Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Still Eating Out ...

OK, so y'all are in for a bumper crop, this being an amalgamation of things that I had previously written up for my December activities in Sydney.  Unfortunately, difficulties using the Macs at my disposal had made completing this a very difficult task.  Having misplaced my USB cable, I think that I will just omit further photos and let y'all deal with giant slabs of text.


Coffee Crawl - Saturday 8th December

Introduction

This weekend was a nice opportunity to catch up with Stephen Frame.  Stephen is one of a number of home coffee roasters who has been contemplating going pro for a while.  It is my hope that outing him in this post will make it that much more difficult for him to resile from his plan >;)  Stephen deserves particular credit for his open-mindedness, humility and dedication.  He has been home roasting and making espresso at home for years, but still insists on taking the point of view that he knows very little.  In fact, he is probably at the forefront of the emerging crop of domestic roasters turning to professional micro roasting.  Long ago, Stephen made the commitment to buy a two group linea for home, built a sample roaster that functions like a commercial drum roaster and started ordering coffees from a variety of roasters across Australia and the world to compare with his own.  Stephen has even gone out of his way to send samples of his stuff to people across Australia for comment and I count myself fortunate to have been one of the taste testers.  I imagine that this is a level of thoroughness on par with even the best commercial roasters.  So go pro, already!

Sass Bar, Erskineville Road

I'm a bit of a prick, sometimes.  Emily Oak has been a barista comp judge and the southern hemisphere coordinator for the World Barista Championships for quite some time.  She also has a roasting and consulting business called Fresh Ground.  We knew that she was being charitable enough to fill in a shift at Sass Bar at the last minute, so Stephen and I swung around to judge her coffee.  After much ribbing, Em delivered the goods.  Sass bar's custom blend isn't something that I personally would choose, but it made for a somewhat nutty and strong latte with a distinctive savoury finish to it; I seem to remember a touch of liquorice or aniseed.  Sass does a very generous all day breakfast, so I have been back a few times.


A quick pit stop for breakfast at an iconic cafe and then onwards.  In hindsight, I should have chanced the coffee, for fun if nothing else.  Did you know that the Hillsong church has an ECM Veneziano with their own logo on the backlit glass plate?

Morgan's Coffee, Emu Plains

No, that's not a typo.  I had some green coffee samples to drop off to Dean, so Stephen and I decided to have a bit of fun and make the trek down to Emu plains.  We arrived just in time to sit back and watch whilst Dean finished cleaning up after a domestic espresso class, then serious time wasting began.  Dean indulged my geeky desire to fiddle around on his Mirage Bastone.  Conversation covered a few topics, from logistics of setting up a roastery, to chocolate, to blending and, before we knew it, several hours had passed.  I picked up several kilos of coffee to send back to the Melbourne Mob and some hot chocolate for myself.

Coffee Crawl - Saturday 15th December

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. In Sydney, the local CS chapter go on cafe crawls, and there was a bit of a monster crawl organised for the 15th. It was an interesting mix of seasoned vets, many of whom were just in it for breakfast at Cordial, and relative newcomers, who were keen to check out as many different places as possible. Our story starts at ...

Cordial, Carillion Avenue


I have mentioned Cordial before on this blog. Cordial is a sentimental favourite for many purely because Sonny and Dave from the Golden Cobra, their roaster, are amongst the nicest guys on the planet. When Sonny heard that we were coming, not only did he forego his day off to come in and get behind the machine, but he also brought in a number of sample bags of a new blend for us to take away and try.

Whichever blend Cordial is using strikes me as a very good cafe blend. It is not hugely complex, but it is low in acidity, relatively chocolatey and it seems to be extremely forgiving. An alarmingly long double espresso a week or two ago actually tasted fine, albeit a little lower in mouthfeel than usual.

Sunshine, an hour or so of conversation, eggs benedict, chocolatey double espresso and it was on to the next stop.

Campos, Missenden Road

There was some debate as to whether or not it would be worthwhile hitting up Campos. I love the place, but not the coffee. The rest of the group fell into two camps - those in favour of skipping it and those who had never checked it out. We decided to go for the benefit of the latter group, seeing as it is only a hop, skip and a jump away from Cordial. (It strikes me that this is perhaps the first time that someone has ever described Campos' location with reference to Cordial, rather than the other way 'round.)

As usual, Campos was pumping. As usual, the staff continued to set the bar for coffee professionalism. Money changed hands and spoons, plates and dice were laid out to communicate our orders to the baristi. We melted into the crowd and stalked the benches, pouncing on any seats that happened to become vacant. Roburs whirred, dosers clacked, steam wands hissed. Drinks were delivered directly to us, despite our best efforts to confuse the staff by playing musical chairs.

Unfortunately, the coffee failed to impress. I thought that my espresso had hints of grass and iodine, thin mouthfeel, an unpleasantly high acidity level and slightly burnt crema. Any of these flaws on their own wouldn't have been a deal breaker, but the combination of the lot of them was quite disappointing. Wild speculation amalgamated from all guesses was that the coffee was a bit too fresh and brewed at a temperature slightly too high. Those who ordered milk drinks didn't seem much happier and we actually left with a few cups only half-finished.

