Drop by any square in Turin, and the shadow of one particular company is cast far and wide over its tiny cafés. Its logo is printed on espresso cups and emblazoned on awnings; its product is portafilter-tampered and turned into espresso in a jet of steam.
That company is Lavazza. But its influence spreads farther and wider than the streets of its home city, the region of Piedmont, and Italy. Lavazza has, in the 120 years since its founding, gone beyond being simply a company that makes and distributes coffee products to become one of the defining success stories of Italian business in the 20th and 21st centuries, synonymous with the concept of coffee itself in its home country.
If you want to see this story for yourself – to trace the timeline that saw Luigi Lavazza's tiny grocery store become a behemoth with an annual revenue of £2bn and an estimated 47% market share in Italy – well, you can. A short flight to Milan Malpensa airport is where I start, followed by and an hour or so's drive, where monolithic snow-covered Dolomites loom larger as we get closer to Turin, and then, inside the city, grubby, rugged outskirts give way to sumptuous, centuries-old European architecture in its apartment blocks and old squares.
Because although Lavazza is a global brand, with offices in countries all over the world, its beating heart is right here in Turin. The city is its past, and now, with the company committing to a £750m new headquarters right in the heart of the city's Aurora district, it's its future, too.
The Lavazza story starts at Via San Tommaso, a small road in the city centre, in 1895. It was here that Luigi Lavazza turned his dream of opening a greengrocer into a reality. Italians had already acquired a taste for coffee, but it wasn't until six years later that the drink would take Italian culture by the scruff of the neck.
Milanese inventor Luigi Bezzera invented a unique machine to force pressurised hot water through coffee grounds, turning coffee from a somewhat unwieldy drink that had to be steeped for half an hour into a strong, immediately delicious one that could be ready to drink in 30 seconds. Depending on who you talk to, it was named espresso either because of the way hot water is forced or 'expressed' through the grounds, or because it was an 'express' drink to to be ordered and consumed in a hurry.
Whatever the nomenclature, the rapid rise of coffee to the forefront of Italy's already bountiful gastronomic culture played into Luigi Lavazza's hands: in the following years, coffee became his main, then only, product, and he moved into a bigger shopfront nearby. Through sourcing trips to coffee-producing countries around the world, Lavazza became set on conquering the world of coffee in his home country, setting up the Luigi Lavazza Company with his wife and children in 1927, building infrastructure for sales and marketing and a fleet of delivery vehicles, and growing all the time.
lavazza's influence spreads further than the streets of turin
Coffee blending, much like that of champagne, is no mean feat. For a start, coffee is a natural product, which means beans from one of Lavazza's partner farms in Colombia, for example, might taste different from one year's harvest to the next. The blender's job is to keep in mind a specific combination of flavours, and work backwards to find the right combination of beans to impart it.
While Luigi Lavazza's masterstroke was in blending coffees from different parts of the world to make a consistent, uniform taste, the coffee world is now going the other way, to coffees from a single point of origin, where the unique flavours of these coffees are celebrated. So with that in mind, where does one of the world's most successful coffee companies, which has made its fortune largely on blended coffee, go from here?
Lavazza has spent much of the last few decades preparing for that. Diversification is the name of the game, and that sense of history is matched by a hugely ambitious present-day operation at its Innovation Centre, a short drive away from the city centre.
It's here that its 90-strong R&D team taste coffees for quality and consistency (using the traditional 'cupping' approach favoured by the coffee industry), and experiment with ranges of single-origin coffees from some of its best farms. In particular, the brand's Kafa Forest coffee, a 100% arabica coffee from Ethiopia, is becoming highly sought-after. I cup it and it sings – zingy and rich, with overt notes of chocolate and ripe blackberries and an incredibly long finish. The company invests in barista training and coffee education at grassroots level here and in 56 other, smaller training centres around the world.
