Monday, August 1, 2011
sprudge dropped an article the other day about global espresso pioneers illy caffe, and more specifically regarding illy's recent marketing of single-origins components of their signature espresso blend.

we're going to come back to that, though. for the time being i have a story.

so, last summer i went to italy. you may peruse my exploits in that nation here. i spent a month studying small- to medium-sized corporations in rome, torino and milan. you may read about these travels here. late in the trip, i took a train to trieste because, as you may also know, i'm something of a coffee nerd and trieste is home to the corporate headquarters and main roastworks of illy caffe, one of the worlds' exclusive coffee brands.

illy caffe is what is referred to as a lifestyle brand. their product is meant to create a sense of belonging in the consumer to a social contract or a memory, or even a desire. their product, which happens to a high-quality espresso blend available in a variety of grinds and roast profiles, is simple the most elite espresso blend in the world, produced with the finest-grade arabica coffees that can be found.

that's what their marketing materials say, anyways. but it's not really about the coffee at all. not really. it's about the ambiance.

seriously. try this out. go to the swankest italian joint you can and you can bet they're serving illy, lavazza or segafredo. you'll know the culprit by spotting various metallic packaging pieces, illuminated plexiglass plates, logos on everything from cupware to sugar packets to napkins to menu items. the motif of the brand is stamped on everything and, in being so accessible and repetitive, becomes background noise that lives the very air of the business. these brands lend authenticity to the experience, whether it's dining, sipping, clubbing, what have you.

i'm getting detracted, though. the point is that i took a day exploring the roastworks and i picked an ear or two about illy intentions for the growth of their brand. one question i asked was,

"hey guys, with all the beans you have moving through your roastworks, why haven't you capitalized on global barista trends and released single-origin versions of your coffees?"

logistically, it only made sense. they had the beans in inventory, they manufactured their own packaging, created their own marketing materials... it seemed at the time to be a huge point of neglect on the part of the legacy italian espresso companies.

moreso, it seemed a grievous oversite in their global marketing efforts that they couldn't see the untapped market potential in single-origin, specialty coffees. with their close relationships with origin growing partners and vertical integration of all marketing activities, from production to manufacture to sales, the company seemed capable of exploiting the specialty market... but just didn't.

since then a lot has happened for that company. they've seen a lot of growth in the united states with a number of forward-thinking marketing endeavors. they introduced a ready-to-drink coffee product, reaching the ever-growing energy drink market. they converted home users with consumer-friendly, pod-based espresso systems that produced drinks just like they got at that cafe in italy that one time. they partnered with local restaurants and coffeeshops, lending certifications and prestige to those that hailed illy's name and kept their bright red umbrellas outside on their patios.

i guess you guys see where this thing is going. they've decided to revisit the idea of single-origin offerings. and this is really cool news. only, they have plenty more coffees to offer, so one hopes they continue the campaign and extend their offerings. and really, let us americans get this stuff in our grinders.

Daniel Stewart Mueller at 10:08 PM | 0 comments
Friday, June 3, 2011
So, it's becoming something of a yearly ritual where I log onto this blog, cry profusely for somewhere around 45 seconds over the general, shabby state of affairs plaguing the thing, and then resolutely promise myself and you, my readership, that I will do my darnedest to revive the dying menagerie of overwrought three-dollar vocabulasm that is "The Edge of Awake."

Now, I'll bet you're thinking,

"Good lord, here it comes. More quasi-empty promises followed by theoretical coffee-centric nonsense that's completely inapplicable to my everyday life. Where's my Cosmopolitan magazine..."

And, to an extent, you'd be right. Because I am here today to make bombastic claims that may well never come to fruition, and they are predominately coffee-centric. But now I'm adding a novel new twist to the experience...

Jet-Powered Air Travel!

Yes, you heard me correctly. The blog is once more getting the Auto Elec Defib treatment, but if I ever get a pulse back, the first thing this blog is doing is printing out it's electronically confirmed boarding pass, hopping on the closest single-engine Cessna and taking to the region airways to bring you the very best in Southeastern coffee!

I recently took a trip down to Brazil to experience coffee at origin. No, not the mystical lands of East Africa where most believe coffee got its humble beginnings, but rather to the coffee farm owned and operated by the company that I work for. It was once of those experiences that opened my eyes in a good many ways, but left me yearning for more of what the coffee lifestyle is.

Okay, that's cryptic. What does it all mean, I hope you're asking yourselves. It means that not once in Brazil did I sleep on a well-worn straw mattress, fight off large, predatory jungle arachnids, or even go one night without the option of conditioning my hair the next morning. One day, I will get that experience, I'm sure. And I long for that day.

Until then, I've come to realize as I have a few times in my past, that I have been blessed with the gift of a middle-class upbringing and a job that allows me to travel about our great country in search of the best the coffee industry has to offer. To turn my back on that gift would be something of a tragedy.

With that I will leave you all with this. I will be working closely with a blog based out of New York, The Daily Meal, to bring you all the best of coffee in the Southeast, and beyond. Starting sometime very soon, you shall see a monthly editorial about my escapades across this lovely region of the states chronicaling the 5 best cafes and coffeeshops to visit when you're in town.

This is something I believe I was born to do, and something I should have dived into years ago. Alas, I've always been something of a late bloomer. It's cool though. You guys and gals out there have some great stuff to look forward to, and as I go along on my travels, I invite you to comment on my posts and recommend your favorite spots in cities I have not yet visited.

Who knows. Perhaps your favorite shop will make the cut.

For now, look forward to a post on Atlanta coffee, followed by... WHO KNOWS?! I don't want to ruin the surprise.

As always, enjoy and feel free to comment!


Daniel Stewart Mueller at 9:40 AM | 0 comments
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
I've been AWOL from the blog for a minute, but here goes!

I've been cupping a lot of coffees lately, honing my skills and whatnot. Here are some notes of coffees I have cuppoed lately.

Today I cupped a series of coffees roasted by Dallis Brothers Coffee Roasters. These were all winners in a multinational coffee certification competition held yearly in coffee-producing countries.

The coffees were:

NICARGUA - Las Flores (#8)

The heaviest of the four, i got deep wine notes in the nose, a buttery mouthfeel and citric flavors that were a bit savory. It finished liked a baked apple.

EL SALVADOR - La Pinera (#11)

Piney, with notes of curry in the nose. Sweet and creamy when blooming and almost tea-like when it brews. Some bright red flavors mingle with breadiness.

HONDURAS - Las Amazonas (#8)

Definitely the aromatic standout of the table. Deep, sweet fruity notes hit you as this coffee grinds. They are pungent, but pleasant. There are lemon-y flavors in the cup, but those red fruits from the nose develop and reel in the brightness of this one. Good stuff.

RWANDA - Kopakama Co-Op (#5)

This one really shines and speaks volumes about Rwandan coffees. The aromatic and flavor notes were all deep and rich, while also mellow. banana stood out in the nose, but gave way to floral and melon notes in the cup. the body was full, but not too much so.

Okay, that's what I've got so far. Look forward to a series involving coffees from more folks soon enough.


Daniel Stewart Mueller at 7:53 PM | 0 comments
Monday, November 29, 2010
All right everyone, this one is important.

Help these dudes out. Go to this site and READ THE DAMN THING! These guys are attempting to do something truly historic. The renovation and subsequent return to grace of a coffee farm that got about the worst of it is the subject of their forthcoming documentary.

I know I talk a lot about my love for coffee, but no amount of latte art throwdowns or lackluster competition performances have the capacity for change that this project has.

The gentlemen of Safehouse Coffee in Griffin, GA are not unknown to the wild world of coffee bloggery, but I have the distinct pleasure of holding them as close, personal friends. Of the many and varied folk I've met in my yet-brief but life-altering journey into the industry, there are few that stand upon the principles of quality, transparency, progression and goodwill than the staff of that establishment.

Any amount donated is enough, but the clock is ticking. If you've ever felt an itch to do something bigger than yourself, bigger than your own world, scratch the itch now, in a moment poised to change the lives of a battered community and the history of an industry always capable of more than it ever accomplishes.

Help us do something good for this farm, and in doing so, do something good for the world.


