Wake Up and Smell United's Delizioso Illy Coffee

United Airlines, Illy, Coffee

Photo Credit: United Airlines

One of the common disappointments in air travel is the swill that passes for coffee on most carriers. Cheap no-name brands, unidentifiable blends, and questionable water all contribute to a poor pour. But now java junkies have something to get buzzed about while flying high. Starting this month, all United Airlines flights and United Club airport lounges are serving illy premium coffee, Europe’s best brew.

Illy, Building
Photo Credit: Vicki Arkoff

To keep up with recent improvements made by celebrity chef and mixologist partners for club and cabin food and wine, United realized that it could no longer ignore the one item that’s made onboard aircraft: coffee. Years ago, a company merger resulted in their Starbucks contract being replaced with a something called Fresh Brew. Big. Mistake.

Photo Credit: Vicki Arkoff

United decided to make amends by serving the best coffee in the sky. To accomplish that, they teamed up with illycaffe – Italy’s coffee experts for more than 80 years -- to create a new premium blend exclusively for flight service. Illy applied its expertise to blind taste tests of medium, dark and extra dark roasts of various grind sizes and dose weights. Because cabin pressure and low humidity causes aroma perception to drop, and flying altitude diminishes taste by 30%, illy’s team conducted extensive in-flight taste tests, paying close attention to water quality in airplane galleys.

Illy, coffee
Photo Credit: Vicki Arkoff

To solve these challenges, illy scientists, engineers and quality directors didn’t just pick the perfect coffee blend: they engineered a better brewer and a new pillow-pack to better cope with airplanes' higher boiling temperatures, sub-par filtration, and variable water sources. And on the factory floor, illy is currently ramping up the installation of a multi-million-dollar new assembly line for the exclusive production of the coffee pods for United galleys.

Illy, Coffee
Photo Credit: Vicki Arkoff

To better understand the effort and engineering feats involved, I toured the company headquarters in Trieste, Italy, the long-established world center of coffee culture. There, I enrolled in a day-long lecture at illy’s Universita del Caffe where 100,000 students have taken years-long training courses to master every aspect related to the economics and science of coffee from seed to cup.

Illy, Coffee, Lab coat
Photo Credit: Vicki Arkoff

I learned how illy’s distinct flavor comes from a unique blend of the top one percent of Arabica beans, purchased directly from the best growers in Brazil, Central America, India and Africa. Believing that “Better coffee makes a better world,” illy has adopted a strong commitment to sustainability and pioneered the direct-trade model. Their internationally-certified supply chain includes farmers who earn above-market prices in exchange for meeting quality standards.

Photo Credit: Vicki Arkoff

The illy lecture hall is also a working laboratory where Universita Director Moreno Faina, VP Mark Romero, and Director of Quality David Brussa, a chemist, led the class through a tasting to demonstrate how illy judges nine “note” standards for the balanced illy blend: sweet, bitter, sour, fruity, toast, body, floral, caramel, and chocolate. Six cups of espresso later, I was starting to understand what United knew too well: it’s not easy to make the perfect cup of joe, let alone the 60 million cups United serves passengers each year.

Illy Lab
Photo Credit: Vicki Arkoff

 “Our collaboration with illy is helping to make the world feel a bit smaller and making flying that much more special, simply by way of a perfect cup of coffee,” said Jimmy Samartzis, United’s vice president of food services and United Clubs. “By serving the world’s most well-known premium coffee in our clubs and on board, we are communicating an experience to our customers and our employees with the quality and care that comes with every cup.”

Vicki Arkoff

Based in Los Angeles, Vicki Arkoff is a longtime Contributor for JustLuxe, reporting on travel, entertainment, and luxury goods and experiences. She is Editor at Large for The Awesomer, Rides & Drives, Pursuitist, 95 Octane, and Technabob, and reports for Atlas Obscura, Connect, The Daily Meal, Lonely Planet, Prevue, WestJet Magazine, Where Traveler Guestbook, Where Traveler Magazine, Baltimore Su...(Read More)

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