A Sense of Quality

I remember sitting in a cafe in Paris. It was pretty cold, and I definitely wasn’t appropriately dressed for the weather. My gloveless hands were wrapped around the coffee mug, stealing every ounce of its heat. The coffee itself wasn’t brilliant, but to this day, it’s one of the most enjoyable cups of coffee I’ve had.

The cafe was a recommendation from a friend who knew the owner. He had worked there briefly before opening his own shop. I could have introduced myself and made the connection through my friend, and told him that I also work in the coffee industry in Australia, but I was cold, and was really just looking to relax, warm up and read my book.

The owners of the cafe were the Barista and the chef, they had all their good intentions going into creating a unique experience for the Parisians and international travellers. The menu was a mix of French and English, the customer service was warm, welcoming and very helpful – the breakfast menu reminded me of the cafes in Melbourne and Sydney: a lot of eggs and sides to choose from, but served with fresh pain des amis, which really made this special for me. I remember ordering black pudding and some mushrooms roasted in thyme on the side of my scrambled eggs. Even though it was busy, and she didn’t know my friend’s connection to the cafe, the chef specially came out of the kitchen to ask me how I was enjoying the Black Pudding, as it was the first day she was serving it to the public.

Every part of me was satisfied with this experience – the coffee warmed my hands and the food reminded me of home, but it was the people and their intentions that really warmed my soul.

There seems to be this notion that Australians are the most sophisticated coffee drinkers in the world. With cafes abroad promoting the fact that their Baristas are Australian-trained, or the owners are Australian, it seems to work to their advantage. Has the stereotype shifted? That idea that you know what coffee is because you’re Italian, has this moved to Australia? Is there any weight in these stereotypical statements? I have worked in many facets of the coffee industry for the last 13 years, and have had the chance to travel abroad, working and serving different people and experiencing their cultural ideas around what a quality cup of coffee is for them. This perspective is from looking through my Barista lens from predominantly working in highly competitive cafes all around Sydney, and reflecting on my experiences overseas. This opinion isn’t synonymous with the whole of Australia. I’m quite aware that this is certainly not the case when you visit cafes only a few hours’ drive out our major cities, but for my experience in Sydney, I would like to replace the word sophisticated with pedantic. We have cafes now offering your favourite coffee menu item with almond or coconut milk, with three options of size, at any temperature you would like – we make coffee just for you – just for your idea of what you think a cup of coffee should be.

‘May I please have a large skim latte with a sweetener? May I have it a little stronger, but I don’t want an extra shot, and just a little hotter than you normally make it.’

If you can achieve this every time for this individual, you have their business every day.

‘I love this cafe, they always make it just the way I like, and they always remember my order.’

How could you forget? And if you did, you know it would come straight back to be remade the way they want it. You may have also experienced a story from this particular customer of how they travelled abroad and they just couldn’t get a good cup of coffee anywhere. They were so happy to be home – you should go overseas and show them how to make the perfect cup. You would make a fortune!

There is something nice about having a coffee in France where they’ll only serve full cream milk, with one size. Or just having a ‘coffee’ from a batch brew in America (if prepared with care of course). Just because it’s simple, doesn’t mean the quality is absent.

This may seem like I’m having a rant, but it really doesn’t bother me how people drink their coffee – it just shows that the perception of quality is personal, and our beliefs around this quality comes down to our repeated experience. These individual and cultural ideas around quality are, however, quite malleable. This is where my teaching and research lenses come on.

What is my idea of a quality coffee?

The warm mug of coffee I was gripping tightly in Paris was in fact not made from an espresso machine. It was a filter coffee, made from a single origin that was roasted to develop its flavours specifically for that style of brewing. Coffee for me is not a fuel – it’s a luxury that can be full of good intentions. If you study far enough, and consume enough of the beverage mindfully, a cup of coffee can present flavours that show just how conscious the roaster and Barista are of the product – just like a well-trained wine sommelier, who with just a few sips can describe a little about how the wine was made or aged, the variety of grape, and if they’re really good, where it was grown. This too, to a certain extent, can be achieved in a cup of coffee. The flavour characteristics in a well made filter coffee can highlight how the coffee was processed on the farm and where in the world it was grown. Then, if you have experience with roasting coffee, you have an idea about how much of the taste is a function of the roasting process. Also, based on this product that the cafe has received, how has the Barista chosen to balance these flavours for their customers?

These characteristics are hardly present when you add milk, and can be more difficult to pick out when you taste something as concentrated as an espresso. Do I think espresso is bad? No. Do I think everyone should drink more straight black filter coffee? Well yes, but that’s my point, this is my bias based on my experience and education.

So how do you change someone’s perception of quality?

You make them conscious of it by developing a basic language around flavour – that first step in evolution from the common consumer statement, ‘I know what I like, but I don’t know how to describe its flavour’. This is an understandable answer when you are drinking a liquid of the same colour and texture that can taste of anything from berries, to chocolate, to lemons and the rest. It can be hard to pick out flavours when this cup of coffee doesn’t look anything like a strawberry. If you make someone just a little conscious of the basic elements of taste and how to create a balance with them, we see they are not looking for what they want their coffee to be, but they become more mindful of what they are drinking. They become open to try different things. You start to describe what you do and don’t like about this cup of coffee. You become less emotional, and more objective. Sure, your friends might start to call you a snob, but just like learning that the earth is not flat, or at the centre of the universe, your idea of the world has just gotten a little broader. Your journey into flavour starts here.

Does Australia have the best coffee in the world?

What do you believe makes a quality coffee?

I will never forget that morning in Paris at that wonderful cafe. Even though the flavour didn’t display what I know a filter coffee can, it was still the best cup I’ve had. It was just what I needed that day, an experience that was full of good, conscious intentions. This is something that is synonymous with the human experience of quality. Something that I feel can be missed more often than not in a modern Australian cafe.

Matthew Brown
Matty’s love of coffee started at a young age and exploded the moment his mind was exposed to the science that makes great coffee possible. Motivated by the endless possibilities of what coffee could be, Matty is in his element researching, exploring and implementing new ideas that help shape the next chapter in the evolution of the speciality coffee industry. Matty’s deep and extensive coffee knowledge continues to shape our Barista Training & Education Programs, and he is a key knowledge source influencing continuous coffee improvement within the business. On the rare occasion Matty’s head is not in the books, he can be found savouring in other molecular gastronomic delights, writing, tickling the ivories or singing up a storm.