Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The true brew

May 20, 2008

Australian coffee drinkers are embracing new tastes, writes Leanne Tolra.

THE tour-bus passengers are on a high - animated by a crisp, clean caffeine hit. "I've never tasted anything like it," says one. "I don't normally like black coffee," says another heading out the door, "but that was amazing."

A third trailing behind marvels at the "fruity and smooth" flavour lingering on her palate: "It was almost like a glass of wine."

Exit St Ali, one of Melbourne's modern boutique roasters, and this small sip of La Montana (winner of the 2007 El Salvador Cup of Excellence) has opened the way to a new world of coffee drinking for a busload of already passionate foodies.

They're part of Allan Campion's Melbourne Food Tours. It's a Saturday morning in April and 24 participants from suburban Melbourne, regional Victoria, NSW, Tasmania and New Zealand are on the road for the day to experience Melbourne's gastronomic bounty.

Campion, a chef, food writer and cookbook author, selects St Ali to show his tour groups the city's growing number of boutique roasters who are doing more with coffee than serving prettily etched cafe lattes.

Selling single-variety and single-origin coffee isn't new - some of Melbourne's leading roasters have been doing it for more than 20 years. But in recent years they've been joined by boutique cafe owners roasting their own green beans and boosting coffee drinkers' appreciation of taste according to region, variety and growing conditions. The comparisons with wine, wine tasting and wine marketing are inevitable.

Over at The First Pour in Abbotsford, Peter Wolff, president of the AustralAsian Specialty Coffee Association, has been running coffee-tasting courses and conducting experiments using Riedel specialty wine glasses.

Wolff says the tasting sessions have combined chocolate, liqueurs and coffee: "We served fruity, aromatic dessert wines and showcased them with really bright, acidic, dry processed Ethiopian and Yemen or Somali coffees," he says.

"We wanted to find out whether the glasses did the same thing for coffee as they do for wine, in terms of flavour delivery on the mouth. And we found there were some differences to drinking out of a normal ceramic cup. There are some issues - the glass is too hot to hold and it cools too quickly, but it certainly gets you thinking."

The Coffee Academy at William Angliss Institute ran its first Palate Training for Coffee Drinkers course during the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival earlier this year. Academy manager Jill Adams enrolled in a wine-tasting course at La Trobe University to develop her own palate "because the coffee industry offers nothing like that".

"I was so impressed by what it taught me that I felt we needed to offer something similar for the coffee industry. It made me see that there is a science behind what we are tasting."

Adams approached the university's Lindsay Corby, a master of wine and wine appreciation, to run the academy's course and challenge coffee industry professionals' perceptions of what they were drinking (see story right).

Corby says the way to increased markets and understanding of coffee is in educating coffee drinkers that there is a huge difference between good coffee and bad, and in teaching industry professionals to learn to recognise bad coffee from its source. "Where and how it was grown? Did the green bean have transport problems? How was it stored and roasted? This all matters, long before the coffee is finally presented in the cup as a filter coffee or an espresso," he says.

Corby says there are many similarities between the wine and coffee industries in terms of marketing and education, but that much of the wine industry's success has come from its technical base and its willingness to co-operate. "We are not sharing next week's secrets, but we are sharing last week's," he says.

Wine marketing expert Professor Larry Lockshin from the University of South Australia says the Australian coffee industry doesn't have the financial clout, the history or the production volumes to market coffee like wine. Australia produces about 600 tonnes of coffee annually and imports more than 40,500 tonnes. Brazil, the world's largest coffee producer, grows an average of 3 million tonnes a year.

He says the bulk of the wine industry's promotion is funded by wine-marketing companies. And in the coffee industry "it's not the growers who will be funding the promotions, it's got to be the importers, the distributors and the roasters grouping together".

The specialty coffee industry is making headway, says Wolff. Northern-hemisphere specialty coffee markets have traditionally been tough for Australian importers but coffee grown in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea or Java is more accessible. "We are seeing roasters going directly to the farmers in these areas for coffee," he says.

