Coffee down under

I’m convinced that the Australians are doing something right with coffee.  I’m originally from California, but for the past 10 months, I lived in Sydney, Australia.

I have always been proud of the food culture and wine that we produce in California.

I enjoyed my local Peet’s coffee, and in the last few years, some of the specialty coffee houses and roasters in Los Angeles, such as Intelligentsia, Urth Café, Cafe Luxxe and a little gem called The Alcove.    In San Francisco, I would buy Graffeo coffee or visit cafes in North Beach.  I’ve been hearing the buzz about Blue Bottle coffee but have yet to try it. We have no shortage of specialty roasters, boutique coffee shops in Los Angeles and San Francisco

      But I was blown away by the coffee in Sydney, and Melbourne.  

It’s one of the things that left a lasting impression upon me.   The coffee there is smooth, not bitter, and consistently good in most cafes and coffee houses.

I tried to work out what is different about it..what is better…and I am not entirely sure what their secret is.   What I do know is that Sydney is teeming with micro roasteries, espresso stands, and cafes featuring espresso based drinks with latte art, and brewed coffee.   There is only a handful of Starbucks there….they failed in their expansion to Australia.   Here’s an article about that:

I think part of the reason they failed in Sydney is because their coffee is sub-standard compared to an average coffee in Sydney.    The Australians joke that they can even get good coffee at a gas station.   I am not surprised.   Sydneysiders don’t like to mask the flavor of the coffee with all of the syrups and whipped cream.

I’ve learned alot about coffee living in Sydney.  I visited Bean Drinking, a cafe in North Sydney, where they roast their own beans and offer a “coffee flight”.   They serve a single origin coffee in three preparations: Japanese Siphon,  Cold Drip and pour over or an espresso shot from the Slayer machine.

Single origin coffee refers to the fact that the coffee has come from one plot, from one farm and is not a blend, so you can taste all of the characteristics unique to that particular plot.   Apparently the flavor can vary quite a bit from plot to plot, just like wine can vary from vineyard to vineyard.   We had a Brazilian variety that day.

The siphon looks like a science experiment, but is really just a way of using vacuum pressure to brew the coffee, resulting in a clean, low sediment cup that allows the flavor of the coffee to come through.

Cold Drip is another method of brewing coffee, that results in a different flavor experience.   The baristas will describe it as having a more “liqueur” sort of flavor to it, but I actually found it kind of salty.   The coffee has been cold brewed and dripping through a glass filter for nearly five hours by the time it is served.  It is served cold in a shot glass, and usually offered with a glass of sparkling water, which you can then drop your shot into the glass of sparkling water if you want to try it that way.

We finished our flight with a shot of espresso from the Slayer espresso machine.   The Slayer is limited in production, from Seattle, and there are more of them in Australia than in the U.S. right now.   The main feature that coffee geeks and baristas love about this machine is the ability to modulate the pressure of the water as the espresso shot is being pulled.  This affects the flavor profile of the shot, and gives them alot more control.  The shot of espresso I had from the Slayer was intense…almost too much for me, and I had to add a dollop of foam and some sugar.

Part of the experience of the flight was listening  to Keith, the owner of Bean Drinking, talk about coffee.  His knowledge was encyclopedic, and was an education in itself.

He encouraged us to use the flavor wheel to help describe the coffee notes.   What was coming through in aroma and flavor? Was it nutty, chocolate or fruit..?  The Brazilian coffee had a nice mellow flavor.  It was nutty, toasty and light.

A few weeks after the coffee flight, I went to Campos Coffee for a cupping session where I learned about sourcing beans, dry processing, wet processing and the differences in how coffee is grown and selected.

Will Young, the founder and owner of Campos, gave the session.   He shared photos of the coffee farms he has been to.   Apparently cupping sessions are a ritual that are the same everywhere in the world.  The coffee that is being tasted that day is ground, put into ceramic cups and measured to be exactly the same amount in each cup.

The first thing to do in a cupping session, is to inhale the scent of each cup of grounds, and take note of what aromas come to mind.   Immediately, I was able to discern the difference between the “dry” processed coffee and the “wet” processed coffee.   Coffee is  a fruit, a “coffee cherry” or “coffee berry” and we dry and roast the seed of it to make coffee.

Will explained that dry processing, which is the oldest method.  It involves picking the coffee cherries, and laying them out in the sun to dry.  Dry processing tends to result in a earthier flavor, but is more uneven.  In dry processing, defective coffee cherries have to be removed by hand.  Dry processed coffees generally have more body and lower acidity than wet processed coffees.

In wet processing, or washed coffee, the coffee beans are floated in water to remove the defective beans, and washed to remove the mucilage, or outer fruit from the bean.  It often produces a brighter, lighter and cleaner flavor profile.

Will began pouring hot water over each of our cups, and allowing a crust to form.   The coffee grinds rise to the top, and each person then takes a spoon and breaks the crust, to release the aromatics and inhale the scent of the coffee.  More tasting notes are written down at this point.

Finally, the crust is scooped with two spoons off the top of the ceramic cup, and the coffee tasting can begin.   Each taster sips each coffee cup in turn, but keeps silent so as not to impose their own initial impressions on anyone else.   Once everyone has had a chance to sip each coffee and take notes, then discussions can begin.

In California, we have the latte, the cappuccino, the Americano, macchiato, espresso. In Sydney the flat white, which is similar to a latte, is very popular.  It’s silky, smooth and velvety in texture.  It’s prepared like a latte, using microfoam and espresso.  The milk is steamed at a lower temperature which retains some of the fats and proteins in the milk giving a a sweeter flavor than if the milk were scalded.

Another Australian coffee drink is the “long black” and the “Americano”.   Different preparations produce different results.   To me, the “long black” looked very much like a large cup of coffee we would serve in the U.S.   The difference is this:

Long Black – hot water is poured in the cup, double shot of espresso poured second.

Americano – double shot of espresso first, with hot water poured over it.

The Long Black method retains the crema, and the Americano method destroys it.

In my next post, I’ll write about the differences between the Arabica and Robusta coffee beans and Operation Cherry Red.


About superagent69

wine enthusiast, epicurean, gastronomy
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3 Responses to Coffee down under

  1. I’m a fellow Sydney sider! Am impressed you loved our coffee so much! Campos are truly awesome! Confession I (rarely) drink coffee, once in a blue moon but am glad to see, that when I do I’m in good hands here in Sydney!

    • superagent69 says:

      Thanks! I’m back in the U.S. now and just attended the southwest Barista Championship. I’ll be posting about that soon. Would love to add a link to your blog on my site. I hope to return to Sydney.



      • Well the cold weathers about to hit do I’d give anything for summer in June! Love to read of other bloggers passions and yours seem to take you world over 🙂 thanks for visiting too!

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