Monday, July 23, 2007

Sydney - Aroma Festival, Cafes and a Melbournite's POV (part 1)

With the craziness of university and several jobs all demanding my time and attention, I booked in a holiday to Sydney on Friday to Sunday. Naturally, any of my holidays involve a lot of coffee, and this one was no exception, with the Aroma Festival on the Sunday. The camera stayed at home, as the charger has gone missing, so those of you with short attention spans might want to put Harvey Birdman on in the background.

The Cafes

A quick list of the spots that I hit up, in order of how awesome the coffee was (ie. best to worst, although all of them were quite good).

Mecca Espresso - near the corner of King and York, CBD

Always a pleasure. When I asked for a shot, Rube asked me if I wanted a ristretto or an espresso. I said "or?" The ristretto was thick and rich, without a hint of the burnt flavours that can sometimes develop when your barista decides to try and make it the consistency of play-doh. That said, the smart money was going for the espresso. Blueberry and melon flavours predominated. Although I wouldn't say that it struck me as juicy, there was definitely an "I'll have another" sensation. Quite unique in Sydney and definitely a vindication of Paul's idea of shipping coffee up from Tony at Rio Coffee in Adelaide every week, rather than buying locally.

(As an aside, I hear the descriptor "blueberry" used a fair bit and never really know what people intend by it. I pondered this question last time that I ate and smelled blueberries. It seems to me that the descriptor is sometimes used when people mean something closer to raspberry or cherry. By blueberry above, I mean something closer to the smell and flavour of blueberries when you eat them, rather than the synthetic blueberry flavour found in confectionery, which is closer to the whole berry family of flavours.)

(As a further aside, Reuben went on to come second in the NSW latte art competition a few days later.)

Cordial - 130 Carillon Ave, Newtown

What is it about milk around Sydney at the moment? The dairy farmers' stuff that I think Cordial was using, and a few other places definitely were, seemed to have way more of a buttery finish and unctuous mouthfeel than the dairy farmers' that I have had in Melbourne of late. It's as if the cream from Melbourne is being skimmed and transported to Sydney!

Digressions aside, the piccolo latte and regular latte that I had were both very good; rich and chocolatey, with a hint of nuttiness. I also had an "espresso," which was actually a double ristretto. The crema had aniseed and nutty flavours that I didn't enjoy all that much, but the rest of it was quite chocolatey.

I liked their 1950's diner type decor and their no-nonsense menu. There was no need for the bowl to be too cold or too hot; my porridge was just right.

Cordial are using Golden Cobra coffee, which is roasted by some dudes formerly from ...

Campos - 193 Missenden Rd, Newtown

Just around the corner from Cordial, this is the cafe that started it all. Every time I'm in Sydney I usually end up there for an espresso. I don't know why I do it ... I actually don't like their blend at all. To me, it is usually thin and overly acidic. The sort of thing that would make for absolutely sensational drip, french press or syphon coffee, but insipid espresso. Perhaps this is the result of buying coffee that is rated very highly by the world's top cuppers, all of whom seem to cup with non-espresso use in mind. Anyhoo, enough wild speculation. The reason why I keep on coming back to Campos is that it is just such a smoothly run operation with a fantastic atmosphere. Like their sign says; "specialty coffee professionals."

I ordered an espresso and received something that was a bit more liquid than I expected. In other words, another double ristretto. Drinking it was a strange experience. The first third had some body to it, the middle third was thin and the final bit picked up some more body to it. There was a hint of orange to the shot and a vaguely herbal, syrupy characteristic. An improvement from days gone by. Strange, since consistency is the strong point of the Campos team. So was it a one in a million shot that tasted different? Or was it something to do with the new GB5s or a change in blend? Who knows? Go there, chug a few shots down and make up your own mind.

Toby's Estate - 129 Cathedral St, Woolloomooloo

A great, creamy latte, leaving a slight buttery sensation in my mouth. I think that I'm going to have to try my luck with some Dairy Farmers' milk in Melbourne again to see if it lives up to the Sydney stuff. My espresso shot was, again, a bit longer than I expected, with the richest mouthfeel of anything. However, there was a relatively prominent wet sock/musty taint to it that I found a bit unpleasant.

