Espresso’s challengers

This was first published in Broadsheet Melbourne on 20 April, 2010

The white residue that lingered on the recently sponged blackboard said Ethiopian Sidamo earlier. Now it’s Yirgacheffe. If Kenyan were to make an appearance this afternoon, all palates in the cafe would be balanced.  

Melbourne’s reputation for knowing good food and good wine is matched by its reputation for knowing good coffee. But as the city’s ever more sophisticated coffee culture proves, there’s always something new to discover about its favourite brew.

The single origin boom is well underway. In cafes all over Melbourne it is now possible to sip coffee from most corners of the world. Some purists insist it must be black, but single origin lattes and flat whites are not unheard of.

As the beans escape the brand of the roaster, longer, more exotic names are taking over the black boards – names of farms, homes and towns. An increased appreciation for the origin of our coffee is powering this cultural shift.

In conjunction with greater understanding of where the beans have originated, brewing methods have proliferated. Melbourne cemented its coffee reputation by offering some of the world’s finest espresso. So for many, weaning off the European style has been tough. But a few brewing methods better suited to extracting the subtle flavours of single origin beans have been popping up with increased regularity.

The syphon is gaining widespread popularity in Melbourne now. All of the St Ali cafes have at least one. Auction Rooms and Proud Mary also heavily feature the contraption, which resembles a gas lantern and works using a vacuum effect.

It is a delicate brewer and takes a skilled hand to multitask between the heat, water and grounds. However, the results can be close to perfect and the theatrical process gives an air of importance to the brew that’s delivered to your table.

The theatrics also give a glimpse into the production behind coffee. What is being tasted is not just caffeinated goodness, but the origin, region and estate.

It’s easy to say that a Sumatran blend is best used for espresso because of its earthy undertones but when you remove the cloak of milk, blackberries, toffee and plum surface.

The clover is another part in discovering which blend best suites your taste. This machine is about the size of the domestic espresso machines many coffee addicts have nestled next to their toaster, and like the syphon it uses a vacuum to make a single cup of black coffee. The clover and syphon produce different textures in the coffee and display different subtleties in the taste.

Abbotsford’s Three Bags Full sells clover-brewed coffee for five dollars – a fair price considering the machine costs as much as a new car. Aside from its technical sophistication, the price is also a result of its rarity. There aren’t many clover machines floating around these days; Starbucks bought the Seattle-based company last year and took them off the market, perhaps as defence against the independent cafes leading this ‘third wave’ of coffee culture.

At the end of the day the point of finding a roast that makes you salivate is to be able to bring it all home and do it yourself. Enter the pour over.

Dead Man Espresso and Market Lane are some of the cafes offering the pour over. This will produce a cup that is closer to American-style filter coffee. The measurements and water temperature are key to this endeavour, yet it is a simple paper filter that does its job once the grounds and water go in; all you need to do is stir.

It lacks the theatrics involved with the complex syphon and mechanical clover, but it enables the characteristics of coffee to come through the pour. It is also very affordable so cafe-quality coffee can be done in the home kitchen without the need of a barista course.

As the chalkboard scribbles turn into paragraphs, identifying a region that suits your taste is getting easier with the help of a number of cafes.

Being able to identify a well-developed fresh product already works well through food and wine; coffee was always going to be next.

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