I never thought of myself as a brand loyalist, but when I stopped at Whole Foods on Ponce de Leon Avenue to buy the espresso I use every morning and found they were no longer selling it, I went nuts.
The espresso is Lavazza, which is almost half the cost of $14 Illy, but whose flavor I prefer. I'm not going to try to find all the right adjectives to describe the Italian import's viscosity, its sunlit crema, its sweetness that is never cloying, its faint bitterness, its almost-floral aroma, its full-bodied butsmooth flavor that never turns too intense nor too flat, its capacity to convince me to go on living every morning, its ...
I'm freakin' crazy about the stuff, specifically the "Qualita Oro," a blend of African and Central American beans.
Why in hell would Whole Foods discontinue selling the stuff? As usual, I could get nobody in Whole Foods management to contact me, despite several phone calls and e-mails. So, reporter that I once was, I pounded pavement, sleuthing the aisles of several Whole Foods, and learned from employees that Lavazza had supposedly been passing off blends of high-class arabica and lower-class robusta beans as 100 percent arabica, which is all that Whole Foods will sell. "I heard we tested the coffee ourselves and detected robusta beans," one employee told me, looking over her shoulder.
Groan. First of all, I was dubious that Lavazza had done such a thing, considering the sales at stake. Second of all, I didn't care. I already knew that the gourmet American obsession with arabica beans wasn't shared by the Italians themselves. A bit of robusta is blended into many espressos abroad to enhance crema and add contrast â a little improvisational texture for the palate, ya know.
I also called and wrote Lavazza's corporate office in New York and received an instantaneous avalanche of responses. Chuck Balaris, a sales manager, set me straight. He explained that the company had indeed reformulated its espresso decaffeinado blend to include some robusta, and some of it had been packaged with the old 100 percent arabica label. "When we realized what we'd done, we recalled it," he said, adding that the company had donated the mislabeled coffee to charities.
"I don't get it," I said. "Doesn't some robusta actually often create a more interesting drink?"
"Yes, that's true," he said, "but you might as well not go there because a lot of people don't get it."
I'm guessing that it's some kind of snobbery, since the usual American drip coffee is mainly robusta and coffee connoisseurs want to forget their youthful indiscretions with Folgers. ( I particularly like Lavazza's Crema e Gusto: Gusto Ricco blend now and then; it includes robusta beans.)
"But the other coffees, like the Oro, are still 100 percent arabica, right? So why wouldn't Whole Foods continue selling them?" I asked Balaris.
"That's true," he said, "and as far as I know they plan to continue to sell those."
Indeed, I received a call later in the day from someone at Lavazza telling me that Whole Foods had placed an order. I confirmed the rumor with one of my supersecret sources at one of the stores. It should be back on the shelves next week.
In the meantime, I tried to make do with Starbucks espresso roast and almost spit the stuff out. Typically, it is so sharp I can't bear it unless it's diluted with lots of milk. Then I broke down and bought a can of $14 Illy. While it's way better than Starbucks, it doesn't have Lavazza's antidepressant quality to convince me I can bear one more morning on Earth.
Does this story have a silver lining? Yes! While I frantically Googled for an alternative Lavazza dealer in town, I realized I could buy the stuff online for a considerable savings. So far, the best deals I've found are at Aroma Cafe Culture and Georgia Harvest.
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