Like many Melburnians, I secretly consider myself a coffee connoisseur. I’ve drunk a lot of strong flat whites in a lot of different places. I last had instant in 94. I like to go to cafes that will have excellent coffee.
And so, I have spent considerable time immersed in the wisdom of the internet. My distillation of the zillions of on-line debates, references and reviews says that Melbourne’s most-highly regarded coffees are at: Baba Budan and Cafenatics in the city; and St Ali in South Melbourne.
I wanted to try my hand at reviewing the best of the best, so I rang my friend Bill. He imposed one condition on our mission and we met at the GPO. Armed with paper, pencil and a willingness to consume more caffeine than is healthy, we set off.
The first stop was Baba Budan. Recommended by coffeegeek.com
This place is on your left as you go up Little Bourke St towards Queen St. On the way up the hill we smelled sensational coffee but couldn’t see it. On the way back down, we guessed it by the crush of people squeezed inside. It’s a tiny place with no sign and there’s more chairs on the ceiling than the floor. We had to bribe someone to give up their place at the communal table.
The vibe: Crowded. Friendly. Comfortable. Relaxed.
The crowd: Hipster paradise. Arrive by fixie.
(A fixie is a single-gear cycle preferred by beatnik types dwelling overhwelmingly in Northcote. One of our fellow customers proudly informed us he had no brakes on his fixie. He took off downhill, presumably to meet his death as stylishly as possible.)
The order: 2 lattes, (one of which strong). 2 espressos (Beans: Daterra Bourbon Collection). ($12.20)
Latte art : Present – an attractive fern thing.
Jason: “Nice latte. Espresso, strong and, um, sour?”
Bill: “Yep. Although I still taste toothpaste.”
Pretentious Coffee Literature: Available in racks above the counter.
The next stop was Cafenatics. Recommended by Pour Quality.
This place has a half dozen outlets across Melbourne’s CBD. We went to the one at 500 Collins St.
The vibe: Shouting staff members. Paninis behind glass. Concrete and industrial lighting. Wicker and red lampshades. Not so different from your average Hudsons.
The crowd: Lunchtime was just starting and the crowd jostled. They were described as ‘excited-looking corporate types’.
A lady saw us making notes and said she hoped we weren’t going to review the customers too. I thought she was too old to be flirting with us. Bill did not concur.
The order: Two flat whites. ($6)
Latte art : Too busy for that. Milk dumped in.
Jason : “Really, really nice.”
Pretentious Coffee Literature: Available. We flicked through a copy of Barista Magazine, and contemplated the centrefold – a replica of the two pages of judging criteria from the World Barista Championships. Included were technical and sensory categories. The criteria for sensory judgments of a crema included: Persistence; Dark Brown / Hazelnut Hue; and Reddish Reflection. Were we impressed? We were, and are, impressed.
The next stop was St Ali, Yarra Place South Melbourne. Enthusiastically recommended by Pour Quality.
(Actually it wasn’t our next stop. On our way, we stumbled across Crown Casino. This was the condition I’d agreed to. Bill knew he was entitled to some sort of free gambling credits, so we took an interlude.
I sat at a purplish poker machine labelled ‘Timber Wolf’ and put six dollars in. I spun three of them into oblivion before concluding I wasn’t having any fun, and stopped.
Bill put his five hundred Crown Credits (~$5) into the identical Timber Wolf next door, lined up four kings in two directions, and won $45. Woot! Coffee’s on Bill! He resisted the urge to reinvest it all in blackjack, and we continued down Clarendon St.)
Back to St Ali.
The vibe: Stylishly industrial – stained glass and padded seating. Very relaxed. Service is intimate. At one stage the waitress tried to wipe some misplaced rocket off my face: “You’ve got greenery on your nose, darling”.
The crowd: Harder to pigeon-hole. A mix of couples, business types, small people in strollers, etc. We met Bill’s girlfriend Fiona there too.
The order: 2 flat whites (one of which strong). One strong Latte. One espresso (Beans: house espresso blend). A vegetarian pizza, a lamb pizza. ($36.20)
We also received the following things we didn’t order. Three cups of chai (as part of a chai promotion) and an extra espresso (due to confusion).
Following so soon the events of the casino, one must draw the conclusion that being heavily caffeinated causes good fortune.
Latte art : Present – a nearly symmetric fleur-de-lys .
Jason : Flat white – “Flavourful?” Espresso – “Sourish.” Chai – “Like a warm, banana-flavoured Big M.”
Bill: Flat white – “Best of the day.” Espresso – “Yeah, sourish.”
Fiona: Latte – “Great mouth feel. The foam held its texture really well. It’s the perfect temperature for a latte.”
Pretentious Coffee Literature: Not Available. This would count against St Ali, except for the fact that they have a guy, practically in the middle of the cafe, driving a complicated-looking computer program (with graphs and everything) that is in turn driving an enormous coffee roasting apparatus. Yep, they’ve got cred up the wazoo.
Coffee Safari Conclusions.
1. I love coffee more than ever.
2. Loving coffee is not the same as being able to review it. At first I thought I was flavour-deaf. But maybe I’m flavour-dumb. Maybe both? I think I can taste something, but I have no idea how to label it. I am no connoisseur. Newfound respect for professional reviewers.
3. Life lesson: I actually don’t like espressos. *Shamefaced*. The flavour is too strong. Maybe I’ll grow into them, like beer, chilli, pumpkin and those other things I didn’t like when I was young?
4. All these cafes were really enjoyable. We recommend them.
5. We should totally do this again sometime!
Thoughts? Other cafes you can recommend? Can you tell me what flavours you should be looking out for in a coffee? Want to boast about an ristretto you had with a macadamia aroma and pomegranate notes at the finish? Put it all below!