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It’s impossible to think of Italy and not think of coffee. Coffee is so ingrained in Italian culture as to be viewed as a right rather than a privilege. Italians believe that coffee is for all, and should be quick, simple, and affordable. They balk at the idea of fancy lattes that cost five euros or more, which has led to a slow and hesitant rise of the third wave of Italian coffee culture.
The third wave brought us small scale, artisanal coffee shops, offering hand-crafted beverages made with single-origin, small-producer coffee beans. These also brought a hefty price tag.
Given the Italian coffee ethos, it’s easy to see why two large, affordable Italian coffee brands, Illy and Lavazza, still dominate the Italian market even if their cultural cachet has diminished in other parts of the world.
Illy and Lavazza remain the top-selling brands of coffee in Italy and you’ll still find their coffee products and machines in many Italian cafes and corner shops. In North America, where the third wave was welcomed with open arms and open wallets, both have been relegated to more of a grocery store brand. Cafes that serve either brand of coffee have diminished, but the products are still purchased widely for home use.
If you’re looking for a solid, consistent, and affordable Italian coffee (not to be confused with Italian roast, which is a style of dark roasting beans), Illy and Lavazza are both great choices. But which one is better?
Well, as with many consumables, the answer is preference-based, but there are a few major differences that separate the two brands. Illy is my choice for their smooth coffee and refined flavor and their recent commitment to ethical operation, but let’s check out what sets these two brands apart and see which is the best addition to your home coffee arsenal.
Illy vs. Lavazza: History
Lavazza, started in 1895 by Luigi Lavazza, was originally a corner grocer that sold a variety of dry goods. They roasted their own coffee beans on-site, and as this became their most popular item, Luigi and his family decided to shift their focus entirely to coffee, a move that would pay off in spades.
Luigi was intrigued by the coffee-growing regions of the world, particularly in Central and South America, and was the first to consider combining beans from different regions to create unique, signature bean blends.
It’s not surprising that Luigi’s great curiosity and admiration for coffee-growing regions led Lavazza to commit to programs and partnerships that promote both environmental and economic sustainability for the communities they source from.
Francesco Illy began his coffee career roasting beans for other shops, and was a bit later to the game, starting Illy in 1933. Illy’s focus was on espresso drinks, and to this day their coffee roasts tend to favor that process, offering only medium to dark roast coffees that are best for making espresso.
When Francesco’s chemist son Ernesto joined the company, they began taking a more scientific approach. Ernesto helped his father improve their roasting process, but of even more significance was his contribution to packaging. He used pressurization to keep beans and grounds fresh for much longer. This would be a game changer for the whole coffee industry. Illy is still known for their metal tins, which replace air with inert gas to ensure freshness and consistency.
Illy vs. Lavazza: Flavor
Although both are bold, Italian-style coffees, Illy and Lavazza differ quite a lot in their flavor profiles. Illy is intended to be used for espresso and lends itself much better to this process.
Lavazza, although used in many Italian shops as espresso, is the favored home selection for moka pots, with its richer, earthier flavor.
Illy Coffee Flavor
Illy is much smoother and more refined in its profile, which can be attributed to the use of only 100% Arabica beans. Arabica coffee beans are a type of bean that has a much higher concentration of both lipids and sugar. Lipids, or fatty acids, play an essential role in aroma retention, and sugars, most notably glucose, are involved in important chemical reactions during roasting that contribute to a coffee’s unique flavor profile.
Arabica beans are widely considered superior due to these factors, and partnered with their more temperamental cultivation, they’re also more expensive.
Lavazza Coffee Flavor
Lavazza does have a small selection of 100% Arabica beans, but most of their offerings are a blend of Arabica and Robusta. Robusta beans, which are hearty and therefore easier to grow, come at a more approachable price point, and although they have a harsher flavor, it’s not all bad news. Robusta beans offer an earthy and, at times, smoky profile that can result in a depth of flavor that many coffee drinkers prefer.
Adding Robusta beans to a blend is a great way to enhance the richness and general oomf of a coffee, as Robusta beans also contain more caffeine. This profile is what makes Lavazza a perfect choice for moka pots, which are known for brewing a rich, oily cup of coffee.
Illy vs Lavazza: Operation
As Illy and Lavazza grew into the behemoths they are today, they took somewhat different paths. Illy focused on innovating the customer experience and Lavazza took more interest in the coffee source. Although Lavazza began examining sustainability earlier, Andrea Illy’s leadership has more than closed the gap in recent years.
Lavazza’s Focus on Sustainability
Luigi Lavazza was always interested in the origins of his source product. Lavazza has long been examining production methods and attempting to contribute to a more sustainable approach to the growth and supply chain of their beans.
Lavazza’s ¡Tierra! project offers a select range of beans that are the result of partnerships with small-scale farms, using techniques that both protect and enhance the environment and the working conditions for those involved. They address the increasing threat of climate change and, with the support of Lavazza, implement techniques and technologies that allow them to produce fruit of the highest quality while ensuring both environmental and economic sustainability.
