Cigar Aficionado

Twelve Questions for a Master Barista

While reporting the Good Life Guide story in the October Cigar Aficionado magazine about buying a home espresso machine, I had the opportunity to talk with Giorgio Milos, the master barista at illy, perhaps the world's preeminent producer of espresso. I was happy to find out that Milos does occasionally enjoy a good cigar with a good espresso.

Milos, who began in the coffee business at 15 years of age, won the Italian Barista Championship in 2008. Now 36, Milos is spending this year traveling the United States in hopes of improving the quality of espresso here. Milos has appeared on NBC's Today program and has written about "traditional espresso," stirring up more than a few strong reactions to his criticisms of espresso in the United States.

"The biggest mistake I've seen is an enormous quantity of coffee being used—way too much," Milos wrote. "I'm talking about 20 to 25 grams of coffee for a single espresso shot! It is like making a mojito with half a mint leaf, one ice cube, a few grains of sugar, and a gallon of rum. Undrinkable!" Consensus holds you need about seven grams of coffee, or less than a quarter-ounce.

When we caught up with Milos, the master barista had become somewhat diplomatic in his comments about espresso in the new world and about Starbucks.

Alejandro Benes: What is your favorite coffee drink?
Giorgio Milos:
Oh, my favorite coffee drink is espresso, espresso and espresso every time. I don't really like milk. In the summer, I like to also drink iced espresso.

Q: Lemon peel or no lemon peel?
[Laughs] No, absolutely not. Lemon peel affects the balance. Sometimes lemon peel is used to affect the balance in a very bad cup of coffee. Lemon peel is sour and adds acidity.

Q: So, basically, bad espresso can benefit from a lemon peel, but good espresso does not.
Absolutely not.

Q: How did you get started in the coffee business?
I started 20 years ago in a small, local roaster in Trieste. Trieste is the coffee capital of Italy. My family was involved in the coffee sector and the milk sector. My mother worked for illy 35 years and my father worked for 20 years in the milk company. That's the beginning of my story. When my mother retired from illy, I filled her position. It was like a dream for me.

Q: What are you doing now in the United States?
Well, now I am spending 2010 in the U.S. to discuss and demonstrate the authentic Italian way to make espresso and also beverages with espresso. This is absolutely my mission, to spread my knowledge around the country and to train our customers [those selling illy products] how to make better coffee, make better espresso.

Q: What reception have you gotten so far?
I've been in many places—West coast, East coast, Florida. I've met a lot of people who want to know how to make a better espresso.

Q: What do they say about the espresso being made in the United States?
Well, that's not just one answer. There are some bad realities and some good realities. The good reality is that in a lot of places, the coffee is not bad. But also, it's very difficult to find out a place that makes a good espresso in the U.S. One way is to make it at home.

Q:  I understand you enjoy a cigar every now and then.
Honestly, I'm not that strong a smoker. I like the Montecristo. I'm not really an expert, but I love the Montecristo No. 1. It has notes of bread and toast that are very similar to what you find in a cup of espresso. That's why I like it.

Q: How well does a cigar go with espresso?
Amazing! Cigars and espresso both have strong tastes. I like to smoke a cigar after the espresso.

Q: What time of day do you like to smoke a cigar?
I prefer to smoke a cigar in the evening. It's a good combination with espresso. It's good to enjoy an espresso in the evening because it has a very low caffeine level. It is strong in taste, strong in aroma, but not in caffeine. [Reporter's note:  You often hear it said, "An espresso has less caffeine than a cup of coffee." And this is true, but a cup of coffee is usually eight ounces or more. A shot of espresso is about one ounce. So, while a shot of espresso has less caffeine (40 to 80 milligrams of caffeine) than a cup of drip coffee (between 102 and 200 milligrams) the science indicates that an ounce of espresso has considerably more caffeine in it than an ounce of drip coffee.]

Q: Have you had the opportunity to visit Starbucks, and what do you think?
Starbucks did a very good job at the beginning of the U.S. espresso history and it created an opportunity for us [illy] to tell our story in the United States and why we are different. Starbucks created espresso history in the United States.

Q: At what time of day can one properly drink a cappuccino?
[Laughs] This is a perfect question for an Italian. The best time is anytime because coffee is a pleasure. But Italians do not drink cappuccino after lunch.

For advice on how to buy a home espresso machine, read the Good Life Guide in the October Cigar Aficionado magazine, on newsstands now.