I think that it would be extremely unfair of me to write this post without noting that this experience is certainly not characteristic of my past Campos visits. Usually, the baristi do an extremely good job of staying on the right side of the knife-edge between acceptably high acidity and sourness. On this occasion, they fell foul of their own blend. This has piqued my curiosity in trying their blends out at home.

(Update: I went to Campos on the weekend, enjoyed a very good, simple flat white, whose only fault was a slight instant coffee type flavour to the crema.  I'm looking forward to trying out a bag of their "Dark City" blend, which isn't actually that dark I hope will be more to my tastes.)

Toby's Estate, City Road

Toby's is the roastery with the big mainstream reputation for quality. I seem to recall that Paul Bassett even worked there (corrections gladly accepted). Seeing as cutting down tall poppies is part of our national identity, I was concerned to give them a fair go. Only part of the reason why I wore my World Barista Championship T-Shirt was because I am a bit of a wanker. The rest was because I thought that it might be a subtle way to communicate that I have relatively high expectations. At Toby's, not only did this plan not work, but I suspect that it might even have brought down the wrath of god; such was the implausibility of what was to transpire ...

We were told that a Cuban single origin was on offer for espresso, with the fair trade organic blend. I have played around with the latest Cuban lot and never had much joy with it as an espresso, but, nonetheless, I ordered an espresso and a mince tart. Well, it was like there was a party in my mouth. And everyone was butting their cigarettes out on my tongue - something that Castro would no doubt find ironic. Even the mince tart provided no respite; it tasted like the baker made it with equal parts sultanas, fat, sugar and spite. I don't think that I was alone in my opinion. Demitasses littered the table, each one with barely a sip taken out of it.
I thought that I really ought to be fair and tentatively reached for a glass of water. Fortunately, it is pretty hard to screw that up. I went up to the counter, wanky WBC shirt on display, and asked if it would be possible to have an espresso with the fair trade organic blend, thinking that perhaps it might be a problem with the single origin. Though this was slightly better, the overwhelming flavour was as though the staff had neglected to scrub out the portafilters for quite a while.

As we got up to leave, one of the staff had the temerity to say that their espresso is pretty good, hey? Given that less than a single espresso had actually been consumed out of the half dozen espressi on the table, it struck me that the whole experience was so absurd as to come out of Lemony Snickett's A Series Of Unfortunate Events. Except that some lemon juice certainly would have improved the mince tart.

To be absolutely fair, I have to admit that both the Cuban and the fair trade organic blend had an impressively heavy mouthfeel, as though they had a whack of robusta or monsooned coffee in them. Perhaps this is partly due to the use of e61 group machines.

The last time that I was at the Woolloomooloo store, everything was several orders of magnitude better, so, again, I think that it would be unfair to write off Toby's on the basis of this experience. As at Campos, my interest in Toby's is piqued as a result of the experience.

Mecca Espresso, King Street



After Toby's, lunch at Mecca sounded like a plan. Food settles the stomach after so much coffee.
The guys at Mecca allowed us to reorganise the tables outside to suit ourselves and coffee started to flow. My first espresso had a slight bitterness in the crema, but then showed good mouthfeel and some floral ferment. My flat white, pictured above, also had a slight bitterness in the crema, but the rest of it was very good, with memorable Harrar type flavours - some sort of floral flavour. John, whose experience selling aromatherapy was starting to pay off, took a sip and commented that the flat white tasted of orange blossom, whereas the piccolo tasted of rose. The next round tasted very similar, except that the bitter crema had disappeared. We later found out that the first round was made using coffee five days older than the second. Perhaps there's something in having your coffee transported around in styrofoam organ donor boxes.

Ironically, I dropped by Mecca yesterday and they, too, have coffee to hand out to people.

Luxe, Bondi Junction

I understand that some of the people behind this place are the same people who were behind the place of the same name in the CBD a few years back (now called Elixir). This one was a bit of a head-scratcher. Much was ordered from them, but it was mainly fruit juice and cakes. There were only two coffee orders - John's latte and my espresso. The latte came out at "here's one we prepared earlier" speed and did not inspire confidence. The espresso seemed to take an eternity, but wasn't bad. Following on the theme for today, the crema was rather burnt. The espresso itself was totally single-note; I couldn't pick anything except for generic chocolatey flavours, which is not a criticism at all. The espresso also had great viscosity; really, they seemed to do a better job at what Toby's were trying to deliver. The various cakes and things were good, too.

Di Bartoli Espresso Centre

Though Di Bartoli's main business is the sale of espresso machines, they also sell roasted coffee and espresso drinks. I gather that the coffee is roasted by Hazel at Coffee Alchemy. Somewhat amusingly, they only use domestic grinders to prove the point that they're perfectly capable. Perhaps this was responsible for the interesting trick that was played on us - John and I each had an espresso made with whatever El Salvadorean bean was on offer. Both were thin in mouthfeel and somewhat sweet, but we scratched our heads and swapped espressi. One tasted distinctly like almonds; the other tasted more of hazelnuts ... and yet they were two halves of a pour from a double spout.