What's with the double ristrettos?

OK, maybe I'm wrong with one or two of the places above, but it seems to me like the better places in Sydney are sending out double ristrettos to people who order espresso. I don't really have a problem with that, but as a customer I'd like to know that that's what is happening. As Reuben so vividly illustrated at Mecca, espresso shots sometimes bring out flavours that are completely hidden in ristretto shots. Particularly if we're talking about ristretto shots on a machine that allows for a slow pressure ramp-up (e61 heads, I'm looking at you).

Two quick thoughts came to mind after all of this. First, this trend sits well with my impression that some of the major Sydney roasters are focusing on fruitier flavoured, more acidic espresso with less body. There's nothing wrong with that per se, but if cafes are responding by throttling down all of the shots to put some more body into the cup at the expense of the more subtle flavours, it seems to me like the barista and the roaster are working against each other. Why not just create blends that are naturally more chocolatey and higher in body? The second thought is that this helps to explain why ECM machines seem to be a million times more popular in Sydney than in Melbourne - the preinfusion helps to plump up the shots a bit more. Although, to be fair, this is surely at least partly to do with the fact that ECA and its wonderful people are based in Sydney.

I'll round up this section by adding the caveat that my speculations are hardly based on an intense review of the whole Sydney coffee scene - just on impressions that I have gotten here and there. Further, the comments above are obviously not intended to apply to all coffee in Sydney. Now, with that aside, I'm hoping for some interesting and enlightening discussion in the comments to this post. Sydneysiders; have I missed the mark completely?

... I'll leave it there for now and come back in a few days with a post about the aroma festival ...


At 11:36 AM, Anonymous Matt Jacobs said...


next time you're in sydney, I'll take you to grind in cronulla. It's up there with the nest in sydney, but WAY out of the way from the CBD. Just let me know when you're up here next, and set aside 3 or 4 hours, I'll see what I can do.


At 11:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

by 'nest', I mean, 'best'...

At 11:39 AM, Blogger Michael said...

Luca, we've been using farmdale milk from aldi at home with great success. Seems to be much creamier than the pura or others more readily available around us, without needing the extra dollop.


At 2:48 AM, Blogger Matt Reynolds said...

Hey Luca,

Interesting perspective!
I'm doing a write-up on the barista scene in New Zealand and Australia and I was wondering if you'd allow an interview or something along those lines. Contact me through

At 11:04 PM, Blogger Luca said...

Hey Matt,

Looks like I might have scored a two month clerkship in Sydney over December/January. So you might have to make good on your offer!

Hey "anonymous,"

I suspect that you might be Matt as well ;P

Hey Michael,

Hmmm ... sounds good. I have also had some success with coles brand.

Hey Matt,

Coolio; I'll shoot you an email, then you might want to take down your post, which leaves your email address up for all spam bots and wierdos to harvest.



At 6:21 PM, Anonymous Anthony Lau said...

hey dude,

I don't have your email or msn/facebook and was wondering about whether you knew when the aasca barista jam down in melbourne was happening.
I need to book flights, arrange accomodation etc pretty soon and reorganise my roster a bit. :}


At 9:44 PM, Blogger Luca said...

Hey Ant,

Just posted the schedule here:

Basically, we're on for Saturday the 8th of September at First Pour. Can't believe you're going to come down for it ...



At 11:27 PM, Anonymous Anthony Lau said...

thanks for the quick response luca.

It would be a part of the trip down and if we're over coffee by the time the barista jam is on we'll just play the hapless tourists and continue our shopping, eat/drink binge. I've never seen melbourne before and that's really why I want to come down. Timing it with the barista jam is kind of like icing on a cake.

At 2:12 PM, Anonymous matt jacobs said...

Luca, great news!

email me when you get to sydney, and we can arrange a hot date. mattjacobs81 at bigpond dot com


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