Saturday, 3 January 2015

When coffee becomes wine

Read the tasting notes on any decent bottle of wine and you will come across flowery expressions that seem a little removed from what you might expect when describing wine. For instance a 2011 bottle of Katnook Founders Block Merlot I have in the cupboard reads "...medium bodied with generous flavours of plum, mulberry and dark berry fruits...".  One of my favourite drops, a Palladium Estates Watchman Shiraz reads, "exhibits black pepper characters... complimentary ripe plum and raspberry...".

So you can imagine that my intrigue was piqued when I read this on a menu in Melbourne last week; "... ripe nectarine, syrupy pink marshmallow with blackcurrant finish". 

No, I was not sitting in one of the many fine dining establishments that city has to offer, nor was I sitting in a restaurant at all. I was in an out-of-the-way cafe, in a back street a couple of blocks from the South Melbourne markets. The cafe, St Ali's, whilst serving a very decent array of foodie dishes, is known for one thing: 

Coffee.

If you are not a coffee drinker, or you are, but instant granules is quite sufficient, then you will not understand how a cafe like this can survive, or even why it would. If you are "into" coffee, then it will come as no surprise that there is often a queue to enter, and every available seat is used. In other words, you may very well be seated at a table with people you do not know, but this does not matter because everyone has this in common - they have come for the coffee.

This is where you come to taste coffee like you have never tasted before. 

This is where you learn the difference between a filter brew and a batch brew (which is also a filter brew). This is where you can compare the difference between a cold drip and a filter of the same beans to understand the subtle affects each process has on a particular bean variety. You can even learn how the same bean variety grown in two different countries, or the same country but two different climates, or different soils changes the flavour experience.

I used to drink a very strong coffee in order to enjoy the taste. Now I understand that, like wine, strength is only one attribute. There is very little that I enjoy more than a good strong, explode-in-the-mouth Shiraz, except for a refined, subtle cold climate Pinot Noir that reveals complexities long after the last swallow.

Apart from the very real limits my stomach imposes on intake, I could easily have spent the whole day at St Ali's, enjoying the experience and expanding my understanding. I venture to bemoan the lack of a similar cafe in Toowoomba, but that would unjustly judge those that are making a fine effort to change the status quo. In particular, Ground Up continues to impress with the consistency of its excellent coffees and for this reason remains my favourite place to drink coffee locally.

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