Starting in July 2016, United will begin serving illycaffè’s Scuro Dark Roast in all three cabins. Image: illycaffè

APEX Insight: In a bold full-cabin overhaul of its coffee service, United Airlines recruited aficionados from illycaffè for lessons in Italian coffee.

If United, like the poet T.S. Eliot, wanted to measure its life out in coffee spoons, it would be a task of magnitudinal order. Serving approximately 72 million cups of the popular beverage a year, the airline hands out more than enough stir sticks to connect the airline’s hub in Chicago to Beijing, China. And starting in July 2016, when United begins serving illycaffè’s Scuro Dark Roast in all three cabins, the airline expects that number to rise.     

Many claim to have mastered the bean, but illycaffè comes by the designation “masters of coffee” somewhat honestly – or literally, even. In 1999, alongside illy’s 22-acre headquarters in Trieste, the Italian roasting company opened the Università del Caffè, an institution where students can ruminate on the art, science and philosophy of the perfect roast – and even walk away with a master’s degree in Economics and Coffee Sciences. The company’s edifying approach to espresso began with its founder, Francesco Illy, who, equal parts inventor and coffee connoisseur, is credited with inventing the modern espresso machine and pioneering a method of pressurization that preserves freshness in packaging.

For the practitioners of illy’s signature nine-ingredient Monoarabica blend, adapting techniques for in-flight brewing presented a few challenges – but luckily, United was up for a little coffeeology. “On this project, we were able to do much more in-flight taste-testing,” says Mark Romano, vice-president of Education, Quality and Sustainability, illycaffè North America. Experts from illy tested brews on eight United flights, across a variety of aircraft and galley equipment.

“Coffee is brewed much faster in an aircraft – in two and a half to three minutes versus eight minutes on the ground.” – Mark Romano, illycaffè North America

Among the differences between conditions at cruising altitude and sea level are boiling temperature and brewing duration. “Coffee is brewed much faster in an aircraft – in two and a half to three minutes versus eight minutes on the ground,” Romano explains. “Pressure is used to make percolation faster, changing the chemistry completely.” To account for this, illy developed pillow packs exclusively for United that are designed to cover the full surface of the filter tray and effectively distribute water through the grounds. Consultations were also made with B/E Aerospace to ensure the packs would be compatible across the manufacturer’s current and future range of coffee machines. 

“We’ve really heard customers talk to us about how important coffee is for them.” – Jeff Pelch, United

Customer feedback underpinned United’s decision to replace FreshBrew and overhaul its coffee service, so the airline actively involved passengers in the taste-testing process. “We’ve really heard customers talk to us about how important coffee is for them,” says Jeff Pelch, United’s senior manager of Product Strategy and Implementation. Passengers blind sampled a light-to-dark spectrum of three illy roasts, ultimately settling on the dark.

Rounding out United’s coffee service is an annual order of 40 million stroopwafels, a sweet pairing that’s bound to score the airline brownie points with passengers and professors of coffee alike. 

This story was originally published as “Higher Grounds” in the June/July issue of APEX Experience magazine.

Katie is a writer for APEX Media, based in Toronto, Ontario.