Last year was a monumental year for Perth coffee. A number of new coffee shops and roasters opened across the city. People became increasingly receptive to the idea that coffee could transcend the mundanity of generic, roasty muck. The idea that a cup of coffee could express a hugely diverse range of characteristics depending on origin, process, roast style and brew method. The idea that coffee could be specialty.
In contrast, this year has been one of consolidation. Existing players on the Perth coffee scene have taken their game to the next level, using their successful brands to bring a better quality product to the coffee-drinking masses. Loaded Coffee Roasters, for example, have grown from a small off-shoot of the original Elixir coffee juggernaut to one of the major specialty roasters in Perth.
But what is specialty coffee and why is it important for Perth? There are many definitions thrown around, but specialty coffee essentially boils down to one concept: helping a single coffee bean to reach its drinking potential. That may sound a bit stupid, but it’s a concept at the heart of a huge coffee movement sweeping the globe, from Melbourne to London to New York to little ol’ Perth. It’s often called the Third Wave.
Specialty coffee is about maximising quality from plant to cup, and then letting people know about it. Australian coffee importers nurture strong relationships with individual farms to encourage high standards in the growing, harvesting and processing of coffee. Coffee roasters develop customised ‘roast profiles’ for each coffee to highlight particular characteristics like, for example, sweet berry notes. Finally, the barista extracts the ground coffee using hot water in a manner that expresses the full potential of the coffee.
This point, extraction, is the most familiar part for most people. But how many Perth people call themselves ‘coffee addicts’ without actually understanding what they drink?
You walk into a coffee shop, order a flat white, and your barista produces a delicious coffee. That’s great, but where did your coffee actually come from? It’s likely that your barista used an ‘espresso blend’ - a combination of different coffees roasted for espresso-style brewing. It might be ten coffees from ten different Brazilian farms, or perhaps half Ethiopian and half Colombian. Each blend offers different characteristics and different levels of quality.
It gets even more confusing. Blend coffees will be processed in different ways - they might be fermented and washed, or dried in the sun. Coffees might be packed and shipped using sophisticated methods, or sit festering in a warehouse for years. You can’t be expected to know everything, of course, but perhaps take some time to ask your barista what you are drinking every morning.
Second, why did you order a flat white? Do you know what a flat white is? For many Australians it’s just a ‘normal coffee’, but it was only introduced to the mainstream American public by Starbucks last year!
Generally speaking, a flat white is an espresso combined with steamed milk served in a 6oz cup. An espresso is made by pumping a small amount of pressurised hot water through finely-ground coffee. The result is an intense, heavily-concentrated extraction. The barista dilutes the espresso with cow’s milk, which is heated to around 63 degrees celcius to produce a sweet beverage with a creamy mouthfeel.
Flat whites sound delicious, and they are. But why are they delicious? Does the combination of chocolate notes in the coffee and the thick, sweet milk taste like a chocolate milk shake? Or maybe the berry notes produce a strawberries ’n cream effect?
Tasting notes are a bit technical, but essentially what we are looking for in any coffee are four main things: sweetness, acidity, body and how those three characteristics balance against each other.
Sweetness comes from the natural sugars in the coffee bean that are developed in the roasting process, and the breakdown of lactose in steamed milk. The sweeter the better. Acidity is a desirable characteristic which gives coffee a bit of zing! and dimension, like a refreshing lemon taste. Body is how the coffee actually feels in your mouth and how it carries flavour and acidity. Coffee may be light and juicy, or full and creamy.
Also remember that there are many different methods of brewing and serving coffee. Filter coffee, for example, is much less diluted than espresso, which can often express more complex and delicate flavours. Next time you order a coffee, why not ask the barista’s recommendation?
On that note let’s highlight some excellent coffee shops across Perth:
Perth CBD coffee has improved significantly over the past couple of years. Standing Room Only in Piccadilly Arcade continues to serve great specialty coffee from Melbourne roaster Small Batch, whereas La Veen Espresso has become the flagship for local roaster Five Senses. In West Perth, Gordon St Garage continues its partnership with in-house roaster Mano a Mano to offer a range of well-sourced coffees from Central America and East Africa.
A year and a half after opening, Addison & Steele Specialty Coffee rules the northern end of town, with a range of coffees from Small Batch offered through multiple brew methods. A great excursion for those who enjoy the theatre of coffee. In Mount Hawthorn, Humblebee Coffee runs a modest but brilliant cafe-roastery which punches well above its wait for a small suburban establishment. Try the filter coffee. The newest addition is Pixel Coffee Brewers in Leederville, which has finally brought high-quality specialty coffee to the Oxford St strip (no more Greens n’ Co, please).
In the western suburbs Architects & Heroes has given people a reason to visit Subiaco, offering a range of coffees from Melbourne roaster Code Black including filter coffee made with the Steampunk brewing system. It will blow your mind. Felix & Co is another small but spritely suburban coffee shop on Hampden Rd which offers a curated selection of coffees from both Perth and Melbourne roasters.
Bossman Coffee on Beaufort St serves local roaster Twin Peaks in a secluded arcade, but the challenge for the over-gentrified Mount Lawley is offering more specialty coffee along the strip! A work in progress.
South of the river has long been a wasteland for specialty coffee until Sprolo turned up, with partners Blacklist Coffee Roasters. There’s a passionate team of coffee lovers who are taking the southern suburbs by storm. Yes, the name is a combination of spro (as in, espresso) and YOLO.
As you can see there are plenty of reasons to get excited about the Perth coffee scene. And what’s the key driver? You. Perth coffee is only as good as the customers who ask, question and challenge coffee professionals. Next time you order a coffee, ask where it came from. Ask how it’s really made. Channel your custom to the coffee businesses who are driven by quality, not profit. The businesses who actually care about where coffee comes from and how they can deliver the best possible product. Make your experience one that is truly specialty.
Tom is a long-time coffee drinker who has dabbled in coffee industries in Australia and the UK. He runs a blog called Perth Coffee Project.