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An Accademia for the world

From the January 2020 issue.

Paris has the Louvre, New York has the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, London has the British Museum, and now Florence has Accademia Del Caffè Espresso, a place where legacy meets vision.

Standing in the entrance to Accademia Del Caffè Espresso, visitors to the centre for espresso excellence could liken the establishment to a Guggenheim museum with its crisp white interior and artistic displays. But Accademia is not devoted to the arts. It’s dedicated to building a sustainable future for espresso coffee in the heart of Tuscany, Italy.

“Welcome,” exclaimed Accademia Del Caffè Espresso General Manager Marta Kokosar at the exclusive media preview following HostMilano 2019.

“This is a magical place for everyone to enjoy, dedicated to research, innovation, and exchange of information. Accademia will create value for the entire coffee industry. It was a concept on paper a long time ago, and now we have created a special place here in Florence that puts the history of La Marzocco, and the world of coffee, in the spotlight.”

A photographer and music producer for many years, Kokosar is talented at bringing her subjects to life from behind the lens or backstage – and Accademia is no different.

Her first job as a photojournalist saw her travel throughout South-East Asia and parts of Central America. She recalls travelling to Vietnam in 1994 when then-United States President Bill Clinton lifted the 19-year trade embargo on Vietnam, opening the door for more Western travellers.

“I was living the dream job. I was super young and ambitious, but I made a terrible mistake. The photography industry was the first to be seriously affected by digitalisation and I didn’t understand it. I was conservative. I wanted to keep my artisan approach and develop my own photos, but everyone started doing better than me. My career ended because I couldn’t adapt to change,” Kokosar says.

She was determined not to let that happen again. When Kokosar went back to Italy, she started taking digital photos for events, concerts, and recording houses, and forged a career in the music industry. Before long she was working as an MTV producer for live shows, meeting musicians including Amy Winehouse, for whom Kokosar produced the last live recorded performance before her death.

“When you’re a producer you have to understand how to create the best environment for the artist to perform and connect with the audience. When you achieve that, the result is magical,” Kokosar says. “You have to choose the venue, how many people to attend, and consider every part of the chain, from the support act to the design of the stage. Everything you choose has to tell a story.”

For more than 10 years, Kokosar also worked as Marketing and Communications Director for MTV’s direct competitor, Gruppo Editoriale L’Espresso, an Italian media conglomerate. In 2009 the digital revolution of the music business again altered the course of Kokosar’s career. Nine free-to-air TV channels became 2000, and Kokosar could no longer continue to produce the same volume of live music concerts with the same impact. This time, she left the industry to start her family, having daughters Neva and Nina in the space of two years.

When she re-joined the industry, Kokosar did so as a consultant. She met with Italian espresso machine manufacturer La Marzocco who was looking for someone in the entertainment industry to produce its 2013 Out of the Box event to unite industry members with thought-provoking lectures.

“I fell in love with the company and the coffee industry. It opened my mind. I knew nothing about the specialty coffee industry, but I wanted to learn. I called Guido [Bernardinelli, CEO] and Chris [Salierno, Marketing Director] and told them I wanted to be part of this industry Kokosar recalls.

They agreed. Kokosar produced Out of the Box in Milan, followed by the World AeroPress Championship in Rimini. Guido and Chris told Kokosar they had an idea for a project that would become an icon for the coffee industry and a place of history, but they didn’t know how to do it.

Kokosar next heard of the idea in Seattle during the 2018 Specialty Coffee Association Expo. La Marzocco’s board members told her Accademia was no longer just a concept on a piece of paper, and that she would be the one to lead it.

“When I was asked to be General Manager of Accademia, I was shocked. I am the first woman in the company to cover a GM role. I felt very happy and proud of my myself,” Kokosar says. “I’ve learnt that to be a woman in male-oriented industries – first in photography, then music, and, in some ways, coffee – you have to try not to be conservative. You need to embrace change, network, have important conversations, and be passionate about what you do. Having this role on a more international level now gives me the chance to have a huge impact on an industry I’ve fallen in love with.”

Kokosar says it’s also a credit to the La Marzocco board that they saw the value in hiring a non-industry representative for the role, a decision she thinks more businesses should consider.

“The strength of working with people from other industries is immense. They can bring a different skillset and level of expertise. There’s always a little risk, but the world is changing. There’s no more ‘female and male, black and white’. Everything is more fluid, so we have to be part of it, embrace it, and move forward,” she says.

To extend this outlook, the first person Kokosar bought into her team to bring Accademia to life was Eleonora Angela Maria Ignazzi. Ignazzi had experience running an art gallery in New York and is now Accademia’s Content Curator. Then came Silvia Bartoloni, who knows the culture of La Marzocco inside out. She is in charge of alliances and partnerships with universities, schools, and institutes to help Accademia stay relevant.

Already, Accademia is involved in two lines of research with the University of Florence. One focuses on finding more sustainable methods of coffee farming to help smallholder producers improve their quality and sell their coffee at a higher price. The other line discovers more objective measures of traceability in partnership with the Cup of Excellence, which is sending green bean and soil samples from different plantations to the university for analysis.

