Ernesto Illy – a Really Good Coffee Pioneer

Dr. Ernesto Illy

Dr. Ernesto Illy – a Really Good Coffee Pioneer

In the early nineties, they started Coffee Fest in Seattle and that’s where I first saw Ernesto Illy.

What a class act. This man was such an elegant speaker, a real intellectual, a scientist and what seemed to me to be the “high priest” of espresso. He commanded respect but did not abuse it  – he was gentle and kind in his interaction with others and was particularly tolerant with those who had less coffee knowledge. I was in awe as a newbie “coffee wannabe” in my new store struggling to get the business off the ground.

Here was a man, “THE MAN”, who had spent most of his life in the espresso industry – a PhD in Chemistry – who knew more about the acids in coffee than probably  anybody else in the world – talking about flavor and aroma and the art and “science” of coffee.

He wasn’t just a lab guy either. He was a real gentleman and a supporter of the arts. While most Americans were still under the impression that ‘espresso was that nasty bitter black stuff they made in Italy’, Dr Illy was sponsoring Fellini festivals in New York City and creating designer collectible cup collections, that were art in and of themselves.

Dr. Ernesto Illy was also an innovator and created a brilliant design and engineering team in his production facility – not to mention a group of “cupping” experts at the top of their class worldwide, including himself.

Illy did everything for a reason – like smart scientists with integrity do – a good reason.

The Amazing Illy Cafe Roasting Operation and Production Facility

I remember reading some brochures “about Illy Cafe” when I was first considering using the blend. We did subsequently use Illy Cafe at a mobile espresso cart location we had for a while.

The brochure described the roasting facility – fully automated with CNC controlled roasting equipment and infra red scanners that scanned beans approaching the roasting machine on a conveyor system.

Infra red scanners sent the scanned data to the computer and if the beans did not meet quality control specs, an air jet came on and blew the bean off the conveyor into a “reject” bin, where it would subsequently be sold on the commercial coffee market to another roaster.

Bear in mind this was in full operation in the early to mid 90’s (~92 or 93?).

In addition, each batch of coffee had control numbers for the labels. Into the control numbers were coded all the data collected about actual length of time in the roaster, max temp reached, date and time of roasting, etc… These codes were printed on the labels of every package of roasted coffee for inventory control purposes. In the event of a flaw or a production problem, they could identify and remove all of the rest of the batch from inventory.

They were also roasting 40,000 lbs per shift at the time.


Illy and his cupping experts developed relationships with the finest growers and plantations worldwide and developed a 9 bean blend. The reason they did this is because varietals change flavor profiles through different seasons and with 9 beans in the blend they could minimize the flavor variations and maintain a highly consistent flavor profile year round – even though some of the varietals themselves varied considerably.

Dr Illy’s Amazing Packaging Solved the Problem of Keeping Beans Fresh During Worldwide Shipping

As I remember, Illy sent out specs for quote to all the major existing packaging operations – when he was looking for package suppliers – requesting quotes for cannisters that could be pressurized with inert gas to seal in the freshness of the coffee beans after they were packaged and sealed. They were to hold about 5 lbs of coffee.

Apparently none of the manufacturers had the capacity to produce or supply the cannisters to his design. Illy finally called his engineers together and designed, and then built all the equipment they needed to make their own cannisters to spec on demand – right there in their facility.

So they designed the automated cannister fabricating equipment and the built it themselves and integrated it into the overall production process.

Now that’s ingenuity.

As a result of this technology, Illy  Cafe (whole espresso beans) can be stored in their factory pressurized containers in nitrogen for three years without going stale and the amazing thing is that after they breath a while and adjust to the environment, the blend is exceptionally smooth and always consistent.

The crema is rich and sweet and extracts like fresh roasted espresso – because it is – even though it isn’t.

Awesome technology solution.

There are many things about Dr. Illy that made him special. He was a man who truly found his purpose in life and excelled to new heights by establishing precedents in technology, quality and expertise. He set the bar high for future generations to exceed.

He was a great contributor and leader in the industry and the industry will be hard pressed to replace a man of his caliber and excellence. He was a man of singular accomplishments and intelligence.

A Touching Tribute to the Espresso Giant

Here is a picture of and a touching tribute to Dr Ernesto Illy – a Really Good Coffee Pioneer by Mark Prince, Coffee at the Moment, writing for Reading this article brought tears to my eyes because I felt the sincerity and the love Mark had for Dr. Illy. I too share that admiration and respect.  Dr. Ernesto Illy was a scientist, an artist , a humanitarian and an innovator rolled into one.

Truly a great man…

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