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 fact, in early 2022, Italy’s Ministry of Agricultural, Food, and Forestry Policies filed a UNESCO application to preserve espresso’s Italian roots and identity – one of several that the country has submitted over the years.
However, despite inflation (€1 in 2000 is now worth €1.58 in 2022 – that’s a cumulative price change of 58%) 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.
Read on to understand more about why Italy sets price regulations on espresso.
The Significance Of Espresso In Italy
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.
However, 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.
Professor Jonathan Morris is a Research Professor in History at the University of Hertfordshire. He has published books including Coffee: A Global History. He is also a member of the Consortium for the Safeguarding of Traditional Italian Espresso Coffee.
Jonathan tells me that these price regulations were, and still are, beneficial for independent espresso bars. “Imposing a fixed price for coffee avoided one bar undercutting another,” he explains. “Councils controlled the overall number of bars in operation, and imposed a schedule regulating the days on which each bar could open.
“This [was] met with many [independent] proprietors’ approval in the post-war period. It effectively ensured that operators of more ‘modern’ business models, such as chains, were dissuaded from entering the market.”
How Do Consumption Trends Affect The Price Of Espresso?
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.
In Italy, 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, Jonathan adds, espresso shots tend to be shorter in the south than they are in the north. “The 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.
Is There A Push To Raise The Price Of Espresso?
Italian consumer watchdog, Codacons, filed a complaint in May 2020, stating that espresso prices had become too high. This was in part thanks to the Italian government imposing a “Covid-19 tax” on widely-consumed products like coffee.
Codacons noted that in Rome, espressos had increased in price from €1.10 to €1.50, while they had reached as high as €2 in Milan.
The watchdog also complained about the price of Starbucks’ espresso in Italy, after the company opened two stores in Rome and Milan in 2018.
It’s clear that many Italians want to preserve the affordability of espresso. However, by doing so, many espresso bars will continue to use cheaper, lower-quality coffee and roast it dark, and ostensibly stifle the growth of the specialty sector.
Dario Fociani is the co-founder of Faro Caffé Specialty in Rome. He is also a competition barista and was a finalist in the Italian Cup Tasting Championship. “Roughly defined, I think it’s maybe 1% of the population who [are] conscious of the third wave of coffee. There are a lot of people who want to keep things as they are.
“People are used to thinking that coffee is cheap, and that profits in coffee are high even at €0.90. Many trade unions and syndicates keep saying this in newspapers when someone tries to [raise] the coffee price.
“But in reality, fixed costs are so high compared to other kinds of products, like alcohol, bread, and pizza. In comparison, coffee has literally no profit margin.”
Jonathan tells me that there is a small, but emerging movement among Italian business owners who want to raise coffee prices, but he notes that they are facing difficulties. “[There is] a more general lament among roasters and proprietors about the price of an ordinary espresso and the need to generate a higher margin on it.
“This is in many ways a more intractable issue because it seeks to change a long-established, mainstream culture [in Italy].”
The Future Of Italian Espresso
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. Dario says he still sees that people are hesitant to accept the new standards of specialty coffee and its higher prices.
“I think what scares the Italians [more] is not the idea of a blend or a single-origin, but rather the different roast levels available,” he says. “Italians are not used to light roasts.”
Global specialty coffee events have taken place in Italy in recent years, such as the 2022 World of Coffee expo in Milan. These have helped to bring more of a focus on new trends and specialty coffee more widely, but there is a long way to go yet. It will take a lot of work to motivate most espresso and coffee bars to use more expensive coffee.
Dario believes it’s important that specialty coffee in Italy acknowledges its roots. He thinks that specialty coffee shops should showcase more traditional “Italian” flavour profiles alongside lighter roasts. He says this will help “ease” consumers into trying new flavours and aromas, as well as making them more willing to pay a premium for better coffee.
“We started to offer medium roasts [as well as] lighter roasts, and let people choose. We reached a point where we were brewing 7kg a day in our store. Now, we have a good name among people who work in the hospitality sector, and even with a low profit margin, we’ve started to see results.”
Jonathan, however, thinks that a wider change in coffee shop culture is necessary. “It may be that the changing use of space within the coffee bar, with younger customers preferring more ‘dwell time’, offers a route towards a compromise between customers and operators, and facilitates a more sustainable price for espresso in the future.”
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.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on how temperature stability affects espresso extraction.
Photo credits: L.C. Nøttaasen, Adam Freidin, Scott Schiller, Romedia Studio, Chris Flores
Perfect Daily Grind
Some figures in this article were updated in December 2022.
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