Leading the projects is Professor Stefano Mancuso, a leading authority on plant neurobiology. In 2014, he was put in the spotlight for claiming that “plants are intelligent” and in 2015, The New Yorker named Mancuso as one of 20 game-changers in the world.

“I remember reading the list and I saw Stefano was the only Italian. I Googled him, saw he was the same age as me, and that he was running the science department here in Florence. So, I went and knocked on his door,” Kokosar says. “I told him about our coffee plant projects, and he was interested. Together, we’ve started this partnership that will hopefully help the industry as a whole by creating more innovation. There are so many buzz words like traceability, sustainability, and transparency, but they are the fields we need to drive innovation in the most, and that’s what we want Accademia to do.”

Kokosar says there’s already outcomes from the research, with Accademia invited to present the findings to the Accademia dei Georgofili, the world’s oldest accademia.

“Italy has a huge culture around coffee, but it’s in trouble. Italians think they know everything, but it’s the contrary. It’s hard to make them understand that there’s a whole world behind it. If Accademia can help educate the Italians and strengthen their understanding, it will create value for the entire industry. It’s how I feel about the opening of Starbucks Reserve in Milan too – it’s helping to spread awareness about coffee to Italians, and we need that.”

The past two years have been a journey of research and discovery for Kokosar as she expanded her coffee knowledge and helped build Academia bit by bit. This includes the dome structure of the building, La Marzocco’s original industrial factory from 1959 to 2009. Back then, the company’s founding fathers, Giuseppe and Bruno Bambi, managed and designed the so-called “officina” or workshop alongside a small group of craftsmen. The officina was later led by Piero Bambi.

Inside Accademia are treasures old and new, such as an original Bambi Bar from 1959 which Kokosar says “is like seeing a portrait of an era in Italy after the war”, and a newly commissioned bronze replica of the Marzocco statue, the heraldic lion and symbol of Florence. It is an ode to Italy’s republic era in the late 14th century. As it turns out, the sculptor is the only person with the license to replicate the Marzocco from the original Donatello drawing.

Each room has a purpose. Accademia’s Cluster Centre focuses on innovation. Holograms demonstrate the advancements of barista ergonomics and a deconstructed La Marzocco Linea Mini is turned into wall art to help visitors understand the intricacies involved in assembling a machine by hand.

One of the most impressive and magical structures in the museum is a kinetic sculpture created by artist Charles Morgan made entirely from spare espresso machine parts. The mesmerising structure represents the production of La Marzocco coffee machines and the many layers involved in its creation, from factory workers to the classic Bambi delivery bus.

A historical timeline maps important dates in La Marzocco’s history and matches them with important world events: the launch of the La Marzocco home range in 2014 – the year Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize – and the launch of the KB90 in 2019, the year the NASA released the first image of a black hole.

The Coffee Cluster room is a space to learn about the many elements impacting coffee production, such as climate change, and a chance to “reduce the gap” about consumers’ geographic knowledge of coffee production.

The pièce de résistance is the dedicated glasshouse. It is filled with a forest of coffee plants, including mature red and yellow caturra shrubs, banana trees, and shade plants. Resident Head of Operations Massimo Battaglia controls the greenhouse’s temperature, humidity, and irrigation.

The largest room in the building is the Accademia Bar, showcasing La Marzocco’s best technology and products with a striking glass wall of Leva machines stacked three deep. Around the parameters are sensory and cupping rooms and dedicated training spaces for international courses and certifications. Each lab shares views of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation-protected hills, the subject of many renaissance paintings.

“The one tagline I kept in mind when building Accademia was that it should be a place where legacy meets vision, and where artisanship and knowledge can create innovation,” Kokosar says.

“I think the secret is to dig deep into the roots of your history but look to the future without being scared. Maybe it was fear that stopped me before. It’s fear that can cause an individual or a company to collapse, such as recording houses. They collapsed because they didn’t understand the world was changing around them. They were hiring lawyers to protect the copyright of music, but technology was moving forward too fast.”

Kokosar learnt that lesson the hard way and is committed to helping Accademia evolve through collaborations and partnerships that will help it stay relevant for years to come.

“I have to continue to keep in mind that we are telling the stories of artisans, but we are also running research to try to innovate the industry. If we can combine all these different opposites like legacy and history and artistry and technology, and help them work together, it’s a win-win,” she says. “It might sound presumptuous, but we feel a real commitment to the industry. Our approach is very authentic.”

The official opening of Accademia is scheduled for April 2020, but the space is already operating as a platform to champion the international coffee community towards a sustainable future. All that’s left is for visitors to enter the Accademia with a little curiosity and an open mind.

“We can’t wait to share this magical masterpiece with the world, which we hope will contribute to the future health and longevity of our industry,” Kokosar says. “We want Accademia to become a destination because this place is about more than just coffee.”

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