An impressive specimen of industrial archaeology stands in the Florence hills that’s been upgraded to further our knowledge about coffee. Welcome to the Accademia del Caffè Espresso from coffee machine geniuses, La Marzocco.
It’s a full circle situation as the espresso coffee academy occupies what was once the main factory (some machines are still crafted on the premises), where ingenious engineers manufactured the intricate mechanics belonging to these Tuscan-made machines that now vaunt a global reputation. Today, this open space of expertise attracts coffee lovers and professionals from all over the world who come to learn about the daily ritual of espresso coffee.
The first room in this concrete bunker-like building is a temporary exhibition space, which currently hosts a homage to the Italians who worked in Brazilian coffee plantations in the 1800s, thanks to a partnership with the Museu do Café in Santos, Brazil, and the Embassy of Brazil in Rome. Despite this important and well-presented history lesson, our attention is drawn to the retro peacock blue bar with bronze fittings. Dating to 1959, this exemplar used to belong to a coffee shop in the Pistoia countryside (you can visualize how people were dressed and the gatherings they must have had!): it’s a reminder that La Marzocco designed the interiors for Italian bars until the early 1990s. An original La Marzocco GS, the first with a double boiler to guarantee a constant temperature, takes pride of place on the counter. Our guide reminds us of the changing nature of coffee blends: back in the Sixties, coffee principally came from Yemen, Java and Congo, among other countries, but climate change and civil wars now mean that certain blends can no longer be replicated.
Through a black drape, we are dazzled by Swiss artist Charles Morgan’s all-singing, all-dancing kinetic sculpture, which was inspired by the time he spent in the La Marzocco factory. An old-style coffee machine lever sets the artistic piece going as a ball is released and the coffee machine manufacturing process is presented in a family fun feast before our eyes. An entire room concentrates on the design and engineering of the espresso machine, including successes and failures (namely the Poker, the first espresso machines with two boilers whose trial and error nevertheless subsequently resulted in the triumph of the GS). A side-by-side wall display of every single part that goes into constructing a professional and a household La Marzocco provides insight into the meticulous mechanics of these coffee machines.
A rectangular room sets out the history of the company (est. 1927) alongside scientific developments with a timeline marked with cups and former coffee machine designs, while a vintage delivery van grabs the visitor’s gaze before crossing the threshold into an area that makes us reconsider coffee as a commodity. The distance is shortened between consumer and grower as, in short captivating videos, producers from Guatemala, Brazil, Ethiopia and India relate their daily struggles, the challenges of climate change and what it takes to grow quality coffee.
The curtain has been firmly drawn back on our knowledge as we leave the museum and step into the contemporary light-flooded space of the Accademia. To the right stands the in-house coffee plantation set in a glass cube, which was engineered by plant biologist Stefano Mancuso and his Pnat research. In addition to educating about the ecosystem, the installation serves the practical purpose of cleaning the air within the building.
Now the time has come to deepen our coffee knowledge. First, there’s the roasting wheel where the stages between green and roasted coffee are dramatically displayed in bean form. “Oxygen and humidity are the biggest enemies to coffee,” says coffee educator leader, Nora Šmahelova, as she explains the complexities of the coffee universe. We move over to the Green Coffee Lab, where baristas can learn more about cupping and experiment with blends. Next up is the Roasting Lab, dominated by vintage-style roasters that are deceptively equipped with latest-generation technology, and the Extraction Lab, which is where our tasting takes place.
We’re trying the honey-processed Pacamara beans from Sigfredo Dorado’s plantation, in the Ahuachapàn region of El Salvator, but the point in today’s degustazione is to start understanding coffee and the difference between extraction methods. Nora starts by preparing an infusion of the cascara, the discarded dried skins of coffee cherries. Similar to herbal tea, this is coffee in its lightest form, lower in caffeine and potency. “It’s easier to understand coffee when it’s more diluted,” Nora educates, as she brews a darker, more amber and sweeter scented V60. As a cold brew, the aromas intensify before a gelato is whipped up using the same cold brew with a little sugar syrup and a natural thickness to bring out the fruitiness and the rich coffee finish.
Though I’m unlikely to hone barista-level skills any time soon through Specialty Coffee Association and Coffee Quality Institute courses, the many experiences on offer—from latte art to the ABC of extraction and the history of the bean—at this bastion of coffee education a short distance from Florence are likely to lure me back for a brew in the near future.
Accademia del Caffè Espresso La Marzocco
Via Bolognese 68, Pian di San Bartolo-Trespiano
+39 055 0987301
Visits by reservation only from Monday to Friday 10am-5pm, closed Saturday and Sunday