A science laboratory or a cafe?

I am no coffee connoisseur, actually far from it. But I do love my coffee, and know what I like when I tasted a good one. However, brewing coffee using a Syphon filter device and Bunsen burner is all a little too complicated for me, best to leave this scientific experiment to the experts to show us how. During our short weekend trip to Melbourne, Helen and I are really keen to check out St Ali, which claimed to have the best coffee in Melbourne. Unfortunately it is a 25 minutes wait for the next tram to take us to St Ali in South Melbourne and we are a little time short, so eventually we've given up the idea and decided to check out St Ali's latest venture - the Sensory Lab at David Jones in Melbourne CBD.

Call it a "concept store for coffee" if you like, the Sensory Lab is a completely new retail experience where coffee receives the same treatment as the wine at a cellar door. With testing facilities and staff trained to extract information on taste preferences, customers can discover their coffee of choice and brewing method, with notes on how to select savour and truly taste coffee.

When we arrive at the store, my first impression is it looks very similar to a MUJI store in terms of interior design. The Lab is prominently set up right at the entrance of David Jones store on Little Collins Street. There are glasses and beakers in the window displays which not just to give customers a sense of being in a science laboratory, the "prop" is actually a fully functional Hario coffee syphon "Technical' device which they used in the store to demonstrate the new techniques, which are also available for sale.

The Hario coffee syphon filter surely have me intrigued and looks just like a science lab experiment tool to me. It basically comes in three parts - a burner at the bottom to heat up the water in the globe at the optimum temperature of 95ºC. Once it builds up a pressure, the boiling water will then gets sucked up to the top part which is the syphon filter beaker where the coffee goes. When it cools down, the coffee will get filtered and drips back down into the globe and that's the final product we'll be drinking. The whole process takes no more than 5 minutes we've been told.

It is all fun to watch, but how does it taste?

There is also a little cafe corner in the Sensory Lab for those who are interested to taste the coffee by using four different brewing methods they have to offer. We grab two stools and join the others at the communal table and soon a waitress in lab coat comes to check her 'patients' with a science lab clipboard menu, of course. The menu looks simple, but we do need some help to decipher it. There is a list of single origin coffees available for tasting and each type of beans will only taste best at certain brewing methods. The waitress explains to us the four different methods are:

Espresso - is the most common method by using an espresso machine.

Syphon - a modern twist to the old Cona system used in many Australian homes in the 1950s and 1960s, claimed to be the best way to extract flavours from top beans. Only best to drink with no milk nor sugar.

Pour over - just like the home coffee brewers by placing coffee in a moistened paper filter inside a conical, porcelain device and allow the coffee to drip through.

Cold drip - suggest to drink chilled, the water is slowly dripped through premium grounds for 3-7 hours to deliver a rich brew.

Me and Helen both go for the Syphon method which is also the most unique one (you can tell we are suckers for gimmicks), and decided to share two different types of coffee so that we can compare the tasting notes. The first one we try is the S-2 blend, which the waitress suggests that it has flavour of citrus, lemon zest aroma & hint of Shiraz. And the second coffee we order is single origin  Ethiopian Yirgacheffe.

To really appreciate the profiles and characteristics of the coffee, we are forbidden to drink it with any sugar or milk. The aroma of S-2 is weaker compare to the Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, and it is also much lighter in taste. The Ethiopian Yirgacheffe probably more suitable for my palate, which is stronger with rich aroma and a hint of nutty flavour while the S-2 is more citrusy, lemony, soury... that's the best I can do to describe the S-2 blend. The question, which begs to be asked,

"Is the coffee really has citrusy, lemon zest flavour; or simply a bad coffee that taste sour?"

I'll let you be the judge. And yes you can, because St Ali's head barista Aaron Wood and roaster Hamish McKenzie will be taking you on A Journey of Speciality Coffee tomorrow night for Melbourne Food & Wine Festival 2010. But be quick! I've heard there are only 2 spots left. If you can't make it, there will also be a full day of coffee appreciation programs this Sunday at St Ali's.

Sorry Sydneysiders, you will have to wait a little bit longer, as we've been told St Ali is talking about expanding to Sydney!


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Sensory Lab @ David Jones
297 Little  Collins Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
P: (03) 9643 2222

Opening Hours:
Mon - Wed 9.30am - 6pm
Thurs - Fri 9.30am - 9pm
Sat 9am - 7pm
Sun 10am - 6pm

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