1. Great article, Jesse! As someone whose work revolves around language and food, I love that you–not once, but twice–mentioned the use of English. I’m curious, did you hear other speakers of Italian being spoken to in the same way, and if so, did they reply in English or Italian again? This is very interesting as not only is the coffee itself seemingly being commodified (at 1.8euros!), but also the English language. I would love to hear your thoughts! (You also have my email I believe;)
    -Kerri Lesh

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