Nearby, Lavazza's biggest production facility produces and packages much of its coffee at an eye-watering rate. And it takes wandering around the warehouse, especially the seemingly unending shelves of packaging tended to by roving robotic cranes, to get a sense of the scale of the operation. It looks like a city made of coffee. Beans arrive from all over the tropics via the port city of Genoa, and their sorting, blending and packaging happens here, too. The facility is responsible for making almost all of the Lavazza-branded coffee in the world, right here in the city of its birth.
If you walk through the centre of Turin, as I did, you can walk past San Tommasi 10, where it all began. And doing so makes it hit home that there is a heavily ingrained sense of home in Lavazza's operations. There might have been times during its history where the company could have upped sticks – moved elsewhere in Italy or emigrated to another country entirely. But, as one look at a shiny building in the city's Aurora district proves, that's just not in the Lavazza DNA.
The reason I'm here, other than for a jaunt around Lavazza's facilities and the cafés of Turin, is for the culmination of a project that's eye-watering in its scale. That project is the Nuvola. Meaning 'cloud', it's a brand-new, £750m complex in a part of Turin previously known for an industrial heritage, comprising office spaces, a Lavazza Museum, a huge event space, gardens, public squares, cafés and restaurants, just a few hundred metres away from the company's old headquarters.
I cup it and it sings – zingy and rich, with overt notes of chocolate and ripe blackberries
If the factory gave me a sense of the scale of Lavazza's production, the press conference for the opening of the Nuvola gives an insight into just how important a brand Lavazza is: this is a company writ large into the fabric of Turin and of Italian business. There are more than 1,000 people present in the Nuvola's grand event space (created from an old power plant), and more than 600 journalists from Italy and around the world.
It ties in, apparently, to a wider aim of making Turin a city that can rival Rome and Milan at the centre of the Italian economy, and especially so in food and drink. At the launch party later on, attended by the current-day Lavazza family's friends, titans of industry and other Italian glitterati, I stand literally shoulder-to-shoulder with Juventus captain Giorgio Chiellini and former Italy playmaker Andrea Pirlo. And as for Lavazza, at the time of its last office move in 1962, there were 300 employees and 12,000 tonnes of coffee per year was produced. Now, in 2018, those numbers stand at 3,000 and 140,000.
There are many things to like about the Nuvola. Its looks, for one – the perspective-shifting techno-cloud visuals on the main building are down to Milanese architect Cino Zucchi, while the ambitious Lavazza Museum was created in part by New York-based Ralph Appelbaum. It's also been created with sustainability front-of-mind – as with most operations done by the modern-day Lavazza family, achieving a platinum Lead Certification by the Environmental Protection Agency that registers it as one of the top three most sustainable buildings in Italy and one of the most sustainable in the world.
A part of the building acts as a museum for a fourth-century Christian basilica that was discovered during the excavation process, meaning the plans for a whole section of the complex had to be changed mid-way through.
There's also food to be found there – Ferran Adrià has consulted on the restaurant Condividere, where Italian chef Federico Zanasi is the head chef. And a highlight is the Lavazza Museum, a huge, immersive experience that starts off as a straightforward timeline of the company, takes you through the advertising campaigns that have defined the company in Italy and across the world, and finishes with a circular installation that projects images onto a 360-degree screen made of curtain-like fabric strands, with the intention of making you feel like you're in a cup of coffee. Yes, really.
Despite the theatrics, though, there is real emotion at work here – in the pride taken by the company in its history; in the words of the current-day Lavazza family on possibly the biggest milestone in its rich history. Lavazza might be doing things on an enormous scale, but it's still a family-run company, and still a staple of the Turin landscape – albeit one that now cuts a notably more modern silhouette.
There is a school of thought that all food and drink should be hand-crafted in tiny batches; that the end-point is landrace farming and products travelling a mile if at all. And while that's a noble ambition, it's not the world we live in.
Considering the past, living the present and projecting the future of Lavazza in Turin is a timely reminder that a huge corporation can do things with heart, and with good conscience. It can play a significant role, with its new home, in the changing face of a city like Turin; and in its training centres, global expansion and new products that turn its history on its head, in the changing culture of coffee, too. What happens from here on is in its own hands.