Monday, July 15, 2024

Gianni Cassatini: Celebrating a Life in Coffee


Gianni Cassatini with barista champions in Dublin, Ireland.
Gianni Cassatini (center) with the finalists of the 2016 World Barista Championship in Dublin, Ireland. From left: Ben Put (Canada); Charlotte (nee Malaval) Corra (France); Yoshikazu Iwase (Japan); Berg Wu (Taiwan); Lem Butler (USA); and Lex Wenneker (Netherlands). Photo by Kenneth R. Olson.

If it feels like Gianni Cassatini has been woven into the fabric of the specialty-coffee community—in the brightest, sparkliest threads of the whole textile—it’s because he occupied space with immeasurable joy. Joy for coffee: absolutely. Joy for people: undeniably. Joy for life, for each and every day: authentically, and with honor.

But it wasn’t until he was 59, recently retired from a 30-plus-year career with electronics corporation Johnson Controls, that Gianni became a member of the coffee industry, and it was unofficial at that. His friend and fellow Italian immigrant was supplying espresso equipment to cafés in Vancouver, B.C., and Gianni thought that was pretty cool, something he wanted to be a part of. So in that distinctively Gianni way, he put himself where he wanted to be and thrived.

Gianni stands on a rock outcrop in Kenya with barista champions.
An enthusiastic member of any barista trip, Gianni takes part in the Cafe Imports Champ Trip to Kenya in 2013. From left: Zachary Carlsen, Charlie Habegger, Sam Lewontin, Gianni, and Devin Chapman. Photo by Kenneth R. Olson.

In thinking back about Gianni, which thousands of coffee professionals and friends around the world have been doing since we learned of his passing on Sunday, I’m realizing how thoroughly he changed the way things were done. Before Nuova Simonelli became the World Barista Championship (WBC) espresso-machine sponsor, there wasn’t a person strutting around the stage, saying hello to pretty much everyone, stealing sips from a barista’s drinks after their performance, standing in the wings at the awards ceremony clapping finalists on the back with pride, being among the first to hug the winner and console the others. We had always celebrated barista competitors, but no one ever took the mantle with the kind of devotion Gianni did.

Gianni in a Land Cruiser crossing a flooded river
Gianni enjoying a one-of-a-kind ride during the Cafe Imports Champ Trip to Kenya in 2013. From left: Gianni, driver, and Eden-Marie Abramowicz. Photo by Kenneth R. Olson.

When Cafe Imports was announced as the first Origin Trip Sponsor of the United States Barista Championship (USBC) and the WBC, as such awarding winners a trip to a coffee-producing country, Gianni declared that he was coming, too. And so it was: Gianni and his best coffee buddy, Reg Barber of Reg Barber Tampers, became a fixture on the trips that took barista champions to Brazil, Ecuador, Kenya, and Colombia. The sponsorship changed hands to Ally Coffee in 2017, but Gianni and Reg’s presence on the trips remained.

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In 2010, Chris Ryan of Barista Magazine, then editor of Fresh Cup Magazine, asked Gianni directly what it was he actually did at Nuova Simonelli, and here’s what he said: “I’m my own boss (laughs). I’m public relations, but I’m my own boss. That’s the best way to go—anything I want to do, I do it. I go to all of the regional barista competitions and all of the trade shows.”

Gianni raising a glass with barista champions in Brazil in 2016.
Gianni in the center of the action at the Ally Coffee Champs Trip to Brazil in 2016. From left: Lem Butler, Tony Querio, James Tooil, Alex Medina, Todd Goldsworthy, Tanya Newton, Kyle Ballinger, Reg Barber, and Andrea Allen. Photo by Kenneth R. Olson.

Truly, Gianni’s presence at coffee events—from Coffee Fest to the Specialty Coffee Expo to World of Coffee to HOST Milano, and always the WBC—was ubiquitous. He was just always there: his trademark Borsalino hat, his arresting cologne, his outstretched arms, that giant smile. To say his absence moving forward will be profound for all of us barely covers it.

Born Giovanni Cassatini on June 28, 1937, in Sicily, Italy, Gianni, the youngest of three, grew up in the quintessentially Italian culture of espresso. After his mother passed when he was only 3 years old, Gianni’s father moved the family north to Verona and opened a café, Tre Coroné, which translates to three crowns.

Gianni as a 27-year-old holding a suitcase.
Gianni in Munich, Germany, in 1957; he started his electrical engineering career in Germany. Photo courtesy of Gianni Cassatini.

It was a success, and Gianni’s father opened several more, including one in Bolzano, where Gianni moved at age 16 to oversee operations. At the same time, he attended a technical college in the nearby town of Merano, from which he earned his degree at age 22. 

He went to Dusseldorf, Germany, to put his education in electrical engineering to work, but he didn’t much care for the job. Feeling every bit the restless 20-something, Gianni moved to Canada five years later with no plan in mind. The story goes that the idea came from his friend, but that friend never got his visa. Gianni, who had romanticized the United States from a young age and saw a move to Canada as a potentially easy way to get close to the country, did. Behind the wheel of his brand new Alfa Romeo Spider, Gianni traveled to Rotterdam, Netherlands, and drove onto a ship bound for Montreal, Quebec. He was 27.

