Brew guru: Salvatore Malatesta says expertise is the key. "You can spend $11,000 on a machine and still make bad coffee."
Brew guru: Salvatore Malatesta says expertise is the key. "You can spend $11,000 on a machine and still make bad coffee."

Carla Grossetti

Melbourne's coffee tsar, Salvatore Malatesta, bubbles with enthusiasm on the subject of coffee. He's also evangelical about how best to appreciate the plethora of different flavour profiles found in the seeds of the cherry-like fruit that is prized around the planet.

Malatesta runs 11 cafes, scours the globe for beans he roasts at his Sensory Lab and sells about seven tonnes of them each week.

"I treat coffee with the same respect that winemakers treat different varietals. Coffee beans are the seed of the coffee plant's red or purple fruit, the cherry. And, like a good pinot, which is enjoyed best at cellar temperature, coffee should cool to about 67C to be fully appreciated," says the former lawyer, who as well as owning Melbourne's cult cafe, St Ali, counts being a World Barista Accredited judge as one of his many qualifications.

It takes finesse and a good machine to make great coffee.
It takes finesse and a good machine to make great coffee. Photo: Mark Chew

Malatesta has also moved into the Hub, in Bondi, where the Sensory Lab staff focus on a filter-style coffee produced through an espresso machine.

When it comes to making a great coffee at home, Malatesta says the number-one error budding home baristas make is keeping coffee in the fridge or freezer, which "kills the flavours and may damage the grinder".

He also recommends that those wanting to make a mean home brew undertake a barista course to develop confidence in their technique and how it affects the taste.

"I have friends who spend a lot of money on great machines. But if you don't learn how to ride a motorbike, you can't ride a motorbike. You can spend $11,000 on a machine and still make bad coffee," he says.

According to the latest Roy Morgan Research, the proportion of Australians who own coffee makers has gone up, from 28 per cent in 2009 to 36 per cent in 2013.

Richard Calabro, of Grind Espresso in Cronulla, agrees that buying the most expensive espresso machines and latest, greatest coffee gadgets is no guarantee that you will be able to master the brewing method.

"I've been making coffee for 22 years. The first thing I tell anyone hoping to learn the art of making coffee is 'understand its enemies'. Coffee has four main enemies: moisture, heat, light and oxygen," Calabro says.

"The only time you want coffee to be in touch with water is when it's infusing. Keep it out of the fridge and drink it when it's most lively - right after infusion. Once it gets in contact with any of its enemies, coffee loses its optimum flavour," he says.

Calabro says while good coffee does rely on decent equipment, coffee connoisseurs should know that it also depends on the quality of the water, the temperature of the water, the quality of the coffee and milk (if it's being added). He says those in pursuit of the perfect home espresso should get their inner geek on and learn all they can about getting the best out of their machine.

"Look at the word 'espresso'. It comes from the Latin word exprimere, from ex (out) and primere (to press). One of the first rules of thumb is you must ensure the machine is ''at pressure''. You need to create the right pressure to extract the right sweetness or it's not going to taste right," Calabro says.

"The under-extracted taste is sour and weak and it will lack colour and crema. Alternatively, if the water is too hot and there is too much pressure, the coffee will be over-extracted and taste burnt and bitter," he says.

Calabro advises his Cronulla customers to experiment with their home machines and tweak their technique, according to the style of coffee they prefer and their own personal palate. "Single origin, medium-dark roasted beans are more ideal for espresso, bringing out more complex, deeper flavours such as caramel and chocolates," he says.

Filter coffee is also making a comeback he says. "Filter coffee is going off because it's simple to brew and brings out different flavours that you can't achieve in espresso brewing. It's very sweet and it's proving hugely popular.''

He also urges caffeine junkies to try different brewing techniques, such as Japanese siphon, Aeropress and cold-drip coffee, which is his personal favourite when it comes to alternative methods.

"If I was drinking an alternative brew, I'd have a cold-drip because it's rich and syrupy and tastes almost like a liqueur. If I have milk coffee, it's a macchiato. First thing in the morning, it's a double ristretto or a big black. It depends on what sort of mood I'm in," Calabro says.

Tips on how to produce great-quality coffee at home

1. Don’t keep coffee in the fridge or freezer; it kills the flavours and the hard coffee may damage the grinder.

2. Store coffee beans in a dark, air-tight container in a cupboard and use within 14 days of their roasting date.

3. Coffee is a seed from a fruit, so seasonality and freshness are key – ask your roaster for the freshest blend.

4. Coffee loses its quality five to 10 minutes after being ground, so store the beans and use ground coffee quickly. Grind, infuse and drink straight away.  

5. Coffee is 90 per cent water, so water quality is essential. Filtered water is best.

6. For those who like milk with their coffee, the optimum ratio between water and milk is 1:3. Try to use biodynamic milk because  milk quality is important.

7. Cleanliness in all forms of food and drink is essential. Clean your machine regularly.

8. If you choose to use a manual coffee machine, then do a barista course to learn how a good coffee should look, smell and taste.   

9. Many people confuse strength with acidity. Acidity is a desirable attribute when harmonised with natural caramelisation of the sugars in coffee. Heavily roasted beans taste strong and fresh beans tend to have a light citrus taste.

10. If you are using an espresso machine, expect the extraction time to be about 30 seconds.