Daniel Stewart Mueller at 5:35 PM | 1 comments
Thursday, July 1, 2010
in the heart of florence there is a great bridge of stone that crosses the river arno. seven hundred years ago, at the height of the great italian renaissance, the bridge was home to the greatest culinary artists in the world, and their many and varied shops. here could be found the finest pastries, breads, fruits and vegetables, cured meats and cheeses, steaks and poultry in the world. also could be found the jewels of these great culinary minds, their restaurants which served the most delicious food of the age.

all was not well and good, however. though florence and all of tuscany was well fed by the market and the fine chefs, the bridge was the source of a great evil. you see, at the end of each night, when all the fruits and vegetables had wilted in the summer sun, or when the meats and cheeses had rotted and molded, or when stuffed patrons left scraps upon their plates, all was pitched over the bridge and into the mighty arno.

over time, these scraps from the bridge collected and rotted and created the most foul stench man has ever known, tarnishing the once-glorious bridge. soon the crowds dwindled from the market until none came. and soon the hungered throngs grew wary of the restaurants and diners, until all chairs were empty, and the great chefs of tuscany were forced to board up their windows and doors and leave the bridge. the market, having no one to provide produce, breads, meats and cheeses too was soon closed and boarded up.

the great tuscan minds gathered upon the bridge and gazed upon the ruins of a once-thriving community and wondered,

"what shall become of this place, that was once so glorious?"

all looked down in shame and their eyes landed on the arno, filled to the brim with rotting scrap. in disgust, most averted their eyes and their noses, but one man kept his gaze upon the filth. of a sudden, illumination came upon his visage, and with it a great smile.

"look men! the answer lies before us and you avert your eyes? the filth of the arno has felled this great market, but the war is not lost. heed me men, for i have a plan!"

with that, the man withdrew from the crowd, the others speculating in his absence. what was this man up to? what was he playing at?

the man stayed away for many weeks, locked in his home where he saw no one. however, every day correspondence came and went, came and went, came and went. the great minds of tuscany heard of his hermititude and gathered outside of his door, beckoning he come out and share his great illumination with them. they offered him power, women, great sums of money, and nothing enticed the man to leave his home and speak his mind. for two months hence they waited upon his doorstep, their numbers growing everyday and their pleas growing ever more desperate, but still he kept his silence, and still correspondence came and went, came and went.

then, one beautiful spring day his door opened and he walked out, clothing ragged, face unshaven and unwashed. he was deathly thin and used a cane to walk. but walk he did.

"sir, what have you been up to all this time? what say you of the market, and of the filthy arno?"

but he did not respond. he simply walked in silence, following by the maddened crowd. he walked down side streets into the very heart of florence, through the once-proud market and to the great stone bridge.

there, on the bridge, before all the great minds of tuscany, stood three mighty kings, each with 1000 carriages filled with the greatest treasures in all the world and the men to drive those carriages. upon a nod of his head, the three mighty kings signaled to their men to dump their vast riches into the arno! the gold and jewels plummeted over the bridge to the great dismay of the tuscans, but upon piling into the river dislodged the great damn of filth and rot that ha collected! the filth flowed freely down the arno and out of florence forever!

at once the great throngs of tuscans that had followed the man dove into the river and surfaced with handfuls and armfuls of jewels and golden chains and lockets and all manner of treasures, and dove and dove again until they could no longer move their arms and collapsed upon the shore in exhaustion.

when they awoke, those that dove into the water took their treasures into the old restaurants and began selling their riches to all of tuscany. to this day, if you should happen upon Ponte Vecchio you will find their descendants selling the great riches of the arno still, and on a bright summer day, if you look down to the river, you will find it still shines with the brilliance of the riches of those three great kings and the one man that was never seen or heard from again.

*this is a work of fiction based on fact, as told by a good friend of mine. thank you, jacqueline*

Daniel Stewart Mueller at 4:47 PM | 0 comments
Sunday, June 20, 2010
It's with great expectation, not sadness or disappointment, that I say I haven't been on nearly enough adventures in life thus far. It's not that I'm short on ambition, I just never saw the appeal in traveling abroad with so much opportunity here at home. Lo and behold, a lovely friend of mine meets me for lunch one day last fall and enthusiastically tells me she's going to Italy for a semester in the summer. Why would you do that? A differing perspective, she says. Snooze. All the history and art, she says. Snooooooze. Authentic Italian food and beautiful women. CHECK!

So here I am, half a year later, back in Atlanta from one of the great adventures of my life. Rome to Florence. Florence to Milan. Milan to Torino. Torino to Trieste. Rome to Amsterdam. Stops off in the Lombardi countryside, Naples and Lake Como. I saw the entire country, ate all the pizza I could stand, drank fine wines and amidst it all, I experienced that new perspective I felt I was so sure I didn't need. I'm going to try to relate this experience, and I'm going to try to relate that new perspective to you.

As you read this, it will be split into two parts. The meat and potatoes will be the intermittent blog entries that I wrote as part of the class segment of the trip. The in-between sections will be commentary on Italian economic and production practices, tourist culture, historical curiosities and espresso lust.

So, with no further ado, let us begin.

Italians create some of the most exclusive products in the world.  They don't mean to be arrogant, but you can't deny that Farraris, Ferragamos and Lavazza frappes are what they are because Italians place more value on products further up the production possibilities frontier.   They require only the finest input materials, they craft their products with their own hands, and they rarely let family secrets stray too far from home.  There's an overwhelming number of globally-renowned companies in the country whose core values lie in quality of craftsmanship and simple functionality but whose designs push the borders of timeless beauty.

The Italian production mentality creates an entire population of warring factions struggling to hawk their wares everywhere from the city markets in Florence to the fiercely competitive high fashion markets in Milan.  Even venturing outward to the globally revered historic city of Rome and to Trieste, the quiet coastal town on the Adriatic sea, I kept finding myself having to choose how I wanted to experience Italy at the hands of warring restaurants, shopping malls and tourist attractions.

In Rome I found myself constantly barraged by players in an elaborate tourist game, in which each local had some offering just slightly different, but just as assuredly Italian in order to preserve the natural continuum of the experience. The restaurants had very little variety. It would seem there are only three or four authentic Italian foods to choose from. Scallopine, tagliatelle, spaghetti pomodora and pizza were the mainstays. Also, there were paninis.

Monday, May 24
We arrived in Rome two days ago. That afternoon I fulfilled a long-standing dream of mine to enjoy an espresso in the birthplace of the beverage. I subsequently enjoyed many more. Yesterday I toured some of the oldest-standing architecture in the world. It's been a dream, but I'll say right now, that's not really what this blog is about. This blog is not about tourism, or the objective appreciation of one of the most beautiful countries in the world. No, this blog is about studying a faltering economy, attempting to diagnose its shortcomings and submit my unwarranted suggestions to what may prove to be a supremely critical and, in all honesty, uninterested audience. Regardless, I'm here regarding a purpose, so let's get right down to it.

In the following submissions I will draw from case studies, company tours and interviews in an attempt to discover the roots of the problems facing the Italian economy that have caused a once-proudly industrialized country to languish behind such young bucks as the United States and up-and-comers China and India in a global market. I didnt know quite what to expect from our first day of company visits. Our studies of Italian business ethics and theory gave me a framework upon which I made certain assumptions.

Assumption One: Manufacturing infrastructure developed during the two World Wars gave Italy a scale economy advantage.

Assumption Two: Production quality was of utmost importance.

Assumption Three: Italians face ongoing concerns regarding floundering production levels, efficiency and managerial best practices.

Of the three assumptions I had coming into our first visit, Banca D'Italia, two proved correct. The quality of Italian exports is indeed superior to the lion's share of what one might find coming out of the far-east nations or even out of such reputed engineering nations as Germany and the United States. Likewise, Italians do face concerns regarding productivity. Contrary to prior thought, however, Italy's infrastructure is not equipped to accommodate scale economies. Not on the bigger scale, anyways. No, Italian firms tend to be small (<10 employees), family-owned and content to sacrifice growth in order to maintain control.

Indeed, the pride that Italians take in the craft of their work leaves little room for full mechanization of the production process. Much more emphasis is put on the work of the hands and the work of the mind, as stated by the Communications Director of Brioni, one of the worlds most exclusive tailors.

Brioni made a name for itself shortly after World War II, when young American actors first found it fashionable to travel abroad. Thanks to these celebrity testimonials, both spoken and otherwise, Brioni found themselves in such demand as they had never known. They're now called upon by the worlds' elite in search of garments that express uniqueness and strength of personality.

I found an interesting dichotomy between the two visits. The young economists and social scientists we spoke to in the bank stressed, with a sense of urgency, that it was not the current economic crisis plaguing the world, but an ingrained sense of patriarchal business ownership that was holding the country back from the natural course of growth that it should be experiencing. Even Europe as a whole, despite having a collective economy that flirted with stagnation for the past three decades, has shown evidence of a “catching-up” process, while Italian managerial methods and productivity levels remain stuck in the past. Italian firms are unwilling to sacrifice family-ownership for cost efficiency and managerial best practices.

