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Why Italian Is the International Language of Coffee

Espresso is undoubtedly Italian and is the base of many other coffee drinks that boast Italian names. skaman306/Getty Images

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If you can't start your morning without a cup of joe, you're not alone. American's consumption of coffee is up — it's the highest it's been since 2012 — and global exports are too. According to the International Coffee Organization, world coffee exports increased by 17 percent from October 2017 to October 2018, and overall global shipments were 4.2 percent higher year over year.

Clearly coffee has become an important daily ritual for many Americans, which begs the question: Why are so many coffee lovers ordering those drinks in Italian? From lattes to macchiatos, Americans are rolling Italian words off their tongues. How did this happen? After all, coffee doesn't have roots in Italy.

Legend has it that the great bean originated in the Ethiopian plateau and was discovered by Kaldi the goat herder. It spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula and adjacent areas before Europeans encountered coffee in the 17th century. The Dutch are to thank for much of its global spread. Nevertheless, many of the coffee drinks we know today and popularized by Starbucks (more on that later) do originate in Italy, and it has everything to do with the invention of the espresso machine.

Espresso Base

If you think espresso refers to a type of coffee bean, think again. It's actually a coffee preparation method, and it was first developed in Italy in the 19th century. Because brewed coffee could take up to five minutes to make, coffee lovers sought a way to shorten the time between ordering and drinking. The first espresso machines were bulky and difficult, but by the early 20th century, Milanese manufacturer Luigi Bezzera had developed a single-shot espresso that produced one cup of coffee in seconds. It took a while for the machines to improve in ease of use and flavor of the coffee produced.

"The espresso machine kind of revolutionized coffee to some extent," says Paul Bassett, former World Barista Champion. With the espresso machine, coffee could be made on the spur of the moment and was intended to be drunk immediately after being served, typically standing at a bar. "Everything was centered around the way espresso was made, the way it was consumed as well."

Italian coffee culture grew, and espresso as we know it today became popular in Italy and France in the 1930s, according to Mark Pendergrast, author of "Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World." He writes that the 1950s beatnik movement and its coffeehouse culture launched an "espresso craze" in the U.S.

"Early in the specialty coffee movement, authenticity meant Italian," explains Mike Ferguson with Olam Specialty Coffee. The trend continued. "In the 1980s, many if not most coffeehouses had Italian names and adopted as much Italian as possible into their café and menu."

The coffee drinks they served also retained their Italian nomenclature because they were specifically made with espresso. The names refer to what is added to the espresso. For example, put the word "macchiato" into Google Translate, and you'll get "stained" or "spotted," so the drink name refers to the spot of milk that stains the espresso.

"I think fundamentally, espresso is directly linked to Italy as a beverage and the way it's part of their culture," Bassett says. "It's been transported all around the world and reinterpreted."

It's All in a Name

Despite reinterpretation, the drinks with Italian names have an espresso base and typically some type of milk added. For example, a caffè latte — usually just a latte in the United States — consists of espresso, milk and foam. Although caffè latte literally translates to "milk coffee," it is not brewed coffee with milk, and ordering an espresso with milk and milk foam doesn't sound as catchy.

The distinction between espresso and brewed coffee is important. Consider the Americano, which was named for Americans in Italy who sought a drink similar to the brewed or filtered coffee they drank at home. Because it emerged in Italy and is made by adding water to espresso, it retains its Italian title.

This answers the question about coffee drink names, but what about Starbucks' use of sizes like grande and venti, which are also Italian words? "Short, Tall and Grande sizes were introduced when Il Giornale opened its doors in 1986, followed by Venti hot cup size in the early 1990s," a Starbucks representative said via email. Il Giornale was the name of the coffeehouses launched by Starbucks Chairman Emeritus Howard Schultz during his mid-80s hiatus from the company.

The company's website states that Schultz had been "captivated with Italian coffee bars and the romance of the coffee experience," a tradition he wanted to bring to the United States. He returned to Starbucks and purchased the company in 1987. The Italophilia continued when the company named its blended beverage Frappuccino, which is a trademarked name and not actually an Italian word.

If you feel you simply must avoid a coffee with an Italian name, tomorrow morning try ordering a flat white. It's an Australian espresso drink with milk, minus the foam. But in general, if you don't like using Italian terms, you might also consider calling your spaghetti "noodles."

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