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Post coffee

It’s been six months. Six months since I’ve felt a jug of milk heat up in my palm, watched the espresso drip out of a porta-filter and felt sweat glide down the front of my forehead trying to get ahead of the order.

It’s been six whole months since I made coffee and I miss it dearly.

I’ve had dreams of making coffee, thought about doing a trial and daily consider asking my local barista to shove across so I could take over. Ever since I joined the race I’ve been a little down frequenting the café as a consumer, not a producer.

After I finished my post-grad I went into full time work, 9-5 at a desk. It has taken me months to get over the guilt associated with sitting down all day, something unheard of in the field of hospitality.

But throughout this whole transition from working student to clockwatcher, coffee has been constantly in my thoughts. I am obsessed with it and given the lines I see on Saturday morning throughout Melbourne, so is everybody else.

So I am changing the direction of this blog – since I now stand in a very different place in the café. As a paying customer I’m curious as to why the coffee shop is probably the most frequented place next to the office and home.

I’m embarking on a social history of coffee in Australia, following the trends, the people, the influences, growth and how a love of beans became what it is today.

Although I’m pretty sure dreaming about coffee isn’t normal, I bet those that did in the past are the ones that transformed a popular foreign plant into a staple in society.

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4 things you may not know about coffee

1: There are ways around high prices

I’ve seen people get rather inventive when it comes to saving money. A single shot of espresso is cheaper to buy than a latte. Usually, coffee places have a little condiments bar consisting of sugar and milk to put in tea and long blacks.

Last summer, I noticed a customer ordering a shot over ice, a common drink yet it took me a while to figure out why the complimentary milk jug was empty when he left. Then it hit, he made his own iced coffee.

We charge $3.50 for an iced coffee which is espresso shots and milk over ice; he paid $2.40 for black coffee over ice and got the milk for free. Dodgy, yes sir! But he did save over a dollar per drink.

I once pulled up a stingy student for ordering a large latte and an extra cup. If he hadn’t poured half of his latte into the requested cup then handed it to his friend in front of me, he may still be getting away with it today.

2: Skinny milk froths better than full fat milk

Coffee connoisseurs insist that the more fat in milk, the better the coffee tastes. This may be true but if you like a frothy cappuccino, skinny is the way to go.

Because skinny milk has less fat content, it froths better and looks much better when it has been properly dealt with. The froth is glossier and much thicker than full fat foam. If you can get past the slightly watered down flavor of skinny milk, give it a go next time you order a milk based coffee.

3: Are you in on the secret?

A menu board will list the most basic items offered in a café and every now and then a special. However, there are a lot of ingredients behind the counter making options outside of the menu endless.

Syrups, chocolates, teas and assorted milks can all be mixed and matched to form whatever concoction you can conjure. Trust me, I get bored behind the machine, I’ve tried it all.

The most popular under the radar order at the moment is a chai latte with a shot of espresso. Tea and coffee seems like an odd flavour combo yet the sweet taste of chai does level out the bitterness of coffee. If you’re bored of your morning latte, get creative and don’t be afraid to ask a barista for a recommendation.

4: Friends with benefits

Smile, say hi, ask questions and above all, say thank you. Manners go a long way and if there is a particular café you frequent, getting to know your barista means special treatment.

Often I will see a customer walking towards the shop, the kind that never strays from their favourite beverage and without a thought I’ll start making their drink.  A coffee ready at the counter always goes down well especially when on the go.

The key is to build a little rapport with your coffee maker, spend a little more time getting to know your caffeine administrator and we’ll spend more time making sure your coffee is fabulous and prompt!

*This post originally contained information about the price of coffee which has been taken out after concerns were raised about the accuracy of research

Trainsurfing

This was originally published on upstart.

As crowds thicken over the weekend, cafés are finding it hard to accommodate the needs of their plugged-in customers. A laptop takes up much more space than a plate of eggs with a latte on the side.

The café Wi-Fi backlash began in the United States when coffee house owners started putting tape on electrical outlets, some even went so far as to revamp their shops, replacing seating with standing bars.

Melbourne is on the verge of the same game of outlet hide and seek. Fair enough, after all is the café really the most appropriate place to double up as an office?

Trevor Simmons opened his Melbourne café, Penny Farthing, with Wi-Fi in mind as he saw it to be a good fiscal draw. Yet eight months after opening he says he has ‘had to ask people to put away laptops on the weekend because there just isn’t any space, this isn’t a library.’