Representation from Brioni substantiated these studies beyond any doubt. The company, though well-established and well-reputed, doesn't seek growth in any form I, as an American, am at all accustomed to. The typical American business-person is taught from Day One to develop an idea until someone else is willing to give you a substantial amount of money for it, then to take the money and run. Brioni's intent is instead to remain in complete control of the family company, and to not lose that control at any cost.

Because of this they may find themselves stifling organic growth for the sake of exclusivity, which seems contrary to the natural evolution of their business. Why does the company make such a big deal out of Barack Obama wearing their ties, or Michael Douglas wearing their suits in his new movie and then intentionally limit the number of suits produced per year?

The company further contradicted themselves by claiming to have released a second-tier fragrance in a nice bottle simply for the sake of releasing a fragrance. They also have plans to expand into the accessories market. For a company hell-bent on not diluting their brand, Brioni has come a long way in diluting it I the past couple of years.

Perhaps they have to make these mistakes to learn where their true strengths lie. This strikes me as odd because the company seemed so sure of itself in the beginning of our meeting. Their ecstasy in having created a top-tier tailoring school and their current stature amongst the worlds' elite gave them the appearance of a company that understood the demand of their market, but after hearing of their cheap fragrance bid and accessory push, they come off as being slightly full of themselves.

Monday, May 25
On somewhat of a free day, the group gathered and headed down to old Rome to experience the wonder and marvel of some of the oldest standing architecture in the world. The ruins of Rome are legendary, and they more than lived up to their reputation. It's one thing to see pictures of the old arena on the internet, or to see it in movies, but it's quite another thing to stand atop the stadium, in the slaves section and look down at the intricate series of underground passageways used by the games-keepers, gladiators and slaves that once populated the bustling complex.

Of note is the fact that after the games were largely ended throughout the Roman empire, the Colosseum was converted to an ancient apartment complex, filled to the brim with living quarters, offices and retail outlets for all manner of business. The only remaining signs of this are square holes in the walls that once housed beams that supported the floors of the apartments. Some of the living quarters were four and five stories off the ground!

The Vatican mirrored the splendor of the ancient ruins in a lot of way, though the architecture was slightly more modern and vastly more ornate. The power and opulence of the Catholic church is simply mind-blowing. Witnessing the sheer volume of sculpture-work and paintings populating the chambers of St. Peter's Basilica rendered me speechless. I mean, seriously, didn't they know the vast majority of their empire was poor at the time. Beautiful as their display of wealth may be, it seems a terrible waste of resources.

A highlight of the trip was our visit to the Necropolis, which struck me as something of a second nursing home to rich and powerful Romans. I thought it was funny that the Romans would throw elaborate parties in the Necropolis and decorate the second-life condos with beautiful mosaics and carved-marble sarcophagi.

After our tour of historic Rome, we parted ways with our Professor and our guide and headed back to the hotel to regroup and prepare for the opera, where we saw a haunting and memorable rendition of Madam Butterfly. That night we rested, and the next day we split into two groups for a day of adventure.

Wednesday, May 26
In the morning, our group left for the train station, all bound for Positano, on the Amalfi coast. As fate would have it, only a few of our group actually got their. I believe we took the gravity of the trip for granted and didn't plan accordingly. We woke up in a hurry and ran to the train station. At the station we found that half of our cash cards didn't work, and that none of us really understood the train system yet. The result was that three of us got tickets and the others promised to follow close behind. Our train was scheduled to make a stop in Naples before completing its journey. In Naples we stepped off the train and debated whether to continue onward or wait for the rest of the group to catch up. We decided to wait, but after an hour we thought the best course of action was to salvage the day the best we could and enjoy Naples for a few hours before heading back to Rome.
This proved a fantastic choice, as Naples turned out to be a varied and photogenic town. I don't mean that Naples was particularly beautiful, because the city itself was somewhat ratty and beat down, but the coast was nice. From the marina just down the street from the train station we were able to see a volcano in the distance and many large and elegant yachts harbored at the local yacht club.

In a small cafe by the water I made friends with the barista and was invited behind the bar to pull a shot of espresso for the owner of the shop. The shop was using a lever-operated espresso machine, which I had never used, and pulled some pretty lovely shots of espresso. Upon presenting the espresso to the owner, I informed him it would cost him two Euros. He didn't get the joke. And even if he had, he probably wouldn't have found it funny.

Eventually, we made our way back to the train station and headed home. It was a long day spent walking around a town of unique character. Our feet were black with dust and our clothes soaked through from a hot summer day, but there was a sense of ease as we boarded the train and headed home that seemed the perfect end to our first adventure away from the typical tourist channels.

That feeling of perfect contentment was short-lived, unfortunatey. Upon arriving we found the group in uproar. The other half of the group returned to find their rooms ransacked, with many Euros missing from a few of the students bank rolls. Chaos ensued, we attempted to contact the police, who were all asleep, and somewhere in all the confusion the culprit returned a large portion of the cash. Not all, but a large portion. It was a very emotional end to our time in Rome, and it left a bad taste in my mouth for a city I was already on the fence about.

No matter, though. We packed our bags and in the morning we left Rome behind for the city that I will always love: Florence.

In Florence we witnessed history firsthand. For example, the owners of Castello del Trebbio still only use a few rooms in their renaissance castle during the Tuscan winter.

Thursday, May 27
As you're reading this post, search the internet for hi-resolution photographs of the Tuscan country-side and turn on the song “Music For Satellites” by circlesquare and wonder how this region has escaped the noise, pollution and corruption of Rome.

And then thank whoever it is you thank that it did indeed escape.

Col d'Orcia is a vineyard and winery in the rolling Tuscan hills, hidden safely away from main roads and pesky tourists. The sprawling estate covers over 2000 acres of hill country and produces some of the finest wine grapes in the region, as well as a small yearly crop of fine olives used to make oil. Along with 742 acres of land dedicated to wine grapes, 70 acres are dedicated to the olives and just over 400 acres are covered in forest.

Col d'Orcia specializes in the production of Sangiovese wine grapes and dedicates a majority of their land to them. It is important, however, to hedge against a bad crop by diversifying production, so they always grow Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Moscadello grapes. Their Moscadello grapes are of particular interest, as only 6 other producers in the region grow them. These particular grapes are from heirloom vines and produce an exquisitely sweet Moscadello dessert wine.

Much debate is given to what exactly makes one producers' wine better than another and the industry has created a blanket term in order to qualify the factors involved. The term, “terroir,” describes in a word the specific environmental factors that influence the color, body and flavor of the wine. The term covers unique soil conditions, humidity, daily sun exposure, wind conditions and precipitation. When asked to comment on a more specific definition of the term, the Count emphasized above all other factors the “hand” of the producer, comprised of the unique knowledge bank of the producing company, farming methods, seeds and vines chosen and specific production methods used by the producer. All in all, terroir is a term that encompasses all of the variables that make each estate unique, though many used similar grapes.

The Count followed this description of Terroir by explaining that weather conditions in the area are ideal for growing the Sangiovese grapes that the estate is known for. A nearby mountain, which happens to be the tallest point in the Tuscan region, shields the grapes from cold northern winds while simultaneously trapping coastal humidity from the south, providing the grapes with all the humidity necessary for healthy growth.

The winery is a relatively small player in the industry, producing only 800,000 bottles per year compared to the multiple-millions of larger producers. They maintain 10 labels, with roughly 75% of production dedicated to three wines: Brunello di Montalcino, Rosso di Montalcino and Spezien Toscana. Col d'Orcia is known throughout the industry as a truly quality producer, with consistently spectacular wines. They market to a very strict clientele, targeting high cuisine, 5-star hotels and the worlds' social elite. A large portion of their marketing is strictly word of mouth. Their wines are endorsed by the culinary elite, and kind remarks by world-famous chefs have gone a long way in solidifying their reputation as one of the worlds' model wineries. Their largest market is the United States, followed by Russia, China, Japan and other parts of Europe.

With these markets, Col d'Orcia has maintained respectable profit margins, even in the face of a worldwide financial crisis. Their production facilities in Italy and Argentina provide differentiated products for a variety of wine markets and their extensive knowledge base comes from generations of wine producers cataloging and passing along their know-how down the family line. These are the company's strengths and the reasons they should find their business strong for years and years to come.

Friday, May 28
Our day today began much like the days before: we awoke early, showered hurriedly and choked down as many mini-panini as we could handle before shuffling out the front of the hotel and trekking, single-file, to our first stop of the day.

