Archive for October, 2009

Beans, Beans the Magical Fruit

Underneath the plastic lid of your takeaway latte, cappuccino or flat white lies hard work by hundreds of people. This little paper cup holds history, talent, knowledge, and perhaps the most perfect heart that can be imagined drawn with silky smooth milk and dark, caramel coloured espresso.

A skill managed by top baristas, coffee art is the garnish for your latte, a type of presentation mastered around the world. It has become an important part of a coffee-maker’s job, commanding many hours in order to perfect this often overlooked forte. The art consists of the pictures you see on top of your coffee and are hand crafted by the person standing in between you and your morning wake-up call.

The Melbourne Show housed the 2009 Victorian State Latte Art Championship, in the Grand Pavilion on the day of the Footy Grand Final. The baristas exhibited pure concentration, know-how and passion in order to produce hearts, tulips, butterflies and rosettas on top of a fantastic tasting cup of joe.

I have been making coffee for eight years but felt like an amateur amongst the greats, ready to learn and more importantly keen to get back to the machine and polish my skills.

The competition was organised by the Australasian Specialty Coffee Association (AASCA), a not-for-profit company “of like-minded professionals who are passionate about their product which in [their] case is coffee.” Hundreds of hours were volunteered by members of the organization in order to produce a smooth weekend long event.

The President of AASCA, Ross Quail, presented the event with such vigour; you would think he was running an auction as his eagerness was being sold and traded amongst the crowd.

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“The goal is to capture the experience in that one cup, not with just a steady hand, you have to know your crema and how it will react,” Ross’s voice echoed through the marquee where people stopped, sat down and listened to the six foot five coffee enthusiast.

“Reddish brown, hazelnut, gold colours,” Ross described the crema, one of the ingredients for great coffee art. It needed to be dark to create a contrast against the whiteness of the milk. They are the basics for coffee art and with that the championship had begun.

Five judges took to the stage and watched as Tzu Yen Wang approached the donated bright green Nuova Simonelli espresso machine, a baristas’ wet dream. Yen was a short dark haired man. He wore black, a coffee-makers’ uniform and seemed to be swimming in his thick-framed glasses. He played with the grind, fiddled with his milk jugs and held the weight of the portafilter all to combat his nerves. Yen was the first competitor.

Ross swaggered over to Yen once the introductions were over. He placed his hand on his shoulder as if he was silently wishing him luck, calming the young barista.

The judges, two technical, two sensory and one head judge are all necessary to decide which contender will make the best out of the tools provided. Making art on a cappuccino and an espresso macchiato is the challenge along with a signature drink that may be served in a cup chosen by the entrant.

The barista submits three photos 24 hours in advance. The pictures are of the participant’s art, used by the judges as a point of reference to compare with the designs produced on the day. The competitor must replicate their own art in order to show consistency.

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The photos were sprawled across the serving table and inspected carefully by the judges. The technical judges look out for the creativity, size, positioning and difficulty associated with the pattern. The sensory judges taste and rate the temperature, texture, quality and balance of the coffee. The head judge oversees the process, bringing order to the eight minute event.

The crowd stared at the overhead projector to see Yen’s coffee art. After the hush, a loud applause followed Yen’s final design and his rippling forearms fell to his sides as a sign of relief. Ross approached the young artist and congratulated him on “showcasing the aspects of specialty coffee.”

Tzu Yen didn’t win that day even though the tulips on his macchiato and the double rosettas on his cappuccino would put any café to shame. He seemed happy enough to be involved. Yen said he found it “more difficult to design in a small cup” when he made the macchiato, yet he managed himself gracefully and proved that he was a true barista.

It wasn’t the milk, the symmetry of the designs or the sounds of the competition that transformed a little marquee in the Grand Pavilion at the Melbourne Show into a community; it was a single, tiny brown bean that brought people in away from the livestock and outrageously priced rides.

The beans had come from around the world. The artistic baristas were allowed to bring in their own blends to heighten the experience for the judges and put even more individuality into a single serving cup. This element of the competition has laid its hand in the rise of roasters which are popping up around Melbourne and other parts of the world.

Most coffee blends are scrutinized, discarded, appreciated then accepted before they reach your table. The heart on top of your latte completes a journey that started in another country, years before the beans knew they would end up being ground into something delicious and delectable.

Going from barista to roaster seems like a backwards progression. Once the finished product is realized, many professional baristas have been tracing back from that shot of espresso. New blends are being developed in order to find that perfect cup of coffee that compliments milk and appeals to a range of consumers.

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2008 World Latte Art Champion, Con Haralambopoulos made that career jump. He has developed a blend for Gridlock Coffee which won a bronze medal in the annual Golden Bean Competition, the “largest coffee roaster competition in the southern hemisphere” and held in Port Macquarie.

Con believes that “When you master the extraction process in coffee making behind the coffee machine, it means you get a better understanding about how coffee works and each origin works differently.”

“Roasting my own coffee was a natural journey when I am roasting I feel I am in control of consistency in taste and appearance of the espresso base. That was the main reason I started roasting for Gridlock coffee.”

Ross, who has been roasting coffee for ten years and is the Master Roaster for Jasper coffee, feels that it is “a realistic vocation that commands a wage where baristas can hold their head up high.”

