According to some reports, espresso – after water – is the second most consumed beverage in Italy. Millions of cups of espresso are drunk daily across the country. In early 2020, The Consortium for the Safeguarding of Traditional Italian Espresso Coffee even filed a UNESCO application to preserve espresso’s Italian roots and identity.
However, despite inflation (€1 in 2000 is now worth €1.39 today – that’s a cumulative price change of 39%) the cost of an espresso has remained consistent throughout the country. Even in the more expensive regions of Italy, the average price of a single espresso is around €1.
Espresso has been a prevalent part of Italian culture since 1884, when Angelo Moriondo manufactured a machine that used steam to reduce the amount of time required to brew a cup of coffee. Espresso machines started to become common in coffee shops throughout the early 20th century. This soon led to the emergence of “espresso bars” in Italy. However, out-of-home coffee consumption was largely reserved for the upper classes in the early 1900s. In 1911, Italian authorities enforced a maximum price for certain “necessities”, which included coffee. Given these low prices, espresso bar operators sought to cut corners and save money in other places, including service. Many of them charged extra if the customer sat down to drink their espresso, rather than standing. Regulations were, and still are, beneficial for independent espresso bars and by imposing a fixed price for coffee it then avoided one bar undercutting another. Councils controlled the overall number of bars in operation, and imposed a schedule regulating the days on which each bar could open.
Approximately 97% of Italian adults drink coffee every day. In Italian coffee culture, it’s not uncommon to drink several espressos throughout the course of the day. And like Italian personalities, the resounding preference is for bold, intense, bitter coffee; espresso bars often use dark roasts and sometimes even a blend of arabica and robusta for higher caffeine content.
Generally, as you go further south in Italy, coffee drinkers prefer darker and darker roasts for their espresso. Furthermore, espresso shots tend to be shorter in the south than they are in the north. A classic single Italian espresso shot is 7g in the basket, served as 25ml in the cup. This usually means a basket of 14g being used to brew two 25ml shots. However, there is substantial regional variation, particularly from north to south. For instance, a ristretto is effectively the standard size of coffee shot in, say, Naples.
Espressos are also generally cheaper in the south. Bari has the lowest-priced espresso across all polled Italian cities, at €0.75. The most expensive espresso can be found in the northern city of Bologna, where the average price is as €1.10. The Italian affinity for darker roasts in espresso also means that it’s easier to hide defects and use lower-quality beans. While this is a generalisation, it has meant that historically, some Italian roasters have been able to buy cheaper green coffee, allowing espresso bars to keep their prices low. In fact, coffee bars in Italy have incredibly high margins on espresso, making an average of €0.96 per serving. Further along the supply chain, roasters earn €0.18 a cup, while producers make just €0.02 on average. Service times in Italy for an espresso are just over 30 seconds on average. Furthermore, traditionally, Italians drink espresso in no more than three mouthfuls. All of this helps keep customer turnover high and beverage costs low, maximising bars’ profit margins.
The arrival of chains like Starbucks in Italy has played a part in “reforming” the way that people view coffee in the country. More than ever, Italian coffee consumers are starting to look at the producer end of the coffee supply chain, rather than just roasting, brewing, and consumption. Some 90% of coffee bars in Italy are independent, but last year, there were only 100 specialty coffee shops across the country.
Tradition and culture mean that espresso remains affordable in Italy. However, some think that it is also a barrier to specialty coffee taking a wider hold in the country. An increase in interest may lead to people accepting higher prices in proportion to coffee. However, between a longstanding national taste for darker and more intense espresso, alongside a cultural “maximum” price that has existed for decades, it looks like €1 espressos will be an Italian staple for some time yet.