We arrived at the offices of Lorenzo Villoresi after making our way through winding backstreets, dodging scooters and compact cars, only to find a nondescript brick structure with no markings identifying it as containing one of the most exclusive perfumeries in the world. After a quick rapping on the door we were buzzed in and made our way up a series of staircases to a cozy, if not slightly cramped library of scents that served as Lorenzo's point of sale and scent-development area. Through another door we were led to a sitting room with attached green room that boasted one of the best views of historic Florence that I have yet seen. The green room overlooked the river running through the center of town, views of waterfalls and various chapels in the distance.

We were treated to refreshments and then asked to seat ourselves as the wife of Lorenzo Villoresi began to relate to us some of the company's history and underlying production philosophies. Lorenzo himself studied philosophy and religion in university and was called upon to travel extensively in his days studying. During his travels, he began taking note of the intense scents and use of aromas in the Middle- and Far East, collecting samples that he would cook and experiment with back in his home, in Florence. The collection and manipulation of these foreign scents became a hobby of his, and between philosophical readings he would concoct scented oils that he used to freshen his abode.

It was during this time that Lorenzo was approached by a woman from Fendi interested in crafting a new scent for her company. She had heard mention of Lorenzos products through his involvement in fashion and high art events which he associated himself with. After crafting a scent for this woman she was so taken that she immediately ordered an entire collection be created. He obliged and provided her and her company with soaps, candles and perfumes all featuring the custom Fendi scent.

Lorenzo's reputation over the next years became synonymous with beauty and luxury. He demands only the finest input materials in his collections and requires his employees to have a vast and varied knowledge of every aspect of the production process, from scent development to packaging design to marketing the scent and eventually making a sale. His products are distinctly Italian in that they draw materials, such as alabaster candle-holders and hand-crafted crystal and silver bottles, from the surrounding area. Much of his input materials, in fact, are from Florence. In the spirit of the Italian Renaissance, Lorenzo incorporates art into his practice. His bottles are immaculately designed, his scents are complex and evocative and his office is both scenic and historic.

Lorenzo is pursuing a number of new growth strategies in the coming years. First and foremost his wish is to open a flagship retail outlet for his products. He toyed with the idea of opening such a shop in the United States, but decided the flagship store should be located in the true home of the company, beautiful Florence. Along with this flagship store he wants to create a scent university, of sorts, where his company can help train a new generation of perfumeries in the art and science of scent development.

Our second visit of the day was to the one and only Santa Maria Novella. This company boats what perhaps no other company on the face of the planet can boast: they have been a fully operational perfumery and pharmacy for an astounding 900 years!

The company had humble beginnings as a monastery for Dominican monks in the twelfth century A.D. During those times, monasteries were not simply places for monks to worship, but also served as safe-houses to travelers and hospitals to the sick. It was in providing for the sick that the company began developing its first products. Today the company offers a bewildering selection of products produced in one factory in the middle of Florence. The factory produces various lotions and balms, scents and perfumes, candles and scented pottery, liqueurs and breath mints, potpourri and soaps, and various medicinal and floral waters, along with dozens of other products, each varied and unique.

Santa Maria Novella has and always will place a lot high value on human craftsmanship and the strengths of their employees. They are quite prideful of their workers and of their workers' contributions to the company. For example, we were informed that a man we met dipping terracotta pomegranates into a scented oil bath had actually designed the apparatus he was operating. He imagined the machinery to be a giant French fry dipper and adapted several other machines to suit that purpose. That sort of ingenuity was found throughout the facilities. One of the lead scientists developed a system of resting soaps such that they would lose excess humidity during the resting process and would become more concentrated, allowing the soaps to last much longer than the average product one might find at the grocery store.

Another interesting tid-bit was the amount of hand labor present in the factory. Labels were pasted on my hand, soaps were hand-pressed with the logo and description of the company, candles and scented wax tablets were all hand-poured and later trimmed. The company ethic dictates that the use of the hands is good and that it makes for a better, more nuanced product. To an extent I agree with their philosophy, though I would argue that simply pasting a label onto a box does not constitute a substantial value-added price premium. It would make more sense to me to let a machine perform that particular task while focusing hand labor on more intricate procedures.

I suppose that is what makes Santa Maria Novella the company they are. None of their production processes are necessarily better suited to hand labor. Most of the processes could be done mechanically faster, and with great efficiency. In the end, it's the fact that the company has cared enough about their products over the years to sacrifice some efficiency for the sake of pride that gives them a premium edge. Also, if you ask them what they think about other companies working with more efficient and modern mechanization, they would likely not care at all about what those other companies were doing.

Because those other companies are not 900 YEARS OLD!!

Sunday, May 30
In a bit of a change of pace, our two visits today were a bit more leisurely than the few preceding them. Early this morning we boarded a coach and made our way 15 kilometers outside of Florence, back into the beautiful Tuscan hills, for a guided tour and wine tasting at a fairly new winery located in the Chianti region of the countryside. This winery, as it turned out, offered quite a bit more than a delicious selection of Sangiovese grapes and scenic mountain views. The winery was built adjacent and within a 900 year-old castle that one belonged to one of the most powerful families in Italy, the Pazzi family.

Legend has it that in the 1100-1200s, the Pazzis were a banking family of great renown, eclipsed only by the legendary Medici family, with their strong ties to the financial and political elite of the time. The Medici were famous for their opulence and their patronage to the arts, though at the time their focus was largely on the volatile politics of a country caught up in Catholic ideals and struggling to come to terms with the new-found artistic enlightenment spreading throughout Europe, but based in Florence. The Pazzis were jealous of the popularity and wealth of the Medici and plotted the demise of their patriarch, with the help of the then-Pope, who desperately wanted Medici land for the expansion of the church. The Medici, controlling the most powerful bank in Italy at the time, controlled vast swathes of land bordering Switzerland and Austria that the Pope wished to seize in the name of the church.

With the support of the Pope on their side, the Pazzis went about the grizzly business of murdering the head of the Medici household, Lorenzo di Medici, while he attended mass one Sunday morning. Within the course of the plot, a mistake was made and Lorenzo's life was spared. He vowed to take vengeance on the Pazzi family, and systematically began to wipe them out completely. When he was finished, not one Pazzi remained breathing. The stronghold of the Pazzi family, the future winery, was taken over by the Medici, who cleaned every last Pazzi marking from its campus, save one coat of arms that was designed and produced by the legendary Donatello. To this day, the coat of arms remains hanging in the foyer in homage to the great artist, but hiding within it the grisly story of one family's descent into madness, and eventual eradication from the annals of history.

Wowzers, that was heavy. Did I mention we also tasted wine on this visit?

So anyways, our tour began in the wine storage facilities of the company, located in the basement and dungeons of the fortress. We were informed that Chianti wines are named such after the region in which the grapes are produced and the wine is fermented and bottled. Other countries claim to produce Chiantis, but as a matter of definition, a wine cannot be labeled a Chianti unless it is produced in a Chianti region, of which there are only eight, all in Italy. The winery produces two such Chiantis, and each is vastly different. The funny thing is, the 3000 year-old grapes are the same in both, as are weather conditions. The key difference in the two is the amount of sunlight the grapes receive. The Reserve grapes are grown on the side of a hill that receives more sunlight and therefore causes higher sugar production in the grapes. These grapes are pressed and stored for a minimum of 3 years in oak barrels, while the grapes that receive less sunlight are processed and stored in stainless steel barrels for 6 months.

The wine itself is compose of no less than 80% Sangiovese grapes mixed with others in order to create what the world has dubbed “Super Tuscan Wine.” Historically, wines in Italy adhered to strict production practices in which each label was made of one particular grape from one particular vineyard. Quality standards and pricing were all set by this standard. When Italian winemakers began experimenting with blending as a creative outlet, the resulting wines had no standard by which quality and price were determined. It was at this time that American wine afficianados began referring to these as Superior Quality Tuscan Wines, a label which was later shorted to the marketing-friendly Super Tuscans.

After our tour of the castle and production facilities, we were led into the family's personal dining quarters to taste the mostly dry, but aromatic wines, along with a selection of meats and cheeses from the family's own stock. The lunch was intimate, and we discussed the marketing woes plaguing a mid-sized player in the saturated American wine market. As it turns out, it is difficult for the small winery to gain a foothold in the coveted American market next to established labels and cheap knock-offs alike. The company has resorted to Agrotourism in order to keep the grounds maintained and the family fed while they pin down a distributor for their wines. Foreigners are encouraged to visit the castle for a week, housed in historic laborers' quarters and shown the lifestyle of a winemaker. These agrotours are popular and they sustain the family, but there are worries that it distracts from the core activity of the winery which is, obviously, making wine.

