Archive for March, 2010

An Afternoon at St. Ali

The two young men took turns while laughing and engaging with the large crowd that had moved on from the music. It was an ‘art off’ each barista pouring and pouring to make a better design on top of their latte.

The crowd was buzzing, perhaps in awe of the way an everyday beverage could be turned into such a masterpiece. Although I’m sure the free coffee added to the excitement.

Last Sunday St. Ali invited enthusiasts to watch their baristas demonstrate their craft and give a behind the scenes look at their roasting facility. The South Melbourne Laneway, where they’re nestled, was closed down in order to show off what they do best, make coffee.

The event was held in conjunction with Melbourne’s first food blogging conference (Eat.Drink.Blog.) and photo exhibition which were also sponsored by St. Ali. With that many people devoted to food and espresso walking around, you better believe that everything I consumed was nothing short of perfection.

There were kiosks set up throughout the space. Sensory Lab, St. Ali’s new endeavour, were handing out coffee made from a Syphon and Der Raum were mixing beautiful concoctions full of alcohol and Caribbean spices. The DJ mixed from an apple which gave the laneway a backyard bbq sort of appeal.

The ‘art off’ was like watching two break dancers in the middle of a wooden floor work off one another. The first move was simple but when the one-upmanship started, the designs became more and more complex with the audience clapping and smiling throughout the way.

After the show St. Ali’s soft spoken roaster tried to take the audience through the process. Unfortunately, the caffeinated crowd and his lack of projection turned the tour into a Q and A, the main question being, “could you repeat that?”

Nevertheless, we were all able to walk around their two roasters and glimpse into the amount of work it takes to turn beans into a trademark.

My evening ended with a single ristretto made from their espresso blend. After the two strong cocktails I had tried from Der Raum, it was the perfect finish to a late afternoon indulgence.

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Down Some Suburban Laneway

Off the main strip on an unknown street stood an unnamed café with a reputation that reached me last Saturday. 

Ambiguity, the epitome of cool, I’m obviously not in the know because the name was nowhere to be seen.

Word of mouth brought me in from the heat plus an ex-barista from Caffeine had raved about the coffee. It was Atomica, so it took me a while to make my way in there.

Nothing against Atomica, one of the four fathers of Melbourne’s roasting explosion, but we serve their blend so on the weekends I tend to seek out different tastes.

Down the suburban laneway was a beautifully set up café, tightly spaced with meek lighting and a relatively rude staff. Food was travelling at the speed of light, table to table, and I was squashed between a register and old school San Pellegrino memorabilia when I ordered my takeaway latte.

“Strong soy latte thanks.”

“That’ll be four dollars.” I glanced at the menu twice to make sure it was really that expensive. It was.

I searched my purse for the acceptable amount of twenty cent pieces then went to wait for what I thought would be ten minutes.

Thirty minutes later I received an awesome coffee, I was impressed, it was fabulous. They used a different blend than we do, it was Atomica’s Den blend, very smooth. But a half an hour for a takeaway, c’mon now, I do have a life outside the café!

I accept taking time out to make a perfectly crafted beverage, especially if it’s over priced, however, there should be a rule that takeaway coffees come first.

There is a lid on a to go, so latte art is unnecessary. That’s thirty seconds gone. Also, people that come in to sit and have a chat with a friend should not take preference. They’re planted, ready to take their time. Minus ten minutes thirty seconds.

So the wait time could have been nineteen minutes, still too long. Yet I have found when getting takeaways from an assortment of cafés that this is the usual alotted time.

It takes about a minute and a half to steam milk and 18-23 seconds for a perfect shot of espresso to pour. That’s roughly two minutes to make a coffee, thirty minutes is absolutely unacceptable.

I know, I shouldn’t complain, the coffee made me stop in the middle of the street and forget about the oncoming traffic, I immediately wanted another.

Unfortunately, I had other things to do than feel awkward waiting in a cramped unknown bar.

Changing the System

“We are not Starbucks and therefore do not write names on cups.”

John Smith, the only other Barista at Caffeine is a wise man and an obvious ‘third wave’ enthusiast, but I disagree with his cup ethics.

At times I look beyond the bar and notice the massive crowd that has developed after the transaction. It can get large within seconds which used to wreak havoc on my nerves when I was a newbie.

Sometimes it seems there are hundreds of people, rotating as each coffee goes out, all the while keeping their eyes locked on the machine.

Mostly customers keep to themselves yet every now and then they approach the bar, look at my hands and try to stare down their coffee.

I rarely acknowledge their presence but I do agree with their intention.

Last week we averaged out our drop count and figured we made 2.4 drinks every minute for nine hours (and no, I’m not counting the first year’s hot chocolates). There aren’t too many variations on our menu so it can be a confusing ordeal trying to figure out if that latte, is your latte. Most people take out of order.

Look, it’s more frustrating for me to be honest. I don ’t want to remake something nor do I want to bump up a full fat latte when I have just steamed a full jug of skinny, it disrupts the flow.

