Farewell, Dr Illy . . . and Thank you!
Feb 02, 2008
News has reached us that Dr Ernesto Illy, the founder of Illy Coffee (as-we-know-it), has died at age 83. I met Dr Illy only once–back in the early 1990’s, when specialty coffee equalled Starbucks, at least in Seattle. At that time, if there was one other company that stood out for its fanatical integrity around coffee, it was Illy. Illy was an enigmatic brand because it’s name represented far more than just a lightly roasted espresso blend from Trieste. It represented a man–Dr Illy.
Dr Illy was a surprising mixture of product promoter and scientist. The famous book he co-authored, Espresso: The Chemistry of Quality, is seldom read but often quoted. This is because ( I assume) it is a highly empirical work, based on extensive laboratory studies, in a realm that far prefers the Art to the Science of espresso. Terms like polyphasic colloidal foam (meaning crema) make his book a conjurer’s guide for anyone who wants to approach coffee from a scientific angle and impress friends and neighbors with a magical coffee lexicon. Yet anyone who takes even a few minutes to learn something from Dr Illy’s work stands out in a field where most people like to talk about “tiger striping” and detect hints of blueberry syrup in their roasted beans.
As much as Dr Illy brought science to the general field of coffee, and especially espresso, he also brought good will to the Illy brand of coffee. I remember one time at Olive Garden in South Center, Dr Illy ordered an espresso after dinner, because Olive Garden was a large client of Illy USA. When the slightly insecure waiter brought the sloppy concoction to the table, Dr Illy tasted it, smiled knowingly, and proclaimed it, “excellent”. I just loved that because it was the right thing for him to say at that moment, for that less-than-perfect coffee, and he knew it. The waiter left the table with new found confidence.
Dr Illy was a wise, good man, with a big streak of fun that ran right to his very core. He will be missed and remembered for as long as espresso is prepared and enjoyed. (Eric)