After a lengthy discussion we concluded the tasting, said our goodbyes and retreated back to the hotel for a short snooze before heading out to the street markets and, eventually, the Salvatore Ferragamo Museum. Outside the museum spirits were high. Goofy, staged photographs were taken. Poses were resplendent and replete with glam. Personally, I have always enjoyed Ferragamo-designed shoes and aspire to own a few before my days are out. Needless to say, I was thrilled at the opportunity to study a progression of his work. I was, in a word, disappointed.

The museum was an unexpected distraction and, honestly, held little of substance. The exhibition at the time was a collection of dresses and gowns worn by Ferragamo-enthusiast Greta Garbo in her films made throughout the 40s and 50s. The dresses were of interesting design, the influences of which are still seen in today's high fashion, but the exhibition showed little of what put Ferragamo on the map, his shoes. A wall of photographs highlighted Salvatore in his workshop, sitting amongst countless stays labeled with the names of all the star actresses at the time, but by and large shoes were absent from the exhibit.

After getting over the lack of footwear in the museum, I began to study the dresses more thoroughly and marveled at the variation in design. His early work flowed easily, with each piece appearing airy and light, mimicking the lighthearted hedonism of the time. Moving onward, he was influenced heavily by the Far East for much of the remaining collection. The pieces were minimalist, clean and simple. Collars were cropped as tunic length expanded. Later in his career, the dresses kept their minimalism but garnered more structure. Coat lengths were cropped slightly and his design took the shape of something Jackie Kennedy might have worn out.

At the end of the our time at the museum we made our way upstairs to ogle at loafers and suits and purses for a moment before heading off to dinner in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Ah, life is a dream.

In Milan the group navigated itself around a modern, metropolitan city.  The architecture was an interesting blend of Gothic and 80s modern, which catered to both "Miami Vice" set extras and the historically inclined alike. And in the end we all ended up sharing a burger at McDonald's anyways. It was kind of like watching one of those every-clique John Hughes films from the eighties.

Monday, May 31
Today was intense, folks. We awoke at 5:30 in the morning, after not a lot of sleep, boarded a coach with all our belongings and a lackluster breakfast bag and hit the road as a gentle rain fell on Florence. It was with a heavy heart that we drove away from the most beautiful town I've ever been in. I thought back on the time spent meandering about the markets in the company of beautiful women, eating fantastically well, marveling at the old-world architecture. I reminisced about standing on the bridge, late at night, looking out across the river Arno at the spectacularly-lit city and thought that it would be easy to fall in love in such a city. It spoke to my soul, and I will miss Florence terribly.

I didn't have much time to reminisce, however. Our first stop, Pagani, was an hour away and closing in fast. Pagani is a manufacturer of some of the worlds' most exclusive supercars, a trend that many in the auto industry see as an indulgence of the past, but an ideal that the company still upholds with all the pride and attention to craft that we've come to expect from an elite Italian design firm. Their claim to fame, the Zonda F, is a 1.4 million Euro street monster capable of reaching speeds of up to 360 kilometers per hour with a 768 horsepower AMG-built engine. It is able to achieve these ridiculous speeds because it is constructed mainly from a carbon-fiber shell and aluminum and aircraft titanium components, all of which are extremely lightweight and deliver high performance.

The Zonda F is more of a status symbol than a practical vehicle. According to the company, they have become quite popular with wealthy Chinese women, and there are an estimated 15 vehicles being shipped to Hong Kong and mainland China alone in the coming year. The company itself is interesting, and the founder is something of a prodigy. His love for automobiles manifested itself at a young age. At twelve years he was crafting intricate models of autos from wood blocks. At age 20 he built his first Formula 3 vehicle. He got his start in the industry designing components for Lamborghini's Countache model in the early nineties before starting his own design firm, Modena design, working on components for Lambo, Ferrari and Aprilla.

The machines themselves are fully customizable. The workshop is aptly name the “Atelier,” due to the parallels between custom-tailoring a dress and building a prized supercar from the ground up. Each vehicle takes between 6-7 months to build and with the staff on hand, the company is able to produce twenty of these 12-cylinder street beasts a year.

As an added bonus, each vehicle comes with two stow-able leather suitcases produced by Schedoni, a super-exclusive leather manufacturer based in the area, which also provides leather for the seats and dash inside the vehicle.

Our second stop of the day was at super- and street-bike manufacturer Ducati, where we were graced with a detailed tour of their production facilities and then led through a comprehensive collection of the company's vintage motorbikes. The Ducati factory itself is impressive enough, boasting a well-thought-out assembly line utilizing just-in-time inventory management and highly specialized tasks for each worker. Due to the efficiency of the assembly line, the factory is able to crank out an astounding 200 bikes a day!

Their staff is larger than the typical Italian firm. They maintain 500 employees on the floor at any give time, as well as 380 in the corporate offices and 120 in the fabled racing division, which is the only division we were not allowed access to. This was unsurprising. The racing divisions of the both Pagani and Ducati are where all research and development take place. In other words, they are treasure troves of industry secrets that many would kill to discover.

Here are some specifics of the assembly line, just for kicks.

The factory produces 5 models of bike, ranging from entry-level to extreme performance, and everything in between. It receives components in two materials daily: aluminum and steel. The aluminum components arrive finished and ready to assemble, but the steel components arrive unfinished and need to be machined before they can be put to use.

The camshaft system is exclusive to the company, and is highly prized.

Each bike takes 3-4 hours to produce, and workers much sign off on their work to assure maximum accountability. Quality control forms are kept on-hand in case a customer finds issue with the bike. In that case, the company is able to determine who caused the defect and how better to remedy the situation.

After our guided tour of the factory floor, we were taken to the entrance of the Ducati Museum and encouraged to walk around and familiarize ourselves with their extensive collection of bikes, which ran the gamut of vintage to current, focusing on the components and drivers that made each model legendary. It was quite an impressive collection that spanned 50 years of motorbike history.

Our visit lasted slightly longer than expected and we were forced to forgo a sit-down lunch in order to make our third visit of the day, Academia Barilla.

Academia Barilla is a revolutionary idea is the culinary arts that takes inspiration from something of a phenomenon I observed around the country, starting with Brioni and Villoresi and eventually with Lavazza. The phenomenon is such that, as these elite firms grow and compile a vast base of knowledge within their organizations, they find themselves learning LESS and spreading their knowledge MORE. Basically, after a firm establishes itself and begins setting the trends by which the rest of the industry sets their standards by, these firms tend to set up schools to share their accumulated knowledge to the interested public.

Academia Barilla had its rather humble beginnings as the brainchild of the man sent to America to bring Italy's market-leading pasta and food products to a market woefully underrepresented with quality Italian food. Their objective, as a company, is to become the market leader in every category they enter. So far, they are able to make that claim, and they hold the position as the top-selling Italian food producer in the world. Still, until the 90s, Barilla was largely unknown in the States. Barilla America was founded in 1994 to capture this market, with a major factory being built in 1999, followed by a second in 2007. After only 16 years, Barilla has captured a 30% market share of pasta in the States.

Academia Barilla was created in 2004 in order to highlight products of the highest quality in Italy and to educate the public on the best practical uses of these products. Using state of the art test- and educational-kitchens, the leaders at Academia Barilla develop training courses for the public that revolve around a specific ingredient, tool or genre of food. These courses dive deep into the history behind the subject matter, how best to utilize the subject and everything else in between. The Academy strives to establish food not simply as calories, but as a way of life. This philosophy is known as gastronomy, and Barilla is at the forefront of the movement.

Another important division under the Academia Barilla umbrella is the quality certification division, whose sole purpose is to scour the Italian food industry for the best and brightest products to which it lends its endorsement. Academia Barilla seeks out these products and the companies that produce them, solicits samples of the products and stamps them with their own brand, adding instant credibility to the producer.

Questions arise as to whether Barilla is worthy of lending its credibility. In response to cynics, Barilla has composed a team of highly-regarded food professionals from around the world as a sort of certification panel to test and rate the products submitted for endorsement. The certification program is stringent, and only the finest Italian-made products make the cut. If they do, however, they gain world-wide exposure and credibility from the most dominant Italian food producer in the world.

Academia Barilla was an interesting stop, but the tour was not very deep. I felt we only skimmed the surface of the potential of the company. Our last stop of the day, however, was much more enlightening. From Barilla we made our way to Dallara, producer of the most successful Formula 3 cars in the world, and component designers to another of the most exclusive automobiles ever created.

Dallara is, first and foremost, a race car designer and manufacturer. Their Formula 3 car bodies are the most celebrated in the world and have garnered them accolades amongst the major car manufacturers in Europe, America and everywhere else.