The stench of espresso in Penny Farthing reminded me that I wasn’t in the business of borrowing books, but the handful of customers scattered throughout the café staring at their laptops lent a kind of silence that suggested otherwise.

Cafés were one of the first to catapult free Wi-Fi into popularity when a friendly neighbour beamed a wireless signal into an adjoining coffee shop. Ten years later, it’s time for Wi-Fi to find a more suitable setting so it can put the noise back into coffee.

But where else can you be anti-social, kill time and not type in fear of spilling a hot drink over precious technology? Why, public transport of course!

Since 2006, talk of free Wi-Fi for commuters has led to broken promises and disappointed users. The only hope we have to take back the time wasted commuting are the trials that have been going on since the middle of last year.

In South Australia, there was a six-month trial of one metropolitan bus equipped with all things Wi-Fi, but nothing has evolved from there.

Close to a year on, in February 2010, the Tasmanian Greens decided to roll out an 18-month Wi-Fi bus trial in hopes that they can meet that of ‘Europe’s train system which offers free Wi-Fi for travellers, and is widely recognized as leading the way internationally with over 70,000 ‘hotspots’.

Commercial banking companies like ANZ have also decided to try their clever marketing hand at free Wi-Fi.

Overly adorned throughout Melbourne’s Southern Cross station are banners and kiosks advertising ‘a free Wi-Fi zone’ brought to you by ANZ. It looks like someone threw up blue.

When asked about the new addition, the Metro information centre simply pointed to ‘the yellow building where you can get the best coverage’. They didn’t seem to know that the promotion, which started in June, will only last until the end of this month.

This month, ANZ also launched free access until November for sea-bound commuters travelling the 30 minute journey from Manly to Circular Quay in Sydney. They are setting the foundations because, ANZ announced, ‘the daily commute to and from work is a very natural time for consumers to expect free Wi-Fi services’.

In Europe, free and pay-as-you-go Wi-Fi is available on Virgin trains, Thalys and other public transport providers. In the United States, New York City is moving to wire close to 300 subway stations with free Wi-Fi.

The NSW government is already backing the endeavour between ANZ and the Circular Quay fleet. A little subsidising goes a long way when it comes to getting home on time.

Maybe then you’d have enough time to sit in the café without your laptop. All those hours spent throughout the week waiting and travelling could be put towards productivity instead of stealing space from the founders of free Wi-Fi.

If you see a queue, put it away, but before you do, kindly write a letter to those at Metro and your local council to praise the free trials.

Fuelled by coffee

In 2008, two researchers from the University of Nevada found a better use for used coffee grounds other than fertilizing plants, exfoliating skin and filling up landfills. They extracted the oil and made biofuel.

With 16 billion pounds of coffee beans being distributed around the world annually, the researchers figured 340 million gallons of biofuel could be produced from the waste.

That’s a whole lot of fuel and given that I fill up an 80L garbage bin full of used grounds weekly, maybe I should ditch my day job and go into the oil business.

Last April, agricultural engineers at the University of Missouri decided to continue on from where the researchers have left off, testing it further so it can be better recognized as a source for biofuel.

Even though more research will be done, some companies are already utilising grounds as fuel.

Canadian company, Energy Innovation Corp (EIC), have managed to get over 500 cafés in their province to agree on letting them act as trash collectors. The company will then turn used grounds into biofuel expecting it to stop 16 million kilos of it from flooding waste dumps by 2013.

According to EIC CEO, Jon Dwyer, the fuel “can be used in any diesel engine whether it’s a train, a truck, a Volkswagen Jetta or a simple generator without any modification to the engine whatsoever.”

Nestlé have also invested in café trash. The company’s Philippines factory, Cagayan de Oro, uses wasted coffee as fuel to, ironically, make NESCAFÉ instant coffee. In fact, worldwide more than 20 Nestlé factories operate with used grounds as a supplemental fuel.

A garbage bag full of used coffee grounds is incredibly heavy. I have to hoist it into the air to get it in a bin, a ritual I do twice daily. I’ve tried giving it to friends for their gardens and taken it home to rid myself of dead skin. But that barely makes a dent in the amount I go through per week.

That’s just one café on the outskirts of Melbourne which is populated with others that probably have the same garbage issues. Melbourne’s well has yet to be struck but if used grounds ever became the norm for fuel expect coffee prices to go up.

Starbucks back on top?

Starbucks the coffee mogul, Starbucks the international meeting place, Starbucks the failure, now Starbucks the news distributor?

I can see the board room discussion that took place two years ago when Howard Schultz came out of retirement and re-appointed himself as CEO.