Not only that but I am never making the drink at hand. I am always preparing for the next eight because like most things, if you don’t plan ahead everything could go pear shaped.

Yet some form of personalized cup identification would be easier than relying on “people to take responsibility with their place in line,” as John Smith always says.

Thankfully our customers evolve and have informally adopted a first-name- initial system where I am more than happy to sneak out a ‘J latte’ than put something up for grabs.

As hard as I’ve tried to change the system on my own, it was overall consensus that has slowly made a ten-year old operation better.

Cupping

I felt like I was taking part in a legal drug trade. There were raw materials lying around the empty garage waiting to be processed. The walls were bright white untouched by dust and the only other people in the room were twitching from the product.

There was a periodic table of sorts, blue tacked to the wall describing the sensory elements involved in the drug. I looked through familiar terms and stumbled across ones I would never associate with coffee.

Balsamic rice, apricot and beef, who knew you could detect such distinct flavours from a little green bean shipped in from all parts of the world.

The roasting equipment was flown in from Italy, Bologna to be exact. It had been carefully picked to turn the new batch into a big seller on the market. I couldn’t wait to taste it; my glands were growing weak from salivating.

Then the cupping began. It was a slow process consisting of careful measurements and perfect water temperature. I was told the coffee had just been roasted, a 10-13 minute event that turns tiny green beans into brown aromatic ingredients.

The grounds were at the bottom of the glass when the water was poured on top, they floated throughout the cup resembling a snow globe then finally settled on the surface.

Next step was to smell. I grabbed a large soup spoon and pushed the coffee that had settled away from me three times while trying to grab every scent the cup let off.

It was heaven, freshly brewed, caffeinated goodness.

The grounds by this time had fell towards the bottom and it was time to taste. I submerged the spoon just enough to get a mouthful of the Kenyan blend that was now testing my patience.

In order to properly taste, to get the full experience, the coffee needs to be slurped hastily past the teeth and directly onto the tongue. This method is supposed to make a high pitched sound as you breathe in fast. The more experienced cuppers had mastered the sound, mine came out rather gurgly.

I spit my mouthful out into the complimentary spit cup that comes with the ceremony.  I almost kept it in but didn’t want to look any more like an amateur after the gurgling. Then it was over.

My palate was obviously not developed enough to notice the apricot that made a Kenyan distinct. But I enjoyed the coffee and was refined enough to call the blend fruity.

The left over beans were packed up into a blank paper bag, scribbled on then left to taste later. Cupping is something you do over and over again to the same blend to see how it ages and develops.

I had met up with Andrew Kelly, owner of Auction Rooms and roaster of Small Batch Coffee. Kelly was a cupping professional and kind enough to show me his red roaster and of course, the process. After all these years of distributing it was nice to finally meet a supplier.

Dancing Goats and Impotence

 

“Dear Kaldi, yes, he herds the goat

Tiresome walks without an antidote

Til one day a bush he found

With bright red cherries all around

The goats they ate and chomped the fruit

Then pranced and danced without a flute.”

 

The dancing goat legend is the most well-known part of coffee’s 1000 year-old history. Roasts are named after it and the Ethiopians get credit for figuring out that if you roast beans then add water, you’ve got one hell of a picker upper.

However, coffee’s original impression on the world was more scientific. It was recently discovered that coffee can help those that suffer from liver disease, meaning that not much has changed throughout the beans journey.  

The first textual mention of coffee was found within a medical book written by the Arabian Astronomer “Rhazes” in the 10th century. He describes Bunchum (coffee) as “hot and dry and very good for the stomach.”

Similar to tea, coffee blossomed through the medical community where it gained ground as a cure for indigestion. The blessed bean was also listed as a cure for the bubonic plague.

When coffee finally made its way out of Africa and the Middle East to Europe in the 17th century, doctors were fast to praise the drug.

Physician Gideon Harvey wrote in his book Advice Against the Plague (1665), that coffee is:

A very whoesom and Physical drink, having many excellent vertues, closes the Orifice of the Stomack, fortifies the heat within, helpeth Digestion, quickneth the Spirits, maketh the Heart lightsom, is good against Eye-sores, Coughs, or Colds, Rhumes, Consumptions, Head-ach, Dropsy, Gout, Scurvy, Kings Evil, and many others.

Yet benefits and health warnings go hand in hand. Since coffee made people feel good, there had to be a catch.

In 1674, a group of women drew up a petition against coffee explaining that “this pitiful drink is enough to bewitch Men … and tie up the Codpiece-points without a Charm.” They also claimed it made men too thin and that it caused headaches.

Well the headache part has been embraced as anyone who has gone without caffeine has felt the afternoon pound. Thankfully our advancements have de-bunked the impotency idea.

Coffee has moved far beyond the legendary herder. It has been poked and prodded and found to be more than just an enjoyable beverage that causes hyperactivity in goats.

As the medical community continues to find more antioxidants, cures for liver disease and possibly cancer, coffee remains an ancient drink providing the same benefits as it did hundreds and hundreds of years ago.


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