Espresso Virtuoso: A History of illy

by Anthony Licata Updated: January 26, 2021 3 min read
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Today we're here to talk about illy, one of our strongest partners in the industry and distributors of superlative coffee. illy has been one of coffee’s most ambitious and innovative companies since Francesco Illy set up shop in Trieste, Italy in 1933. In 1934, illy patented their pressurization process, allowing them to package their beans right after roasting, retaining their aroma and freshness until the can is opened.

Just two years later, Francesco Illy invented what is widely considered the first high-pressure espresso machine, the Illeta; this machine would be the first in the world to implement automatic water dosing and bring to bear a double boiler system that used air pressure instead of steam to create pressure for extraction. This solved the issue of scorched coffee the hulking machines of the era would produce, marking a step forward for coffee lovers everywhere.

What followed were decades of growth across Europe, beginning with Switzerland in 1939 and continuing into northern Europe in the Netherlands in 1962. During this time, Ernesto Illy, founder Francesco Illy's son, joined the company as a chemist and started the company's first research lab. In the same year, illy brought their canned ground coffee to the modern home for everyday use. In 1980, illy brought their coffee to the United States, making illy the first Italian coffee roasters to bring espresso culture overseas. This is all thanks to illy's patented pressurization process that allows them to can their coffee and keep it fresh for the long trek across the ocean.

At illy: Yes, They Can.

illy coffee can

Why doesn’t all coffee come in a can? Because not all coffee can. Normally, roasted coffee beans can lose up to 40% of their aroma after just 8 hours of contact with air, but a can of illy coffee can stay fresh and aromatic for up to two years.

So, how does it work? Freshly roasted coffee is placed in recyclable cans with natural, inert nitrogen, under pressure. This process traps the essential aromas of the coffee, allowing them to mingle over time and even round out the taste. Just like a fine wine maturing in the bottle, illy coffee is refined in its pressurized environment so the can actually allows the flavors of the coffee to develop. The result is a coffee that stays fresher longer than any other packaging method. When opened, you can hear that signature ‘woosh’ after pulling the tab back that declares the freshness of the coffee you're about to enjoy.

A Step (or Nine) Ahead

illy coffee cup

So, we know how illy keeps their coffee fresh. How do we know the coffee's quality is high enough to have our confidence? It comes down to the beans. In 1988, illy patented a digital photo-chromatic sorting machine, used to identify the best beans for quality assurance before production, illy’s focus is on recognizing and highlighting its unique signature blend of coffee. illy coffee is made from quality Arabica beans from nine different origins, creating a globetrotter blend featuring selections from Colombia, Rwanda, India, and Costa Rica. The blend is 100% sustainably sourced and is enjoyed over 2 million times per day in Italy alone.

In 2001, illy gave the world their 250 gram can, now a staple image for both illy and coffee in general as a global icon. Using pressurization technology to keep nine origins of Arabica coffee nice and fresh, illy’s global brand can be served anywhere.

While illy is known for its Italian roots in espresso, their fresh coffee beans can be savored in any preparation method. illy’s smooth, rich taste preserved and enhanced by the pressurization creates a perfectly balanced coffee, cup after cup, by a company that cares about coffee.