Epilogue

The day's ordeal was, literally, a day's ordeal. From 9am, the day was entirely taken up with drinking coffee, eating and travelling to repeat the process. At 4pm, when we finished, the coffee was definitely starting to take its toll. I felt a strange sense of satisfaction that none of the troops let loose a technicolour yawn.

The Cheese Room, Henderson Rd Alexandria

Waiting for my espresso machine to be shipped up has been made significantly easier by the Cheese Room, a cheese shop a few blocks from home that happens to have a decent espresso set-up.  They are one of what seems to be an unending legion of new Campos accounts and I'll go out on a limb and say that they are delivering coffee on par with the mother ship, albeit service is much slower, seeing as they don't have a gagillion baristi, machines and grinders.  

5 Comments:

At 11:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did you take back the coffees at campos and ask for a remake? I'm sure that they would have done everything possible to get down to the bottom of it asap for you.

 
At 11:09 PM, Blogger Luca said...

Had it been less busy and had that not entailed returning six or seven coffees, all of which people did not enjoy, I would have. I'm all for giving people a fair chance; notice that I ordered a second coffee at Toby's for exactly that reason. However, it was pretty obvious not just to me, but to everyone, that the problem was with the roasted coffee itself and not with the extractions. All of the coffee looked great, as usual. I had a latte at The Cheese Room that week and it had the same problem.

It was unfortunate, but I think that I was at pains to point out that it isn't at all typical of Campos, which has to be one of the most consistent espresso bars in the world, if not in Australia. I have been to a lot of the great espresso bars in Australia and have had good and bad experiences at every single one, so it's not a knock on Campos at all that they had one really bad performance in the five years or so that I have (sporadically) visited them across. In fact, it's downright amazing.

Unfortunately, I think that we - all of us, including me - are all to eager to raise places to the status of sacred cow, when the truth is that I doubt there's a single place in the world that could serve a great espresso every week for a whole year. The flip side of this is that I think that we - all of us, including me - are all too eager to condemn places off one bad review, which is a bit harsh if it's only based off a single $3 coffee. I would dearly love to be able to just give a reasonable, fair and factual account of what coffee tastes like.

Cheers,

Luca

 
At 12:08 AM, Blogger framey said...

Thanks for the prodding.
As soon as a certain someone gets around to selling me their roaster I should be able to take a couple of steps forward.

I hope Will at Campos doesn't cross you off his Christmas card list...

 
At 10:53 PM, Blogger Mattt said...

Like you're style Luca. Found you through Michelle (Knock Box).

I bought a bag of that Cuban SO from Tobys and wasn't at all impressed, I didn't ask the roast date and they didn't tell (or mark the bag).

Mecca's blend I too found to have a funny (bitter) taste initially which was confirmed by my mate Steve. It then softened then emerged out of it's chrysalis ;)

Too many similarities - weird!

 
At 3:47 AM, Blogger John said...

Better late than never hey Luca? I figured as I get slandered so greatly I might put up my own notes where not repeated ;)

Cordial

Sonny made some great coffees, great breakfast. Retro 70's vibe and a really interesting take-home blend which didn't appeal to everyone but appealed to me. That's because I'm a parsnip-loving ponce.

Campo's

I got some of the standard Campos beans the week later from Muse in Summer Hill and had the same extraction problems on two different HX machines - overwhelmingly grassy whatever the extraction profile.

However, I got in touch with Will and let him know that as a group we'd been disappointed, and that I'd ended up binning what I didn't sip and sink. He checked storage at Muse, said he'd investigate and sent some free beans for the feedback & heads up. Despite being slightly disappointed as 250gr doesn't do much more than dial my grinder in (I was still $10 down, the way I saw it), it's kept me as a customer. Strangely this blend is much nicer to my palette on a HX machine than a fancy-pants LM.

It was literally heaving in there as Luca said, and many of us were regular or irregulars there - I think we were actually 11 at that point. It seemed fairer to leave them be and bring it up later.

Toby's Estate

As the latte drinker, it was bland and vanilla. I'm somewhat reliably informed that it goes better on the HX machines and at the Cowtoiletsheeptoilet branch.

Mecca

I said Neroli but that's only because I don't say such feminine things as 'orange blossom'. It was great to finally get there and enjoy the coffee - now on my 'must do more often' list.

Luxe

Frankly awful latte despite their menu-based proclamations. If you visit, read the back of the menu and become a FeijoaSnob instead. Decent food though, and friendly staff. I didn't bother with tasting notes, I was too busy trying to get the sour taste out of my mouth.

Di Bartoli's

Friendly service, and serving us whatever we liked from their rather wide selection of blends and SO's, Renzo and Ofra put on a great after-crawl coffee drinking session for us. It was a fantastic way to debrief and share our experiences, with pretty good coffee to boot!

 

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