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Lavazza makes a rare exception

From the March 2019 issue.

Lavazza talks to Global Coffee Report about its connection to one of the world’s most sacred and oldest coffee plantations, and why the Australian market has been given special permission to make history.

Deep into the Ethiopian forest is one of the world’s most precious and original sources of Arabica coffee.

Located about 460 kilometres southwest of Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa is the Kafa Biosphere Reserve, the birthplace of wild Arabia, dating back around 850AD. The biodiversity hotspot contains close to 5000 wild varieties of wild Arabica, which have grown spontaneously with minimal intervention from the region’s inhabitants for centuries, according to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

It’s this unspoilt terrain and the region’s low yielding coffee production, however, that makes Kafa Forest coffee one of the most exclusive and premium beans on the market.

Cristiano Portis, Asia and Pacific Coffee Research and Development Manager and Licensed Q Grader for Lavazza, recalls the sacred nature of the Kafa region when he made his pilgrimage to coffee’s holy land in 2001.

“Coffee has such a beautiful history and Kafa is a true reminder of where it all began. I remember spending time with a local family who invited me to a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony,” Portis recalls.

“They roasted the coffee on a saucepan over a flame, like the way we roast chestnuts in Italy. A mortar and pestle was then used to grind the coffee before putting it into a bunna – a traditional brewing vessel, like an old moka pot. The bunna was put on the fire and we waited for the water to boil before small cups of coffee were served, first to the oldest member of the family. The remaining coffee was then served in rounds. With each round you could taste a deeper, more complex, and developed flavour.”

Cristiano Portis is the Asia and Pacific Coffee Research and Development Manager and Licensed Q Grader for Lavazza.This tradition is engraved in Ethiopian history, much like Lavazza’s tradition for roasting coffee, which it has done since 1895.

The Italian roaster has demonstrated its commitment to the Ethiopian coffee-producing community for more than 30 years, including the sourcing of its 100 per cent Arabica Kafa Forest Coffee. While it’s not new to the Lavazza coffee portfolio, what is, however, is its decision to roast the Kafa Forest single origin outside of its Italy base.

“Australia is the first and only country the Lavazza family has ever permitted to replicate and roast one of its iconic coffee’s outside of Italy,” says Silvio Zaccareo, APAC Business Unit Director and Lavazza Australia Managing Director.

“The quality of Kafa is the same as Italy’s, but the roasting process and roasting time is different. Lavazza has the credibility. It has 120-plus years of history among the top coffee players leading the Italian market. Lavazza is focused only on coffee, it’s our specialty, but we also know in a humble way that we need to respect Australia’s sophisticated and knowledgeable consumer and get closer to that market. It’s all about finding the balance.”

Zaccareo says that around the world, Lavazza is respected for its heritage, authentic Italian quality coffee products and story. Now, it needs to hear the stories of its consuming audience in order to connect with their coffee-drinking prerequisites. 

“Since the beginning, Australia has been a very important market for us. It’s the fifth-largest market outside of Italy,” Zaccareo says. “The level of sophistication from the Australian consumer’s point of view is really high. It’s a consumer that knows about coffee and quality, and they’re looking for a story, which is what Kafa embraces as the most premium single origin coffee in the Lavazza portfolio.”

To make that connection, back in Australia, Portis was the man tasked with the role of testing the ideal roasting profile that would respect the identity of the original Lavazza Kafa single origin, but also reflect the Australian market’s penchant for delicate roasting.

“I went through many different batches and roasting profiles. We didn’t bother using a small roaster. We went straight in and used a large-scale 120-kilogram roaster to find the perfect blend, roasting 100 kilograms at a time,” Portis says.

Silvio Zaccareo is the APAC Business Unit Director and Lavazza Australia Managing Director.“I selected five different roasting profiles and after two weeks of maturation, did a blind cupping at the Lavazza Australia training centre. I got a fair amount of judgement, but took my favourites to Italy for a blind cupping with the Lavazza family – the family always has the final say.”

With a few further tweaks to reduce the acidity in the cup, the outcome was a slow 15-minute roast to preserve Kafa’s organoleptic profile. Portis says this is the secret to Kafa’s perfect balance of aroma, taste, and body, and the key to Giuseppe Lavazza asking him for a cup of his “Australian roasted Kafa” each time he returns to Torino.

“The coffee in Melbourne is very fresh so we have chosen to roast a bit lighter and brighter compared to the way we roast Kafa in Italy, which is a bit more rounded. The result is a more aromatic cup profile with fruity, floral tones,” Portis says.

“Farmers have the ability to make an impact on cup profile in the different processing methods they use, and it’s the same from the roaster’s end. You can roast the same coffee in so many different ways and achieve so many different results. It’s incredibly powerful to the barista’s and consumer’s coffee experience.”

Before moving to Australian in 2015 to support the establishment of Lavazza Group’s associated company Lavazza Australia and its local roasting procedures, Portis says he, like many Europeans, was sceptical about the Australian consumer’s devotion to high quality milk-based coffee, which makes up more than 90 per cent of the market share.

“I’d often wonder, ‘why are the Aussies so fussy about their coffee? They add a lot of milk to it anyway.’ Then when you realise people drink high quality coffee with milk, and try it for yourself, you can taste the difference in the cup. It really is a unique way of complementing the coffee,” Portis says.

As such, Lavazza’s Kafa Forest coffee is suited to both milk-based and black coffees. However, its low yield is what makes it an exclusive and premium coffee with an intense richness, best reserved for fine dining establishments and venues wanting to offer customers the ultimate specialty coffee experience.

In Lavazza’s 120-plus years of history, Portis is the company’s only registered Q Grader. He has an eye for detail and palate for flavour, but says it’s only through the evolution of the Specialty Coffee Association and Coffee Quality Institute that he has been able to develop a common lexicon to critique coffee.

Lavazza does not use a grading system to assess its coffees. Rather, Portis says the company has practised strict quality control measures long before there were mandatory practice. This ensures Lavazza purchases specialty coffees 80 points and above that naturally do not carry any primary defects, and only allows for a limited number of secondary defects.

“We buy about four to five containers of fully natural processed, hand-picked Kafa, dried naturally in the sun. You can buy Kafa coffee from other people but it’s not the Kafa we buy. Ours is prepared just for Lavazza. We know it’s good quality. We buy all our coffee against our standards. Then it’s just a question of in-cup quality,” Portis says.

Lavazza buys a lot of coffee. It has a history of more than a century, and it tastes coffee every single day. It understands defects, sizing, and quality.

“We’ve been so strict with our processes for so long that our quality control is just normal practice we’ve done from day one,” Portis says.

Being one step ahead also means that Lavazza continues to support Ethiopia’s agricultural economy and the beauty of its Kafa Forest, which is now under threat from climate change and disease.

“It’s a scary reality how much longer we’ll be able to enjoy the beauty of Kafa coffee. Research is showing that in some countries, changes are already happening, much earlier than what was expected,” Portis says.

“What climate change will mean, for example, is an inability to cultivate coffee at the same altitude. In places like Ethiopia, you can [grow coffee at] higher altitudes but this is also a social problem – no-one wants responsibility for tomorrow’s problem.”

The community is at risk of one day losing its exclusive crop, but until then, Zaccareo says Lavazza will continue to highlight its commitment to spreading quality and authentic coffee experiences worldwide, like it’s done for the past 120 years.

“Lavazza is connected to its consumers like never before, evident through its commitment to roasting Kafa specially for the Australian market,” Zaccareo says. “It is this devotion to our different markets and our dedicated consumers that drives us to continue the pursuit of quality like we’ve always done, and will continue to do.”

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