MILAN – The news about Gennaro Pelliccia, or rather his tongue, which was secured in 2009 by Costa Coffee for £10 million, caused a stir. The quality of the work and experience of the Master of Coffee of the chain of Italian origins, which has conquered the UK palate and the whole world thanks also to the acquisition by the giant Coca-Cola, is by now well known. But behind such precious tasting skill, there is the man, there is the professional history closely linked to the brand founded by Sergio Costa, there is the know-how of someone who started from behind the counter and now has his finger on the pulse of the company’s global operations. We spoke to him directly, from the London workshop.
Pelliccia, the history of your family is closely linked to the destiny of Costa Coffee: can you tell us your story of growth within the group?
“In 1975 my family arrived in London, my mother and father made many sacrifices. Mum arrived more than seven months pregnant and stayed in London to give birth. In 1983, once they were part of the Italian community in South East London, they started attending church in Brixton, SE London. In this environment, there were many families of Italian origin: my mother met Mrs Mutti there, who at that time was in charge of the group ‘Le donne italiane’ which helped migrants in London. She brought her to work with Sergio Costa: in 1983, she started at one of the first sites of the Costa Coffee company, as a secretary in Mr Sergio’s office.
Six months later, his brother Bruno started his own porcelain business: Sergio transferred my mother to this other company, where she worked for 25 years. During that time, Sergio and Bruno’s children and I grew up together, all attending Italian school in the evenings after English school. Our bond was not by blood, but the relationship that was formed was both professional and personal. Even my father, seven years after my mother started working for the Costa family, was approached by Mr Sergio initially for a consultancy: my father had experience in hotel management and his know-how could be of support in the transition period that Costa was going through to transform from a small to a medium-sized company. It was an opportunity to enter the Costa world fully and permanently. My father continued to work with them until beyond 2000.
I personally started as a partime barista on 3 January 1992. I was studying and on week-ends I worked in airport stores. In January 2022, I turned 30 years of service in the company: in 2009, on 9 March, Costa decided to insure my tongue.
The story behind this is funny: the chief executive of the time wanted to understand what the difference was between one coffee and another. To try to establish this, independent research was undertaken with the help of a blind testing company: they compared Costa’s cappuccino to that of our two biggest competitors, Caffè Nero and Starbucks. They conducted a blind tasting involving over 300 people from all over England: 7 out of 10 people preferred Costa’s cappuccino.
To communicate this result to the public and give it greater resonance, they decided to secure the tongue of who was responsible for the quality of Costa Coffee – me -: on 9 March 2009, the news came out.”
What is a 10 million pound tongue capable of perceiving in a cup or a Brazilian-style taste?
“In those days I worked a lot more in the laboratory, mainly checking all the green coffee deliveries that came in, doing the roast audits. There are mainly 4 variables on the green: the defects, the screening, the moisture of the coffee, the tasting, to understand that the quality of the coffee reflects the actual quality of the origin and the characteristics that the source should have, without having been spoiled over time and transport. It is an analysis that we carry out on the green and then on the cup, on which we have adopted the template used by the Iiac -International Institute of Coffee Tasters- at which I had taken a training course in 1999: we test and measure following that template referring to espresso.”
Have you ever thought of competing with such a strong palate sensibility?
Pelliccia: “It’s a thought-provoking question. The reason that I have never competed is because when I was at my best, I was not aware of the competitions but on became aware later. When I then became familiar with the competition scene, the activity in the lab decreased in order to take on a more administrative role as head of the department. Currently, I am particularly involved in assisting those below me.”
For Costa, Pelliccia also takes care of the greening and roasting: what makes the Costa signature blend unique and consistent?
“The answer is very simple and philosophical: I use the words of Sergio Costa and Gino Amasanti, my maestro until 2005. There are four things they both analysed in espresso: the colour of the crema, the aroma, the taste and above all the aftertaste, which was close to Mr Sergio’s heart, who wanted that after the first cup, people would ask for a second one.
This philosophy is what lies behind our daily product. Along with the core ingredients of our blend, what we put into the blend, the roasting method we use and how the Mocha Italia Signature house blend has a certain crema, unique aroma, light acidity and caramel flavour. We try to guarantee and achieve the same result every time: this is one of our biggest challenges to remain competitive and consistent as much as possible, balancing different elements,’ Pelliccia laughs, ‘but the secret of the blend remains.”
Pelliccia, what is a typical day for a Costa Coffee Master of Coffee?
