Dr. Ernesto Illy

Chris Styler / April 2001

Food Arts presents the April 2001 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Dr. Ernesto Illy, chairman of illycaffè S.p.A. in Trieste, Italy. During his lifelong campaign to bring better espresso to the planet—and better living conditions to the people who grow the beans—the bespectacled and ardent Illy has touched the lives of countless educators, restaurant owners, and coffee drinkers.

In each cup of espresso—50 beans' worth of inky liquid capped with velvety crema—Illy sees science and hope for fairness in a global economy.

Illy—son of the founder of illycaffè—is a scientist with the soul of a poet. Armed with a degree in chemistry from the University of Bologna, he has been responsible for introducing some of the most important quality-control innovations in espresso brewing in the last 30 years. In a joint venture with Sortex, a British company, Illy patented a machine that sorts bad beans from good, one at a time, using spectral light. "We purchase 20-ton containers of coffee, but we drink it in 50-bean quantities," explains the doctor.

Illy's wife, Anna, and children, Francesco, Ricardo, Anna, and Andrea—all of whom are involved in the family business—form the support team for "Papa Bean" and illycaffè's experts, who circle the globe, sampling beans and, more importantly, forging relationships with growers.

"Dr. Illy's done more for the quality of the coffee industry than anyone in the last 50 years," raves Jean-Paul Coupal, leading Venezuelan restauranteur and single-estate, single-variety coffee impresario. "He reinvests consistently in research and has been responsible for genetically identifying—not genetically creating—the finest arabica coffee strains in the world. He's created a seed bank and an Illy department at the University of São Paolo and awards an annual $25,000 prize for the top quality coffee grown in Brazil. This has been a huge inspiration to Brazilian growers, looked on as the equivalent of the Nobel Prize and Academy Awards in one. He flies the winners, no matter how small he property, to Trieste to see how preciously their beans are treated."

"Farmers around the world respond to a commitment to quality when the price is there," says Illy, who, quite simply, pays growers more money to grow the same amount of beans on the same amount of land.

Bagging the perfect bean is, as Illy admits, only half the battle. And that goes a long way toward explaining his commitment to education, through institutions such as The Culinary Institute of America, the media, and his hands-on contact with restaurant operators and baristas around the world."He is absolutely messianic in his mission to educate people about coffee," says Steven Koplan, professor of wine studies and gastronomy at the CIA in Hyde Park, New York. "He's a scientist who doesn't separate the science of coffee from the pleasure of coffee. That's what he's brought to CIA." And to all of us.