Gianni in the driver seat of his Alfa Romeo.
Gianni, who enjoyed racing cars, at the Westwood Racing Track in British Columbia in 1967. Photo courtesy of Gianni Cassatini.

Gianni’s first order of business was to drive across Canada, and so he did. When he hit Vancouver, B.C., and had gone as far west as he could, he stayed. He lived there for the rest of his life.

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Vancouver is where Gianni honed his affection for endurance racing, and it’s where he met Delia, his wife, who was the niece of the mechanic fixing Gianni’s car. Vancouver is where he and Delia married in 1977, and where they had their two children, Roberto and Sandra. (Gianni also has a daughter, Anette, from a previous relationship.)

Gianni playing soccer with Michael Harwood in Brazil in 2011.
Gianni and Michael Harwood (right) play soccer with the son of a coffee producer during the Cafe Imports Champ Trip to Brazil in 2011. Photo by Sarah Allen.

Before Delia and the kids, though, Gianni met the man who would similarly change his life: Tommaso Bresciani. Upon their meeting in 1967 in Vancouver, Tommaso was on the cusp of opening his own shop, Café Italia. The two expats would be lifelong friends.

The café quickly became a hub for the Italian immigrants who were arriving in Vancouver in droves, and soon Tommaso was opening several more outlets. Gianni, meanwhile, had taken an electrical job with Johnson Controls the year before he met Tommaso, and he worked there for the next 30 years.

Gianni on a horse in Colombia.
Gianni and his mighty steed, during the Cafe Imports Champ Trip to Colombia in 2015, with Sam Lewontin (background left) and Sam Schroeder (background right). Photo by Sarah Allen.

By the time Gianni retired in 1996, Tommaso had sold the Café Italia business and found new work in bringing espresso machines in from Italy. It became what is known today as Simonelli Group North America, where Tommaso’s son, Roberto, is now president.

Gianni with James Hoffmann and Klaus Thompson in Colombia in 2011.
Gianni with James Hoffmann (center) and Klaus Thomsen during the after-party of the 2011 World Barista Championship in Colombia. Photo by Kenneth R. Olson.

It’ll come as no surprise that retirement wasn’t Gianni’s jam; he wanted to be doing something and he missed the Italian café culture. So he joined Tommaso under the nebulous title of “consultant.”

Over the next decade, Gianni worked trade shows and fell in love with the coffee community. It was the year 2009, however, when he truly became the legend today’s barista faction knows. That was the year Nuova Simonelli was named the official espresso-machine sponsor of the WBC and USBC, and Gianni devoted himself to the cause with his whole heart.

Gianni in a small plane in Brazil with barista champions.
Gianni and company ride a private plane during the Ally Coffee Champ Trip to Brazil in 2016, with Kyle Ballinger (background left), and Lem Butler. Photo by Kenneth R. Olson.

The way Gianni saw it, supporting baristas was how he could serve his community best. He was never anything but honest. If competitors asked for feedback, Gianni wasn’t afraid to tell them to work harder. He was never an official judge, but I can’t tell you how many times he predicted the winner of the WBC correctly after tasting drinks in the final round.

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Gianni traveled around the United States to every regional, every USBC, and every WBC. He was there when regionals went by the wayside, replaced by prelims and qualifiers. He attended WBC events in the United States, the United Kingdom, Colombia, Austria, Italy, Australia, Ireland, South Korea, and the Netherlands. 

Gianni with the barista finalists in Melbourne, Australia in 2013.
Gianni (left) congratulating the finalists at the 2013 World Barista Championship in Melbourne, Australia. From left: Colin Harmon (Ireland); Pete Licata (USA); William Hernandez (El Salvador); Francesco Sanapo (Italy); Matt Perger (Australia); and Nick Clark (New Zealand). Photo by Kenneth R. Olson.

Gianni did not attend the 2023 WBC in Athens, Greece, however, and his absence was sorely, heartbreakingly felt. Though Gianni turned 86 this year, he seemed so indefatigable, we collectively couldn’t imagine going on without him. 

But go on, we must. It’s the least we can do for this man who gave us all so much. Gianni embodied a joie de vivre few do—a zest for life, an optimism, honesty, and kindness. How did he remember so many names and faces? From my Instagram feed, it seems his reach was even further than I imagined. Gianni truly knew everyone in coffee, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who didn’t feel like they knew Gianni, that he was their friend. Even if they met in passing three or six or 11 years ago, the impression Gianni made on so many members of this community is remarkable.

Gianni on a drying bed in Brazil in 2011.
Gianni, seen here during the Cafe Imports Champ Trip to Brazil in 2011, was an energetic supporter of the barista community. Photo by Sarah Allen.

Gianni, we are better people for knowing you. To inspire literally thousands of people from countless countries to seek joy and see the good in things was truly your greatest gift. 

Chris Ryan contributed to this article.

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