The founder, Gian Paolo Dallara, originally worked for Lambo, Ferrari and Maserati designing components for each of the three manufacturers. He split from these companies to form his own in 1974, focusing on Formula One and Formula 3 designs throughout the early years. Eventually the company dropped F1 development due to imposing costs, but they have dominated the F3 circuit for the past twenty years. Intermittent attempts have been made to break back into F1 development, but costs are extremely high, and the company has come to embrace their particular strengths.

It should be noted that Dallara does not manufacture every component in their cars. On the contrary, they develop a relatively small portion of the car, namely the chassis and gear box. Engine, tires

Currently, the company's main focus remains its racing division, but plans are in place to develop a Dallara-branded street car that properly represents their heritage in racing. In past years, Dallara has worked with major car manufacturer Volkswagen Group in the development of the Bugatti Veyron, which proved a dramatic revitalization for the essentially hollow brand. The partnership has been a wild success and now the two companies are looking to how they can benefit from each other more in the future.

Specifics of the first Dallara-branded street car are tightly held, but whatever they choose to produce should be a lot of fun to drive. Now, questions arise as to whether Dallara has the competencies to produce their own branded vehicle, and whether the company has a clear market segment to serve. A road car requires complex systems, such as air conditioning and other power-managed systems, that the company is not familiar with developing. Also, the last thing Dallara wants is to dilute its brand with a vehicle that has nothing to do with the heritage of the company.

This is just food for thought, though. Given a solid opportunity, I believe it is in the company's best interest to expand their horizons, if for no other reason than to hedge against the high costs involved in the racing division. If the company could develop a cost-effective vehicle marketed towards those looking to experience the thrill of racing on the streets, strong sales could give Dallara the financial cushion they need to be more competitive in other race circuits.

Tuesday, June 01
Today was a leisurely sort of day. This morning we took a cab over to Pariani, fine English saddle craftsmen, and then made our way to Santa Maria della Grazie to observe one of the most controversial pieces of artwork ever painted, the Last Supper.

Our day started a bit late today. Our first visit was a bit later than what we were used to, so breakfast was decidedly unrushed. Also, breakfast expanded a bit in Milan. We were treated not only to the obligatory soft roll/prosciutto/hard cheese combo that we'd grown accustomed to, but to more Americanized fare such as scrambled eggs and sausage patties. Unfortunately, the eggs were bathing in yolk and the sausage was a bit crispy, so I settled for breakfast paninis anyways.

After a couple mini-sandwiches and a cappuccino, I made my way to the front lobby to meet the group and catch a train over to Pariani's headquarters and workshop. The company was not what I expected, though at this point I'm starting to realize my expectations were way off, in general. The facilities were small, but cozy. The decorations were quite equestrian, but not as highfaluting as one would imagine from the makers of the finest English saddles in the world.

The man that greeted us, Carlo Pariani, was none other than the grandson of the founder of the company. The founder, Adolfo Pariani, opened a shop in 1903 selling mostly English menswear, but also importing British-made saddles. As demand increased the company decided it would be in their best interest to begin manufacturing these saddles. Around this time, revolutionary changes in popular riding styles created a necessity for a saddle that was easier on the horses back. Pariani jumped on the opportunity and designed a saddle utilizing a pliable wood that gave upon landing, distributing the downward forces across the horses' backs and down their sides, easing pressure on the spine.

The first of these saddle models was released in 1939 and garnered the company instant accolades. The saddles have been used by myriad riders of some celebrity, including the Kennedy family, Ronald Raegan, General George Patton, the current president of FIAT, and countless equestrian champions since its development.

Today, their saddles are crafted of high-quality spring woods and full grain leather that, though it requires substantial and continuous maintenance, will last the user many decades and provide unrivaled comfort for both horse and rider. The company has an unrivaled attention to craft and insists each saddle is constructed by one craftsman, start to finish. The process takes the craftsman an average of two days to complete, as opposed to two hours if done mechanically. It is the attention to detail and hand-craftsmanship that make the saddles not only exclusive, but of the highest quality possible.

The saddles are imbued with the human factor. That isn't to say they are built with imperfection, because the craftsman constructing them are the best in the business. Rather, I am saying the saddles are built custom to order, the leather softened by hand and the seams hand-stitched. Looking at the final product, you can see that great care and attention were given to each detail in its construction.

One would read the above and think, wow, this company is doing something right. But there is a logical disconnect. The saddles sell for around $2500, which is relatively mid-range in the high-end saddle market. It is not uncommon to see $5000 saddles in this market. These saddles are inferior, however. Somewhere along the way, the company lost sight of the concept of value-added premiums and willingness to pay. For example, if a customer requested a different, even exotic, colored leather, the company would think nothing of it and comply, though they could obviously charge a premium for these customized services. The company sees such services as complimentary, though really they are not. Another issue is that the saddles are selling for $2500 at the retail level. Many of the saddles produced, however, are purchased by wholesalers for substantially less and the sold for mortifying margins.

After discussing these issues and other, mainly concerning the acclimation period (7 years) of a new employee, to the possibility of expanding into the equestrian accessories market, to the feasibility of setting up a now-infamous school to train new saddle craftsman in a more informal setting, the group took their leave of Mr. Carlo Pariani, catching a cab to Duomo for lunch, and then a train to Santa Maria della Grazie to view the Last Supper.

The painting itself was impressive, taking up the lions share of a large wall inside an empty chapel. The chapel was a strange hybridization of classical and modern architecture. The chapel is a relic of renaissance times, outfitted with modern environmental stability technology that strictly monitors and controls the purity of air, humidity levels and contaminant levels entering and exiting the space, in an effort to preserve one of the last pieces Leonardo di Vinci ever completed.

The viewing was brief, as the chapel is only opened to the public once every few months. Once we made our way through various airlocks we were lined up a few meters away from the painting and told not to take pictures, talk loudly or even breathe hard, as the integrity of the work was fragile. See, the painting was not done in the then-traditional fresco style. Rather, it was painted using water-based tempuras that sat atop the stucco walls, as opposed to the egg-based frescos which are painted while the stucco is wet, infusing the paint into the drying wall.

Because the paint rests atop the stucco, it is perpetually falling off. Since the initial painting was completed, it has been fully restored nine times, the longest restoration lasting more than twenty years. This sort of effort is crucial due to the nature of the painting, its contents and the implications of those contents to the Catholic church. Much speculation has been made about the feminine figure to the right of Christ that may or may not be Mary Magdalene, about the background that is more Tuscany than Jerusalem, and about the symbology regarding the groupings of the apostles and the numerical parallels between the doors and the tapestries.

I'm not versed enough in the history of the painting to discuss any of these controversies, so I won't bother. What I can say is that, when Milan was bombed heavily over the course of World War II, the monastery in which the chapel resides was hit and mostly destroyed, leaving only the chapel and other random segments standing, which I thought was pretty interesting.

A few of us students made our way to Como Lago, a quiet lake town surrounded by hills, located thirty miles north of Milan. The lake flirted with the Swiss border, at the very foot of the Swiss Alps.  From it's high perch, the small town of Brunate consisted of high-priced condos and light tourist fare, all with spectacular panoramic views of the pristine lake and surrounding mountains. We took a tram up to the town and enjoyed drank cappuccini in full view of the breathtaking lake and surrounding countryside. The trip was a welcome distraction from the frantic pace of the trip up to that point. Even our last free excursion, to Naples, was hurried by comparison. Como was about relaxing and enjoying the natural beauty of the country, rather than analyzing what made the country beautiful. Do you see the distinction?

We returned that night tired, but fulfilled. And maybe just a little bit in love.

That night we dined at Duomo. We drank a bit too much wine and crafted the single most convoluted story known to man, starring a young and lusty Italian couple with decidedly French names, a Baron, a Baroness, a talent promoter, a bartender, a stripper, an economist, an academic and a party girl with a red dress and an overactive bladder. After dinner I was invited to the back to try my hand at whipping up a cappuccino, which I delightfully accepted. After dinner we smoked cigars, drank whisky and smoked cigarettes, feeling lighthearted and free after a day that was all our own.

Thursday, June 3
I am writing to you out there on an overnight train from Torino to Trieste. I'm on my way to tour the production facilities and corporate headquarters of Illy Caffe, the Italian espresso producer that provides the espresso I use in my coffeeshop.

So, I've been keeping this fairly well under wraps. Actually, I'm pretty proud of how very quiet I've kept this little secret. I've gotta come clean, though. Truth is, I like coffee. Yeah, I know. Shocking. But really, I like coffee.