“We’re losing money and have closed hundreds of stores around the world,” Howard would have screamed across a long rectangular table.

“The internet seems to have taken off, why don’t we do something with that?” A pimply faced intern would have replied.

“I like it! To the keyboards!” Shultz would have said.

And that’s what probably happened. Since Shultz’s return, Starbucks has become the number one consumer brand on social media with over ten million friends on Facebook and nearly one million Twitter followers.

In fact, they decided to go a step further then the status update and on July 1st introduced free Wi-Fi in all of their US stores and a few in Canada.

This is not a new thing, free Wi-Fi is something people now expect from a café and most public places. The crumbled communal newspapers are being replaced by laptops and Apple gadgets.

However, it is the upcoming launch of the Starbucks Digital Network (SDN) that is changing the dynamic of the café.

Partnerships with iTunes, The New York Times, Patch, USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo! and others are enabling Starbucks to offer otherwise exclusive content free to their in store customers.

Pay walls on news sites such as The Wall Street Journal can be side stepped upon purchase of a beverage and free downloadable music will be available through their deals with iTunes.

So their stores become downloading hubs. Not being able to find a place within the specialty coffee market has forced the company to give content away for free in order to get back on top.

As they filter information in their cafés to caffeinated consumers, they will no doubt re-invigorate their brand. Sitting in a café on a laptop for hours can equate to multiple purchases as one coffee does not fulfil hunger, only a muffin could tie you over til you’ve reaped all the benefits from the SDN.

Yet the perpetuators of the second wave of coffee may now have started the fourth. This network may very well turn the social part of a café into a point for connectivity, where we all stare at our screens, silently flicking through the web giving whole new meaning to the phrase ‘having a quiet one’.

Tweeting the Bean

What coffee do they drink on Network Ten’s show Neighbours? C’mon, it’s been on at 6:30 every evening for the past twenty-five years and they spend at least two scenes at the café in every episode.

It’s Genovese, and it is a clever way to market a product that mostly moves by word of mouth.

There is not a lot of advertising surrounding coffee. Apart from McDonald’s McCafé and the occasional love story intertwined with a latte-art heart on a Gloria Jeans commercial, coffee is such a quick grab that to go out of your way for one requires an intimate endorsement.

I go to places that are recommended by friends, people that have been there and experienced all that the beans and baristas have to offer. They are the best coffees, because my friends know me and they know what I like.

Yet, with the advent of cafés tweeting and hiring professional bloggers to sing sweet beans from the social media stage, where to get a good coffee has never been so easily at our fingertips.

St. Ali, one of Melbourne’s most successful cafés, hired reputable blogger Ed Charles a little while back to video blog, or vlog, all things newsworthy about their growing business. To supplement this, they regularly use the micro-blogging site, Twitter, to re-tweet clever 140 character promotions which usually turn viral.

Last week, they tweeted: “Roasters ready. Kitchen ready. Baristas ready. Floor ready. St ALi is ready for you. coffee subscription to whoever mentions this tweet 1st.”

I and eight other people re-tweeted the dare, who won? Absolutely no idea, but I have nearly 100 followers and if they ever look at what I have to say, they now have St. Ali in their vocabulary.

And so on for the eight others that thought they were up early enough to catch the 8:03 am tweet.

Other coffee affiliates that tweet good bean are Market Lane, Seven Seeds, Melbourne Coffee Review and Stumptown.

It’s so simple, follow a couple cafés, maybe a barista or two and the coffee community is on your screen whenever you log onto Twitter. It is a hell of a lot cheaper than paying for a thirty second spot or a place on a popular sitcom for that matter.

A step beyond that is to actually sell coffee on the networking site. Which is what a US based roasting company has recently engaged in.

Their Twitter alias is Atomic_Cafe and they are a micro-roaster in Massachusetts. Although they have a site for their company listed, it has been “under construction” for the past month.

Atomic_Cafe has been using Twitter to conduct business, I assume until their website is all sorted and functioning.

Recent Tweets include: “you bet bro let me know what you want for coffee your address and if you want it whole or ground, will ship it out Monday

And: “Just brought in a classic Guatemala Antigua (la flor) coming soon to an airpot near you…….”

The fact that the social media airwaves are perpetuating this word of mouth and movement offline is happening, is good enough proof for me that you can be successful even if you don’t have a stake in one of the most popular television shows in Australian history.

The people you follow on Twitter are usually the people you want to hear from. And like my friends I’ll take a coffee suggestion from any of them.

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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