Earlier this year I attended Illy‘s Università del Caffè at CIA Greystone in St. Helena, CA for a course titled Coffee Expert: From Plant to the Cup. Effectively it was a slightly updated and “Americanized” version of the introductory Illy course I first wrote about eight years ago when the famed food writer, David Lebovitz, attended it at their headquarters in Trieste, Italy. (Following a few mutual-admiration-society-type exchanges with David, I later wrote a guest post on David’s blog the following month.)

Flash forward to April of this year (if you’re wondering why it’s taken me so long to post this, I really have no excuse), and I finally had the opportunity to attend this two-day course myself in the Napa Valley.

Despite what many Third Wave fanboys might consider an “establishment” coffee company, I’ve long admired the detailed science, style, ethics, and quality controls behind illycaffè. I’ve also been a fan of their coffee — particularly in Europe more than in any other continent for yet-to-be-explained reasons. In more recent times I’ve also come to know a few members of the illy caffè North America team and have become a real fan. Connecting with them opened a door to attend one of their professional courses — held at one of two Culinary Institute of America locations in the U.S., typically a couple times each year.

The CIA Greystone CIA Greystone's Rudd Wine Center

Mark Romano instructs the class on green coffee origins Carlos Chavez serves up some great espresso drinks throughout the day

Held at CIA Greystone’s Rudd Wine Center, it’s a facility and environment designed expressly for educating the sensory evaluation of wine… or also, as it turns out, coffee. Students sit at curved, lab-like tables surrounding an instructor equipped with various A/V controls. Each student station has access to a sink, running water, and multiple counters for performing sensory evaluations and comparisons.

Carlos Chavez styling out in his Illy regaliaKey illy caffè North America instructors included Mark Romano, their Senior Director of Education, Quality and Sustainability. There was also Giorgio Milos, their Master Barista & Instructor and famed coffee blogger. I learned his mother was an Illy employee for 35 years and his father was a dairyman: how’s that for barista pedigree? And there was also the Seattle-based Heidi Rasmussen, their Senior Manager Education and Quality … and chief wise-cracker. Also on-site to both serve attendees excellent espresso drinks and assist with the hands-on training was Carlos Chavez, 22-year veteran of SF’s Caffè Greco.

Student attendees included a number of coffee industry professionals, including a contingent from Seattle’s Caffè Umbria (such as Stefano Bizzari, son of Caffè Umbria founder, Emanuele Bizzari, and grandson of Umberto Bizzari of Torrefazione Italia fame). Other students — there was a total of about 25-30 — were either in the food or restaurant industry but typically humbly called themselves “coffee enthusiasts”.

The course covered the usual suspects of coffee history, processing, brewing, demand issues, trends, sustainability and supply chain concerns. Much of the material was already familiar to me, but even so it was worth experiencing it in a cohesive course. Even if you’re not a complete novice, there are always details that add something — such as learning a lot more of the nuances that go into making a proper Moka pot. (Or, what Heidi exemplified: “Bad Moka vs. Good Moka”)

Interspersed among the more textbook lessons were various sensory evaluations of coffee: blind tastings of different preparation methods (including blind triangular studies), arabicas vs. robustas, different geographies, decaffeination comparisons, different roasting levels, and different extraction levels. Or even just noticing the flaws in espresso as it cools.

Giorgio Milos addresses the class on the physiology of tasting coffee A triangular comparison of robusta and arabica

Coffee evaluation notebook from the course Rice puffs are used to clean the palate between coffee tastings

Lunch in the CIA Greystone cafeteria, as staffed by culinary students Full moon over CIA Greystone after class

After a couple of days of all that great coffee — for both enjoyment and evaluation — the absurdity of the term “coffee addict” came clearly to mind. The classic definition of addiction requires ever more of a substance to achieve the same desired physical effects after building up a tolerance. However, there was not a single coffee lover attending the course who could reach the late afternoon without saying, “no more, please” to the continual onslaught of more coffee.

On the final day I probably learned the most with a bit of hands-on labwork among three coffee stations:

  • alternative brewing methods: Ibrik, multiple vac pots and techniques, Aeropress, French press, different Chemex attempts, the Neapolitan flip pot, and of course: Bad Moka vs. Good Moka,
  • espresso, cappuccino frothing, and minimal latte art practice on a La Spaziale two-group S9, and
  • grinder calibration.

The high level of hands-on feedback provided in this format was of particular benefit — something where the educational format of a Chef Steps falls flat.

In summary, the course probably won’t revolutionize how you think about coffee. However, it’s a methodical approach towards ensuring that you have the basics covered, from bean to cup. I found the hands-on aspects of the course particularly beneficial, and you’ll also get to hang out with some pretty cool fellow coffee fans. The price tag is quite steep unless it’s a business expense, but it is in line with other layman culinary courses offered at the CIA. All said, I really enjoyed the entire experience.

Breakfast in the hall of the Rudd Wine Center with the illy caffè North America crew Another shot of Illy espresso enjoyed throughout the course...

Making ibriks of coffee in the hands-on lab Monica - a Sicilian native, ex-Milan barista, and now runs NY restaurants - teaches students at the espresso machine