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 St Ali is located in a well-lit converted warehouse in the back alleys of South Melbourne.– Pictures by CK Lim St Ali is located in a well-lit converted warehouse in the back alleys of South Melbourne.– Pictures by CK LimMELBOURNE, March 21 — They say you aren’t a true-blue specialty coffee lover till you make a pilgrimage to Melbourne for some of the best brews in the world. So entrenched is the city’s strong coffee culture with independent cafés and micro-roasters that even international coffee chains have struggled to make a headway here.

No surprise there: Melburnians are fiercely proud of their coffee and rightly so. We visit some of the best cafés in town for our “Down Under cuppa” experience.

Brewing in the “laboratory”

Usually the cafés we frequent are located outside the city centre, hidden in suburbia where rental is more affordable.

Even when we discover excellent coffee haunts within the city, they are tiny standalone outlets. So it’s rare to find a decent espresso bar cum “brew laboratory” in a departmental store, to say the least.

Sensory Lab, an Australian roastery headed by Ross Quail, has its retail outlet in David Jones at Little Collins St. The clean lines of the shop lend an authentic laboratory-like ambience to their quest to experiment with “the world’s best beans, from rare single origins to award winning green beans.”

Their bean of the day is a single origin Costa Rica Finca Fidel. If you’ve only had blends for your espresso, do try a single origin for a more distinctive flavour. Our flat white and cappuccino are smooth and chocolatey. What better way to kick-start our Aussie café-hopping adventure than with these easy-to-drink cups?

Seven sacred seeds

Only a block away from Melbourne University is Seven Seeds, founded in 2008 by Mark Dundon and Bridget Amor. Students flock to the coffee haven in between classes for brews made from carefully sourced single origin beans, imbuing the space with a youthful energy.

The café’s name comes from the legend of Baba Budan, a famous Sufi who smuggled seven fertile coffee seeds from Yemen into India during the 17th century. At the time, coffee cultivation was tightly controlled so this act helped spread the bean’s influence to the rest of the world.

Here we enjoy a syphon-brewed Ethiopia Kochere, a Yirgacheffe coffee and one of our favourites. This fully washed heirloom varietal has a complex aroma; we could detect citrus and floral notes such as lemon and rose. Heavenly.

The clean lines of the shop give it an authentic laboratory-like ambiance (left). This coffee tree tells the story of Baba Budan, a famous Sufi who smuggled seven coffee seeds from Yemen into India during the 17th century (right).The clean lines of the shop give it an authentic laboratory-like ambiance (left). This coffee tree tells the story of Baba Budan, a famous Sufi who smuggled seven coffee seeds from Yemen into India during the 17th century (right).​Seven Seeds also holds regular cupping and training programmes. Some of our local café owners, many of them Aussie graduates, may well have completed a course here.

A proud cuppa

Hidden in the somewhat shabby back streets of Collingwood is perhaps the crown jewel of the city’s café scene, Proud Mary. The warehouse-style café was opened in 2009 by Nolan Hirte who has assembled a crew of dedicated baristas, usually skinny, tattooed and bearded (the men, that is), to pump out great coffee non-stop.

The warm red brick walls, communal tables and high stools are matched by a colourful crowd of customers. There’s a vibrant vibe here: these juice junkies eagerly await their orders from the bar that is stocked with all manner of brewing equipment – pour-over, syphon, French press, Aeropress, and even a Clover coffee machine.

The colourful customers enjoying their cuppas at Proud Mary (left). This El Salvador San Joaquin brew is subtle with a light hint of hazelnut (right).The colourful customers enjoying their cuppas at Proud Mary (left). This El Salvador San Joaquin brew is subtle with a light hint of hazelnut (right).With their gigantic six-group custom-made Synesso espresso machine, complete with a special steam wand operated via a foot pedal, it’s no wonder some of Melbourne’s award-winning baristas such as John Vroom and Kris Wood were trained here.
We enjoy a cup each of Ethiopia Sidamo Guji and El Salvador San Joaquin. The Eastern African brew has fruity notes of apricot and passion fruit whereas the Central American coffee is subtler with a light hazelnut flavour.

How to drink a tasting plate

Tracking down this converted warehouse in the back alleys of South Melbourne is not as hard as one might imagine: just follow the trail of graffiti-covered roller doors. The highlight at St. Ali is surely their tasting plate, a selection of house and alternate espresso coffees served both black and white. There’s no better way to taste the variety of coffees on offer.

The house coffee is a Costa Rica El Quizarra. Sweet and balanced, its chocolate and caramel flavours go well with milk. On the other hand, the Costa Rica Genesis only displays its hidden notes of lime and papaya when taken black. Half the fun is in tasting and testing for yourself what you like best.

Also included in the tasting plate is their trademark coffee shot, a drip-style filter coffee made using an espresso machine. This was St. Ali barista Matt Perger’s signature drink at last year’s World Barista Championship, which helped him place second. The resultant brew made with Colombia El Silencio beans is unbelievably sweet with intense aromas of honey and pomegranate.

A view of the graffiti-covered roller doors outside St. Ali (left). Look out for the chairs hanging from the ceiling! (right) A view of the graffiti-covered roller doors outside St. Ali (left). Look out for the chairs hanging from the ceiling! (right)

The hanging chair ceiling of Baba Budan

This “hole-in-the-wall” café might well be the smallest in the city, so here’s a tip: look out for the one with chairs hanging from the ceiling.

That’s right – an entire ceiling of wooden chairs floating above your head as you join the line of suits and ties waiting for their coffees to go at Brother Baba Budan. From the fading, peeling wallpaper to the name (the same 17th-century Sufi mentioned earlier), this café exudes a vintage coffee bar aura.

The small space means Brother Baba Budan is designed for takeaway cuppas; you’d be lucky to grab a seat at the communal table or the small bar. Coffees are similarly back-to-basics, using excellent beans from Seven Seeds; definitely no syrup-drenched chai lattes here. Our V60-brewed Colombia Carlos Diaz Majin has a clean, bright taste with notes of grapefruit.

There are nibbles such as carrot cake and banana bread available, but really, with coffee this good, you’d want to fully immerse yourself in your brew. Sip slowly and enjoy.

Sensory Lab
297 Little Collins St, Melbourne VIC 3000, Australia
Mon-Wed 7:30am-7pm; Thu-Fri 7:30am-9pm; Sat 8:30am-7pm; Sun 9:30am-7pm
+61-3-9643-2222
http://www.sensorylab.com.au/

Seven Seeds
106-114 Berkeley St, Carlton VIC 3053, Australia
Mon-Sat 7am-5pm; Sun 8am-5pm
+61-3-9347-8664
http://sevenseeds.com.au/

Proud Mary
172 Oxford St, Collingwood VIC 3066, Australia
Mon-Fri 7am-4pm; Sat & Sun 8am-4pm
+61-3-9417-5930
http://www.proudmarycoffee.com.au/

St. Ali Coffee Roasters
12-18 Yarra Pl, South Melbourne VIC 3205, Australia
+61-3-9686-2990
Mon-Sun 7am-6pm
http://www.stali.com.au/

Brother Baba Budan
359 Little Bourke St, Melbourne VIC 3000, Australia
Mon-Sat 7am-5pm; Sun 8am-5pm
+61-3-9606-0449
http://sevenseeds.com.au/

This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on March 20, 2014.

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