Wolff is upbeat about the trend to expand the market at its top end: "Some of the leading cafes in every major capital city are really pushing specialty coffee and putting it directly in front of the consumer and saying, 'Here, try this coffee it's a Rwandan Golden Cup of Excellence coffee, this coffee is extraordinary'."

For Australian growers, this is a double-edged sword. Growing consumer interest in locally produced coffee is positive but there are better returns to be made from selling it overseas, says president of the Australian Coffee Growers Association Ian McLaughlin.

"It is a very hard thing for us as growers to connect with consumers. Mostly, our sales are made through brokers," he says.

Australia grows about 750 hectares of coffee in parts of Queensland and NSW. About one-third of the coffee grown in Australia is exported. McLaughlin says Australian green (unroasted) coffee sells for about $10 a kilo, which compares with average world coffee prices of $3 a kilo: "But to make the industry viable I think we need to make $30 a kilogram.''

Two years ago, he built a $4 million restaurant at his plantation in northern Queensland, "so I could serve and display my coffee at its best and lift the price of it to where it needs to be".

"A lot of people come into the coffee business because of the romance associated with coffee. But there has to be a way for them to make their businesses cost effective," he says.

That's exactly what Andrew Ford, owner of Mountain Top Estate, a coffee plantation in northern NSW, did. His is the country's highest-priced green coffee, selling for more than $20 a kilo.

Four years ago, Ford took his coffee to the "micro spec" of the world market that would pay a premium. "But if I had gone to the Australian roasters without the international buyer paying a premium, they would not have paid for it.

"The consuming public is absolutely ready to pay a premium for high-value coffee,'' says Ford. ''It's evident in our attitude to wine, olive oil and vinegars.''

The Coffee Academy's Jill Adams says coffee training courses, barista courses and industry competitions raise people's awareness and the industry's credibility.

Australia's national coffee competitions were held in Melbourne earlier this month. David Makin (Victoria), our barista champion, Habib Maarbani (NSW), our cafe latte artist and Catherine Ferrari (WA), our coffee cupping (tasting) champion, will all compete at the world titles in Copenhagen in June.

To win, Ferrari, a third-generation coffee professional (her grandfather began roasting coffee beans in 1936), tasted her way through 24 cups of coffee.

"Coffee, like wine, is very personal," she says. "It's not just about taste; it's about colour and aroma and viscosity.

''With wine, consumers are confident of their ability to say what they like and what they don't, and they are not necessarily loyal to a label.

"But people tend to be brand loyal with their coffee," she says.

Ferrari says it is time to break away from that and try new things.

Words that work

"You can't have sweet acidity," Erika Winter says. "And what is funky forest floor?" These are words and phrases that coffee roasters and tasters commonly use to describe coffee flavours, but Winter, co-author of Winegrape Berry Sensory Assessment in Australia - a tasting "vocabulary" for grapes - says the coffee industry needs its own official language.

"We have taught growers and winemakers to use the same language. What we have done for grapes is so transferable to coffee,'' she says.

''A number of international organisations have lists of descriptors but these are used as descriptive terms and the language is still subjective.''

The flavour of a coffee brew



An odour descriptor similar to the smell of an ashtray, smokers' fingers or the smell one gets when cleaning out a fireplace. But it is not used as a negative attribute. Generally speaking, it indicates the degree of roast.


An aroma and flavour of cocoa powder and chocolate (including dark chocolate and milk chocolate), sometimes referred to as sweet.



A basic taste characterised by the solution of an organic acid. A desirable sharp and pleasing taste particularly strong with certain origins as opposed to an overfermented sour taste.


For coffee characterised by solutions of sucrose or fructose, commonly associated with sweet aroma descriptors such as fruity, chocolate and caramel. It is generally used for describing coffees which are free from off-flavours.



This attribute descriptor is used to describe the physical properties of the beverage. A strong but pleasant full mouthfeel characteristic as opposed to being thin.


Leaving an aftertaste sensation like a dry feeling in the mouth, undesirable in coffee.

Source: International Coffee Organisation, London