So, imagine my surprise and delight in hearing that my study abroad group would also be touring the production facilities of the largest espresso producer and distributor in the world, Lavazza. Yes, I was surprised.

We arrived at Lavazza after taking a two-hour train ride west of Milan, into the heart of Torino, followed by a speedy cab ride out into an industrial district, through the center of town. Entering Lavazza's offices, we passed by a display case exhibiting and extensive collection of demitasse mugs from various coffee institutions. A few interesting mugs of note were Dunkin' Donuts, Illy and Starbucks, but the collection was truly vast, with hundreds of roasters and producers accounted for.

We were then led through the facility's main training room, replete with a dozen or so espresso machines of all makes and models. Pictures were taken, cappuccinos were offered and tears of joy were shed. The man leading the way was called Daniele. He was Lavazza's head barista trainer and all-around coffee enthusiast. After pouring and serving a number of perfect capps to the group, he led us into a presentation room where we learned all about the company's history and discussed the future market growth potential of the global coffee giant.

I got a bit frustrated during this bit of the discussion, because as a coffee person I feel the giant producers are not listening to the pulse of the consumer environment. No one knows whether the idea of specialty coffee is a trend or if it has potential for sustainability, but the movement in coffee as of the past five or so years has been to develop lasting relationships with farmers, working at the ground level to improve the qualities of specific coffees, and then to highlight the nuances of those coffees through careful roasting and brewing, in the hands of a talented barista. I won't limit my argument to espresso, though espresso preparation is my passion and my forte.

The fact is that the coffee-going public is clamoring for coffees of substance in this day and age. They are no longer content with commodity products purchased from haphazard processing stations for the lowest bid. There's a shift occurring in the industry towards single origin coffees and limited blends that highlight a particular farm, or a particular growing region, as opposed to bloated, complex blends aimed at providing a consistently even taste. In the same way that Italians value the hand-made, craft products that I've discussed thus far in these posts, the coffee public in the states value the natural nuances of coffee.

That's a bit of a rant, but it serves a purpose. I discussed the possibility of a company like Lavazza providing exclusive lines of single-origin or limited-blend coffees for a premium cost to the consumer, and was politely shut down. It all came down to a matter of logistics, which bothered me immensely. The company has the infrastructure to handle this sort of program, and they obviously have the source materials. The only reason I can think of NOT to pursue a single-origin program is that the company, like many other Italian espresso producers, believes more in the art of blending.

I don't blame them that. It is an art. It's just not what we want anymore. It's boring. It's tiring. One blend day after day after day. It just doesn't make sense. Okay, I'm done with my rant.

After the discussion we were treated to a tour of the production facilities. We were shown coffee intake and sorting, where 60 kilogram jute bags from various origins were dumped into sorting machines that shook out impurities and sent the various coffees to various silos for storage. We were shown the control room that kept tabs on what was where, and how much. We were shown the 400 pound roasters that contain meters that read bean density and record infrared readings of the internal temperatures of the individual beans to assure even roasting. We were shown the packaging machinery, and finally we were shown the football-field-sized robotized storage facility in which the coffee is stored at random, because it is easier for the robots to retrieve it that way.

Coming from an environment celebrating microroasteries and borderline-obsessive attention to preparation as we are sometimes guilty of, it was great to see the other side of the industry. Lavazza has a fantastic product, and fantastic marketing. There's really no way to argue either of those points. In the end, I was lucky and ecstatic to have been afforded the opportunity to check them out.

Upon leaving Lavazza we made a short drive over to Pininfarina, perhaps the most exclusive and decorated automobile designer in the world. They are the firm responsible for Ferrari's award-winning automobiles for the past 60 years. We weren't brought in to discuss Ferrari, though. Upon arriving we were taken downstairs to the main presentation room and introduced to the senior design manager of the firm and given a personal presentation on the company's latest concept for the Geneva Auto Show, the Sintesi.

The Sintesi is the manifestation of the speculated future needs of drivers, and as exotic as the car appears, it was actually designed to be completely functional. The beauty the car exudes came only after certain practical concepts were fully realized. The most obvious example of function lending to form would be what Pininfarina have dubbed “Liquid Packaging,” in which the engine block is removed and replaced with four independent fuel cells (one on each wheel) that are linked to a central, cylindrical fuel cell processor. These fuel cells move each wheel independently, or they can be synchronized by the central fuel cell processor. The effect is increased fuel efficiency, traction control, and a whole lot of space up front freed up for more dynamic body design. Very cool stuff.

After the presentation the senior designer took his lead and we were handed over to the public relations lady for a tour of their design showrooms to look over their past work. Some of the designs truly were impressive, especially when taking chronology into account. Their design precedes its time. Radical body shapes and functionality such as engine placement and door range of motion were found throughout. The only gripe I had with the firm is that it sounds like a lot of their time is devoted to concepts that never make it into production. It seems to me to be a waste of time, but for the firm it could be a creative outlet in the midst of near-constant design submissions and job bids.

Who knows, I'm not a designer.

After the tour we had a chance to pick our hosts brain about the state of her industry, who she would love to work with and what constitutes good design. Most of the answers to our questions were confidential. What should be public knowledge, if it is not already, is that Pininfirina designs are a perfect melding of functionality and timeless beauty.

Sound like common sense to you? Yeah, it did to me, too.

So that's it. All the scheduled company visits are done and I am on my way towards my last great adventure in this country. My train should arrive in four or so more hours and then it's off to get caffeinated. Ciao friends!

Due mainly to inexperience, but surely also to my propensity to rush, my travels to Trieste were mostly uncomfortable and not terribly scenic.  I took an overnight train from Torino with a stop-off in Bologna at 1 am.  My connecting train didn't arrive until 3, so I had to find a few hours to kill.  I managed by venturing out of the station, eyes open for the first operational cafe to get a cappuccino and a panini to fill my growling stomach.  It didn't take long to find a spot.  It was the only cafe open in the area and was bustling with travelers.  

I had been seating two minutes when a flustered Korean couple stumbled up the cafe, obviously weary and unsure of their whereabouts.  I offered them a seat and they accepted.  Before I knew it, we were discussing our travels, our professions and our various loves in life.  Both were bankers and met each other at work.  At the time they were taking a month-long break, exploring parts of Europe.  They were on their way to Venice and were due to catch the same train as me.

We had some difficulty communicating.  I'm no natural linguist, I guess.  What we did have in common was a mutual respect for the country we found ourselves in.  They spoke to me of the natural beauty of Korea and the disparity between the citizenry and the governing body.  I spoke to them of my love for coffee and mentioned that Korea was home to a couple well-renowned cafes.  We spoke of Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, and of Italian architecture and industry.  Before we knew it, it was 3 and we were all rushing to catch our train. 

In the hustle and bustle of boarding I lost sight of them, and upon searching later I was unable to locate them and thank them for their company, but I hope they know how much I enjoyed our conversation.  I also hope they enjoyed Venice.  I hear it's quite a romantic city.

Trieste is a picturesque town on Italy's far Northeastern Coast, bordered by both the Adriatic and Slovenia and rimmed in sprawling hills.  The hills are covered in mid-rise condos and apartment complexes with fantastical views of the sea spanning far into the distance.  I arrived in Trieste early in the morning after a long night of travel.  I didn't have an alarm with me, so I couldn't sleep on the overnight train.  Again, I stepped off the train and headed out of the station in search of a cafe in which to grab a bite and perhaps freshen up.

I found one with ease.  It was 7:30 in the morning at this point and most businesses in the area were opening up.  I stopped in for a pizza and a Coca Cola and to ask directions to my destination, the corporate headquarters and production facilities for Illy Caffe.  The barista couldn't help much, but suggested a cab driver might be more knowledgeable.  I paid her and headed to the restroom to change and brush my teeth.

I left to find a cab and gave the driver an address I had found online before I left for Italy.  After five minutes we arrived at a vacant building and panic ensued!  I hadn't truly just traveled across the country to find an empty building, had I?!  I asked the driver if there were any other Illy offices in the area and he mentioned there were two.  One was in an industrial sector east of the city and the other was 10 kilometers north of the city.  Taking my chances, and drawing on my experience with Lavazza before, I asked him to drive me to the industrial site.

We drove for what seemed a long time, though it surely wasn't more than 15 or 20 minutes.  My anticipation was growing, as was my anxiety.  We passed a huge industrial port with massive cranes loading and unloading tankers and cargo ships.  The magnitude of the port humbled me and eased my worries a bit.  After a time we arrived at a modern office building and the drivers exclaimed that we had reached our destination.  I thanked him profusely and exited his cab, feeling very much alone, but exhilarated!  I approached the door and my worries melted as I saw a long, soft-white reception desk bearing the distinctive red logo of Illy Caffe. 