“I was not born with a particular gift, as I am often asked: I have trained, I have worked hard, I have practised a lot. I get up in the morning, I brush my teeth,- Pelliccia jokes, – and now my role has become much broader: I am in charge of how to control and manage coffee control globally.
My job as Master of Coffee is to make sure that the Costa product is the same everywhere. I have a fantastic team that work with me. Under me there is a Polish girl who takes care of the checks and an Italian biologist who handles the legal aspects to be presented on the packages.
For me, the main thing is to remain constantly stimulated: now my task is different from what I did at the beginning, but it has simply changed and that is what I like. My journey started with tasting and now I train others, I engage in expanding the brand, travelling to new places. As long as there is constant change and I am happy.”
Do your Napolitan origins make you prefer an espresso with certain characteristics rather than a more UK-style filter?
“First of all for me there is espresso, but I am not tied to a specific Italian region. When I entered this world I did not have a palate accustomed to the Neapolitan taste: I grew up in London and had a rather neutral training: our blend was brought to England by people from Parma, the second coffee master who trained me was from Piacenza, I took courses at Iiac in Brescia… so I was influenced more by specialty coffee. I can appreciate everything: from the inferior qualities – if I am a guest I keep quiet and politely thank you – to the superior ones. I didn’t start out drinking coffee in Naples, but started from a more general round.
However, personally, if I have to taste and enjoy a coffee, I would choose espresso: I often drink black filter coffee depending on the time of day when I need a longer drink. Now with the flat white we introduced to the UK – with 3 espressos for a total of 21 grams in the cup – or with the customised Cortado in the glass containing a double ristretto, I also like to drink these alternatives with a little milk in it. But yes, espresso as a base, always.”
How is espresso in the UK?
“Espresso is becoming marginally easier to find good here too, especially at Costa Coffee. Decent espresso can be found: I have had many good and not so good experiences everywhere. I realised that if you go to a more artisanal café, where the owner takes care of the drink, the espresso is tasty. Not a few people understand a lot about coffee: even those who come to my house often like to talk about it, telling me about the machine they use in their kitchens. The desire to drink good coffee is increasing: the consumer is becoming more and more aware.”
What organoleptic characteristics are typically preferred by British customers? How has their taste for coffee changed over the last 20 years?
“In my experience of just 30 years in the industry, I can state one truth: when you put a cup with sourness in front of any person, there is no premise whatsoever, because the first reaction will always be negative. The most curious thing is that acidity is confused with bitterness. Even where I work now, there is a space where we organise tasting sessions: and the comments are always the same after 30 years.
In the old days, however, people would order espresso even though they didn’t understand the concept of Costa Coffee: there were beautiful bars, with a machine set up in front of the counter, the barista dressed up in full regalia, and they let customers understand that they would pay dearly for anything. Back then they would order espresso because it was the cheapest item on the menu, but they expected their filter coffee: when the cup arrived, they would ask for it to be diluted with water. After many years of consumer education, done by our baristas – I did it first – they really understood what espresso was.”
Which are Costa’s main supplier countries, which origins do you buy the most?
“We use competitive coffees to ensure a unique in-cup product that can continue to meet the needs of our consumers. ”
What would you like to taste that has not yet passed under your careful selection?
“Stenophylla intrigues me: I have recently become interested in this variety. I was thinking of going to the Royal Botanical Gardens and meeting the botanist in charge of this species, which is currently the most curious one to explore. But I would also like to meet the Geisha, which I don’t drink very often: I have had it, but I would like to taste it again.”
Has there also been an evolution in the space and service of Costa Coffee over the years?
Pelliccia: “We were very lucky with Costa Express during the Covid, that is, with the system of vending machines that are mainly found in areas where petrol is available. During the pandemic, the only out-of-home idea was the Costa Express: we were very successful during that time. In addition, with the entry of Coca Cola, we saw other markets open up such as Ready to Drink, At home market and at the same time we found ourselves supplying outlets where we were not present before.
We have witnessed the development of our Drive Throughs in recent years: London is a nerve centre of industry that attracts a lot of people. Our points of sale are strategically located: the market share of this channel is growing strongly. We are constantly learning new consumer habits and looking for ways to adapt to them. We have the highest number of drive throughs.
On the other hand, as far as the actual space of the shops is concerned, we have been looking at the size of the shops for almost five years: we have created new, much smaller shops. The future, who knows: Covid has created a new consumer who wants to get out of the house and maybe use the bar as a place to work, to spend more time outside the house but not in the office.”