Con honed in on a skill and took his knowledge on how to produce a beautiful beverage and applied it to producing a beautiful coffee blend. Con found a market that embraced his expertise, as have other former champions.

2007 World Champion Latte Artist, Jack Hanna has also followed this trend. Hanna is developing blends for Jack and the Bean, expanding his career as a latte artist as he has “moved on from that part of [his] life.” He gathered his passion and placed it in a different arena, “to grow as a person, [his] goals have shifted.”

The hearts, rosettas and tulips are “connecting people that would not normally be in touch” Ross laments, but the dedication to roasting the perfect combinations of beans is turning a community of consumers into connoisseurs who chase the bean like a wine lover chases the grape.

Coffee can be nutty, chocolatey, earthy, bold, smooth, exotic, full-bodied, sweet, and spicy. The aroma, acidity, body and flavour make up the second most traded commodity in the world and people will travel to the ends of the earth to find the perfect cup. The art is the icing on this liquid form of cake, the design is a representation of fine tuning, attention to detail and careful movements necessary to produce a great latte and now a great blend.

Ross was a barista long before he began roasting coffee but he “wanted to know more about the types of coffee out there” and he believes it is “the next step from being a champion barista.” It explains why many cafés in Melbourne have taken to roasting.

St. Ali Coffee Roasters, Eureka Coffee, The Social Roasting Company and The Brunswick East Project are all a part of a process that has been developed, modified and culturally accepted since the 13th century. Roasting makes a signature coffee, like a rosetta makes a signature drink. Pairing the two creates an individual experience for the customer.

The Brunswick East Project roasts in house using Padre Coffee, utilising a “library of roast information which allows [them] to roast more accurately and to the specifics of each bean and its origin.” This is developing a more sophisticated way to enjoy coffee around Melbourne starting with a big heart, etched into the crema.

Small distributors aren’t the only vehicles for this movement, corporations are also getting in on the action. Last year Starbucks closed 61 stores in Australia along with 676 in the US. Nevertheless, a new vision was being formed, a new way to drink coffee promoting a shift away from their former production line of lattes.

15th Avenue Coffee and Tea is one of the more individual ideas from Starbucks and promises to bring “flavors of the world direct to your local neighborhood everyday.” The new shop sets out to provide their customer base with the most sincere cup of coffee around. A specialty coffee that has been hand -picked and selected in order to find and formulate the right sort of beans that can produce the perfect blend.

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Perhaps that’s the draw, the feeling that you are a part of something bigger, broader and internationally acclaimed. A blend can now receive wide admiration and be brought into millions of households, connecting the growers, roasters, makers and drinkers in a one pound bag of beans.

Latte art is the attraction, making consumers aware of the amount of detail that goes into producing coffee. Baristas are bringing their own experience and resources to the table in order to share their love of coffee with their valued customers. Getting coffee drinkers involved in finding the right blend means having an assortment of palates in your shop which will help a roaster figure out what combination works best.

Tzu Yen Wang displayed passion and excellence during the Victorian State Latte Art Championship. He was thoughtful towards the grind, finessed the milk and conjured a reaction from the audience that proved he wasn’t the only coffee lover. Maybe one day he too will roast his own coffee and perfect a skill that reaches people in all walks of life who meet in an innovative café that roasts and garnishes impeccable coffees.

A Bitter End

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When a customer complains about a drink, it makes me want to shrivel up and die. Imagine coming to uni, paying three bucks out of your tiny Centrelink fund and getting something you thought would be glorious, only to find it’s not hot enough, too bitter or worse…skinny milk.

It happens, bad coffees cross the line here and there which is all part of the process. As long as your coffees are consistently satisfactory, take the hit, it probably won’t happen tomorrow. But if you receive more than three out of ten crap coffees, that’s our problem.

I wondered this the other day as I dined out in a restaurant, always packed with the doorway littered by amazing reviews. Not a breakfast place, but a bona fide five star restaurant, which I have chosen not to name.

I had a fantastic dinner giving my palate the orgasm it craved. I all but licked the plate clean and decided dessert would only enhance this experience further. I ordered a single shot of espresso between the meals in hopes to refresh my appetite.

The coffee looked terrible. Completely under extracted with absolutely no crema, I wondered if they had added food colouring to the water. Yet I decided to take the hit, maybe the dim lighting was being rude to this single shot of horror. It wasn’t, I was right, it was awful.

This wasn’t my first bad coffee from a supposed great restaurant, there have been others. It stumps me that they are all so proficient when it comes to wine, yet completely unreliable when it comes to coffee.

Restaurants in Melbourne know their wine and can pull out any adjective and regional clue that could help anyone decide which best suits their pork, poultry, pasta or fish, why not coffee? Shouldn’t the same routine be used in order to compliment your mousse, cheesecake, cheese or chocolate gateau? It adds to the experience just as a latte brightens your morning.

It’s rather shameful that a lot of these fabulous restaurants can put so much time and effort into wine, yet none into the second most traded commodity in the world.

Yes, wine is more expensive and more money is made out of it compared to a cappuccino. But going home with a bitter taste in your mouth seems like far more of a bargain. Of course, if you’ve taken several hits with the wine, maybe you won’t really notice.


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