Entering, I offered the receptionist my name and she welcomed me warmly, beckoned I sign in and assured me my tour guide would be coming round shortly.  I was directed to a locker to store my belongings and then to a lounge to rest while I waited.  I took the opportunity to look around and marveled at the sleek, clean appointments of the office.  The decor adhered strictly to Illy's design aesthetics, abounding with soft whites, reds and blacks, with hints of silver. All was well-illuminated. In the center of the main foyer was a four-sided coffee bar constantly populated by Illy employees taking short coffee breaks. A lady behind the bar churned out an astounding number of drinks as I watched.

Soon enough my guide, Roberta, arrived and asked if I'd like a coffee. I assented and we enjoyed an espresso before beginning our journey through the factory. The factory itself was, in many ways, like Lavazza before it. And yet, something was different. The scale was smaller, and the feel more personal. The personnel looked happy and the facilities were bustling, unlike Lavazza's spartan, mostly mechanized assembly lines.

We began by visiting the green coffee intake center, where 60 kilogram jute sacks are stored and distributed to the sorting and blending machines. The sorting machines are really something special, shooting the beans at high speeds past lasers that examine them for defects. The defective beans are discarded and those that pass inspection are sent along the way to be blended. The blending process seems simple, on the surface, but only on the surface. Later in the tour I was shown one of the company's daily cuppings, where samples of green coffee are roasted, tasted and sorted according to specifically-evaluated flavor profiles. Back at the blending center, certain percentages of each flavor profile are combined to create the well-balanced, signature flavor the company is known for the world over.

After blending the beans are sent to the roasting room, where large barrels capable of roasting 400 pounds of coffee at a time are happily set in motion, rolling the beans over themselves and embracing them in a 500 degree bear hug. The beans are exposed thusly for a very short time before being dropping out of the barrels and sprayed with cold water, which evaporates immediately, shedding all the heat absorbed by the beans. The process brings the beans from roasting temp down to room temp in a matter of seconds.

Things got a bit more interesting after the roasting room. We headed into the mechanized pod and capsule creation center. Along expansive belts crossing the factory floor ground and dosed small quantities of the roasted beans, wrapped the grounds up in logo-stamped woven-paper envelopes or tamped them into small plastic capsules before lining them up into neat rows and placing them within the various cans, tins and boxes that they would one day be sold in. These packages then got stacked onto pallets and sent to a warehouse where robotic arms arranged them to rest until their shipping orders came in and they got sent out into the big, wide world.

From start to finish the process left little to chance. Defective beans, pods and capsules were discarded and only the finest final product was sent for shipping. Pods and capsules that found themselves not properly aligned for packaging were sent back to be repackaged. It was a highly efficient process that discouraged waste. The company wasn't outputing the same volumes as Lavazza, and their final product seemed better for it.

One particular process I haven't touched upon yet was the tin manufacturing process. Illy packs their wholesale coffees in distinctive aluminum tins that are produced right there in the factory. The aluminum arrives at the factory flat-packed on pallets. On an assembly line designed by Illy engineers, the sheets of aluminum were wrapped into cylinders and welded. The bottoms and tops of the cylinders were them machined, capped and welded with other, more specialized pieces of aluminum. After the tins were welded completely they were corked with an air compressor and submerged in water to assure they were airtight.

After the air test, the functional tins were dried and filled with beans and nitrogen to assure the natural gasses within the beans stayed within the beans, while the defective tins were separated, crushed and sent away for recycling. The tins are, in a way, iconic of the company as a whole. It was interesting to witness their creation up close.

We proceeded upstairs to Illy's world-famous training facilities that boasted myriad espresso machines and other brewing apparatuses. It also housed the personal library of Dr. Francesco Illy, which contained thousands of books pertaining to science, philosophy and coffee geekery.

I regret that I was not able to experience the infamous Illy Aroma lab, where cutting edge research is conducted into the molecular chemistry of coffee and the gastronomical applications thereof. It was in this lab that one of Illy's newest products, Cafe Crema, was created. Cafe Crema is a frozen, nearly gelatinous concoction of Illy espresso and heavy cream that has a texture like gelato, but without remaining rigid. It is smooth and creaming and utterly delicious. It's been released in Italy. Let's hope it makes it to the States soon.

The next couple days are a blur of insomnia and emotion. I took a train back to Milan that same afternoon, to find only the empty rooms of my classmates. I took the opportunity to take a much-needed shower and headed out on the town for dinner. I spent the evening at Duomo, sipping red wine and watching the street salesmen sending illuminated flying toys into the sky against the looming silhouette of the chapel. It was an interesting setting to look back on the trip and digest what it meant to me. Everything has changed. There's a new perspective within me that wasn't sought out, but it crept in nonetheless

You see, I never saw myself as the traveling sort. I always figured the States had enough to offer, enough to see and experience. But there is a pervading thought in America that life is about the accumulation of wealth, and that the pursuit might somehow lead to happiness. That is simply not the case. It struck me that, walking down the streets of Florence, one could count a dozen or more neighborhood shops founded over 100 years ago and still attracting the necessary business to sustain the owners in comfort. It became apparent that the Italian mentality relies on the retention of a firm's control, either by family or by a select group of individuals, by any means necessary. They have traded short-term profitability for security and longevity and they're perfectly content with the switch.

These things I pondered over spaghetti con ragu and a Chianti Reserve. Feeling tipsy, but content with a bit of coconut gelato in my stomach I took the Blue line back to the hotel. My roommate was back, exclaiming the group missed me terribly, and that the professor was singing “Oh Danny Boy” all day to alleviate their lamentations. I helped her pack and we discussed some of my thoughts from earlier, and a bit of what we loved about this country. We fell asleep feeling nostalgiac, but happy. In the morning I walked her to her bus and then she was gone. Her adventure was nearly over, but I still had one last leg of my journey: Amsterdam.

I wasted no time getting to the airport. I had a train ticket for the next morning that I switched for an overnight leaving that evening. The ride was, as usual, uncomfortable. I didn't bring my phone across the pond, and I never thought to pick up an alarm clock before this point, so I didn't get a lot of sleep on the train. My car was full so I didn't even get to stretch out. I arrived at Schiphol airport exhausted, but thrilled. I checked my baggage into a locker and went downstairs to catch a train to Amsterdam Centrale.

The train station was packed. So were the streets, despite ominous clouds and the beginnings of a light drizzle. I left the station and headed for a tourist center, where I found a map of hostels in the area. I started walking towards what I later discovered to be the Red Light District and took a room at the Bulldog. After a shower and a shave I set out to discover the city. The canals were a maze, a web of long names and ambiguous signage. I got lost a few times, but I never hurt for good food. The streets are lined with pastry shops, coffee bars and, ironically, Argentinian steak houses. A word to the wise: the chefs prefer their steak quite rare.

I didn't have much time in the city, so I mainly wandered the streets. The town lit up at night and I soon found myself bathed in neon. The squares hosted live music and soon enough the city was awash in everything from rock and roll to jazz to hip hop tunes, setting a peculiar mood. Everywhere, groups of friends walked about with beers and cigarettes in hand, reveling in the lively atmosphere, largely ignoring the drizzling rain and offensive odors rising up from the canals.

There was too much to do, too much to see for the few hours I had to explore. I met up with one of the guys from my dorm for a beer late in the evening. We talked about where we were from, and what we did. I told him of my quest to seek out the best coffee in Europe and he told me that he had planned to be in Amsterdam for two days, but was on his fourth night. The city, it would seem, has that effect on people. Knowing I had an early flight, I took my leave of the gentleman in search of an alarm clock. I found one, but I couldn't set it, so I stayed awake by the sound of the ticking.

When the sun rose, so did I. I made my way out into the gray Dutch morning with my camera in one hand and my overnight bag in the other. The day that followed was much like many before it. I boarded a few trains, sought out my luggage, got on a plane and made my way back to the States.

You hear a lot about culture shock when you go abroad. Heading to Italy I felt none of it. Perhaps it was my American arrogance, or that my excitement drowned out any negative mental state of mind that the cultural differences may have brought to bear. Regardless, I felt shock coming home. I began to miss the old continent the moment I stepped back in the airport, but by the time I boarded my plane I wished with all my might I could have just one more day far from home.

I'm thankful for my time away, and I feel I'm a better person for it.

Florence, wait for me. I'll be back someday soon.

Daniel Stewart Mueller at 1:06 PM | 0 comments