You don’t need to look far beyond your cappuccino froth to notice that coffee in Australia has changed. It’s a measure of the depth of our love for the drink that the latest wave of changes in coffee culture is taking place not just at micro-roasteries and hipster-haunted inner-city enclaves, but in our homes and supermarkets too.
We know our espresso from our latte well enough now that some of us are experimenting with old and new ways of making coffee that don’t involve a machine. And the new interest in ever-more nuanced coffee choices sees cafés and retailers discussing everything from the variety, estate name and sustainability to the way the coffee was washed and the altitude at which it was grown.
These changes bring a grab-bag of new terminology, which we’re here to decode, but the take-home point is that whether you like it old-school or new-style, good coffee has never been closer to hand in Australia.
METHOD Espresso, pour-over, Aeropress, plunger, siphon, cold-drip – there’s no right or wrong way to make coffee, just personal preference and the fact that different methods lend themselves to particular styles of bean. The aromatics in lighter roasted beans with fruity notes and high acidity, for example, will be more discernible in a coffee made by the pour-over method than one extracted in an espresso machine. If you like a light-bodied, aromatic coffee, then, buy the right beans and start pouring. If, on the other hand, you’re a fan of full-bodied, rich-textured coffees, get your hands on an Aeropress and some dark-roasted beans with cocoa and caramel notes.
Pour-over Not all coffees are suited to the high-pressure extraction of espresso. Some benefit from a gentler technique, and pour-over is one of the simplest. Hot water is poured slowly over coffee in a paper filter and then drips into the cup. (It’s the same method used in the automatic drip coffeemaker common in American homes and diners, but the manual method gives more control over water temperature and pouring speed. Of course, the jug of pour-over coffee left on the warming plate all morning will be burnt and bitter.) The coffee is never fully immersed in the water, so the resulting cup is light-bodied. The full range of the coffee’s flavours can shine, particularly the high, bright, floral notes that tend to be overwhelmed by the emulsified oils and suspended solids extracted via immersion and high-pressure methods such as espresso. Pour-over is consumed as a long drink, not as a shot. Mark Dundon, the owner of Seven Seeds in Melbourne, is a fan. “It’s quite simple and quite quick,” he says. “I think it produces a great cup.”
Aeropress The brewing device (by Aerobie, a company better known for its flying discs) uses a plunging mechanism to push hot water through coffee grounds. The ground coffee is completely immersed in water, which equals robust flavour extraction and a full-bodied coffee. The key difference between the Aeropress and the conventional plunger, or French press, is that the Aeropress uses a paper filter to remove fine particles that would pass through a metal screen. This affects the taste as well as the texture of the coffee. The Aeropress method produces a short coffee which, like espresso, can be diluted with water for a long black, or topped up with steamed milk for a caffè latte.
The Aeropress’s simple, compact design makes it ideal for travellers and for single-cup brewing at home. Russell Beard, the owner of Sydney’s Reuben Hills, uses an Aeropress when he’s on the road. “I often travel with a few of these and give them away – make farmers some of their own coffee,” he says. “They dig it – it’s great.”
Siphon At first glance this double-chambered apparatus looks more suited to the science lab than the kitchen. The principle, however, is simple: the siphon works like a vacuum. Water is heated in the bottom chamber, then drawn through coffee grounds in the section above, producing a light-bodied, aromatic coffee low in bitterness. The siphon takes longer than other filter methods and espresso (up to about six minutes), but the clean and delicate flavours it produces make this method, which dates from the 19th century, still relevant today. It’s the most interesting looking way you can make coffee, and therein lies some of its appeal for cafés, says Beard.
Cold-drip If you thought six minutes was a long time to wait for a caffeine hit, try 12 hours. That’s about how long it takes to make a coffee using the cold-drip method. The cold-drip device consists of three glass chambers. The top one holds cold filtered water, which drips slowly onto coffee grounds in the middle chamber. The coffee then filters to the bottom. Popular in summer, cold-drip makes a relatively sweet-tasting cup because of the low acidity produced. Cold-drip coffee is light-bodied, dominated by floral notes and ideal for serving over ice.
PROCESSING METHODS Coffee grows as clusters of “cherries”. Each coffee cherry consists of two beans surrounded by fruit (imagine a dessert cherry with two large pits). There are three main methods of processing coffee to remove the beans from the fruit, and each method has a different effect on taste.
One of the most popular methods is the washed or wet process. (Nespresso, for example, uses only wet-processed beans.) The fresh fruit is removed from the beans by a mechanical pulper. The beans are then soaked, washed and left to dry. They have no contact with the fruit while they’re drying, so the resulting coffee flavour is clean, clear and balanced. “We find that the wet method produces a better in-cup result,” says Nicole Parker, marketing and communications manager at Nespresso.