Where ¡Tierra! is mainly concerned with production methods, the Giuseppe e Pericle Lavazza Onlus Foundation, established in 2004, focuses primarily on improving economic conditions in its producing partner communities. These partnerships encourage sustainable business practices, including the diversification of crops, and promote the education and economic autonomy of women and young people.
Illy’s evolution was driven by their scientific approach, anticipating the marketplace and developing new products. They developed the first ever pre-measured espresso pod, revolutionizing the home espresso machine game and bringing it to those who were previously overwhelmed by the intricacies of the process.
They now have a suite of different types of coffee machines and gadgets, as well as a subscription service that makes for a complete, user-friendly home coffee experience.
It’s not innovation without conscience, though. Ernesto’s son Andrea Illy, also a chemist, currently runs the company. Andrea continues to encourage innovation while also recognizing the need for supply chain sustainability. Andrea has taken great steps to review and adjust the company’s practices to encourage a more equitable and transparent operation.
In 2013, Illy was added to the World’s Most Ethical Companies list, and in 2020 they changed their status to a Benefit Company, which aligns social and environmental goals alongside profits and considers all stakeholders in the company, rather than just shareholders.
Illy vs Lavazza: What To Drink
Both Illy and Lavazza have rich histories, and with both now aligning their companies with their values, what it comes down to is which brand’s taste you prefer.
For me, it’s Illy. I just prefer the smoother, more refined flavor of Illy coffee. They keep things simple, and they do it well.
Both popular brands offer a wide range of single-origin beans and signature coffee blends, so there’s something for every taste.
Top Illy Products
Illy keeps things simple, and with their focus on espresso they offer a few varieties of medium and dark roasts, whole bean, pre-ground coffee, and pod. You can opt for a single-origin selection, but their most popular choices remain their signature Illy blends.
Classico. This is Illy’s signature roast, ideal for espresso. A medium roast that is mild and has a balanced flavor with notes of caramel.Check availability
Intenso. As the name implies, this dark roast has more intensity and leans into the richer flavors of cocoa and dried fruit.Check availability
Forte. A super-dark roast that offers more toasty flavors, for those who prefer that super-rich taste and earthy profile.Check availability
Top Lavazza Products
Lavazza has a huge range of coffee options, from single-origin selections to signature blends, from whole beans to capsules. There is truly something for every taste, so finding your favorite might take a bit of taste testing. Here are a few of Lavazza’s top sellers:
Super Crema. One of Lavazza’s classics, the Super Crema remains an all-time favorite. Perfect for espresso, the Super Crema is a medium-bodied blend of arabica and robusta beans with a toasty, nutty profile and fruity aroma.Check availability
¡Tierra! Really anything from the ¡Tierra! range not only is delicious, but you’ll also know your money is going to support both environmental and economic sustainability in the community of origin. Try the Bio-Organic for Amazonia, a delightfully rich dark roast of hand-picked beans from Peru, with lingering notes of cocoa.Check availability
Gran Riserva. Another classic selection, Gran Riserva is a blend of mostly arabica beans with 20% robusta. This darker offering has a caramelized sweetness with hints of walnut.Check availability
Other Italian Brands To Try
The big two are known for quality and consistency, and they are both easy to find and quite affordable, but they are far from the only Italian brands worth giving a try. There are several other imports of note, some of them operating nearly as long as Illy and Lavazza. Here are a few of our favorites.
Danesi is like a blend of Illy and Lavazza. A family-run company that’s been operating for over a century, they favor simple, espresso-style blends in packaging that is extremely similar to Illy’s. They have several 100% Arabica blends, but some also include a percentage of Robusta. They have a commitment to sustainability, but are still led by innovation and give the utmost attention to the quality of their product at every stage. At a price point similar to Illy’s, it might be worth giving Danesi coffee a try.
Kimbo may not have been around as long as the other Italian coffee giants, but they’ve still been doing it for over 50 years, and they’re nearly as popular as Illy. They specialize in the rich and syrupy Neapolitan espresso and are committed to preserving the traditional culture of Naples while still innovating their techniques and practices to ensure a quality product.
Another family-run company, in business for four generations. They have a commitment to quality sourcing and sustainability. They believe the wellness of the coffee producing communities from which they source is the foundation of their success and of the utmost importance. Unlike the other brands mentioned so far, Segafredo blends are best enjoyed as a French press, pour-over, or cold brew, making them a great choice for home brewing.
Musetti is another long-standing and well-respected Italian coffee brand, and you’ll probably recognize their iconic packaging. They have a fervent commitment to quality, and sustainability has been deeply ingrained in the company’s ethos for years. They have a wide variety of both single-origin coffees and blends, with several organic and Rainforest Alliance Certified selections.
Italian coffee is steeped in tradition, and the Italian ethos of excellent coffee for all is both charming and honorable. Illy and Lavazza remain the leading Italian brands for a reason.
Whether you grab that iconic tin every week, or decide to try something new, both brands deliver a consistent brew at an approachable price. They may not be quite as subtle or dynamic as some artisanal brands, but they certainly live up to their status as Italy’s darlings.
If it’s a smooth espresso you’re after, Illy is probably your pick. If you prefer a richer, earthier home brew, give Lavazza a try.