The less-common natural process (also known as the dry process) sees the cherries left to dry as whole fruit. The coffees tend to have much fruitier qualities because the cherry ferments on the outside of the bean. “It’s very rich as a cup profile,” says Fleur Studd of Melbourne’s Market Lane Coffee. “It’s quite overwhelmingly fruity and it’s quite difficult to do, so if it’s done badly it can become too boozy or too fermented.”
The pulp-natural process, or honey process, removes some of the fruit from the beans before drying. This means the beans are exposed to high levels of sugar but don’t take on the off-fruit notes associated with natural processing. Pulp-natural coffee is widely used for espresso because of its high sugar content, full body and ability to cut through milk.
CUPPING Cupping is a tasting method used by professionals to select coffees. Some micro-roasters offer public cupping sessions – a great opportunity for non-aficionados to better understand what they like and dislike about different coffees. Coffees are first rated side by side for their dry aroma. Then water is added to the grounds in each cup (hence “cupping”) and the coffees are evaluated in terms of their wet aroma, sweetness, acidity, mouthfeel, balance and other factors. Studd says, “Once customers can start to taste those things in the cup and go, ‘Ah, that’s what I love’, you can give them a language to help them understand what they’re liking or not liking.” Beard is also a fan. “I think it’s sort of humbling in a way for people who haven’t cupped before to see that knowing a good latte is only a very small part of it,” he says.
SINGLE-ESTATE VERSUS SINGLE-ORIGIN Single-estate coffees come from one farm, whereas coffees of a single origin come from one country. There are a lot of misconceptions about the topic, says Dundon. “A lot of people use the catchphrase ‘we have a single-origin coffee’, but that’s just from one country, which doesn’t really mean that much. It can still be a blend of two coffees and it really isn’t all that special to me.”
The concept of single-estate coffee, on the other hand, is significant, according to Studd. “It plays a really important role in specialty coffee,” she says, “because farms become famous for the quality that they’re producing and people are willing to pay more for that.”
BLENDS Blended coffee is exactly what it says on the tin: a blend of different coffees to achieve a particular taste, texture or price, or a combination of those factors. Some blends are designed to make lower-grade coffees taste better, others to highlight the unique characteristics of individual coffees. Commercial roasters use blending to create coffees that reach the standard of consistency that consumers expect of their brand, while smaller roasters and specialty cafés might design blends with a particular coffee-making method in mind.
“We did single-origin coffees 20 or 30 years ago; it’s nothing new,” says Rolando Schirato, the head of sales and marketing at Vittoria Coffee. “If they were great it would be the easiest thing in the world – you just buy an origin, roast, and job done. So it’s really blending where the art comes into it.”
SUSTAINABILITY The second-most-traded commodity in the world after oil, coffee is in high demand. With large volume comes a large environmental and social footprint. Some coffee growers have been producing coffee sustainably for generations, while some coffee is produced in a way that entails land-clearing (often in sensitive rainforest areas), pesticide use, and water pollution from processing. Coffee can bring benefits or hardship to the communities in which it’s grown, depending on whether the farmers are paid a fair and stable price. Most of the world’s coffee is grown in developing countries – the top five producers by volume are Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia and India. Bodies such as Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade and various organics groups certify coffee beans (and other products) that meet their criteria for environmental or social sustainability, or both. “What we liked about Rainforest Alliance was that more full-circle approach,” says Schirato, “which is about sustainability and teaching farmers sustainable farming and education.”
One of Vittoria’s blends is made from certified organic, 100 per cent Rainforest Alliance beans.
Nespresso aims to source 80 per cent of its capsule coffee from Rainforest Alliance-certified coffee by 2013. The company’s “Ecolaboration” program, says Parker, “unites Nespresso and our partners, such as Rainforest Alliance, in a shared commitment to continue quality improvement and sustainability within both the coffee plantations that we work with, but also with regards to our club members.”
CUP OF EXCELLENCE Cup of Excellence (you’ll see it mentioned on café menus) is an international not-for-profit program in which farmers from member countries submit their best coffee for judging by a panel of national and international cuppers. The top scorers are then sold to the highest bidders in an internet auction.
Studd reckons it plays an important role in developing countries in teaching farmers how to produce better-quality coffee and opening their eyes to the rewards of producing higher-calibre coffees. “Instead of them producing coffee just as a commodity that gets pushed out with no care for the quality, they’ll get much higher prices,” she says. “So it becomes a very sustainable relationship and a sustainable business for them.”
PHOTOGRAPHY ANTHONY GEERNAERT
This article was published in the October 2012 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.