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Creme de la creme: The $22,000 Synesso Hydra machine at TopHat Coffee Merchants. Photo: Janie Barrett

Gone are the days when going out for a coffee meant a little old lady boiling up a cuppa at the local milk bar. When self-described coffee geek Angus Nicol opened a cafe in Clovelly last year, he showed it was for the long haul with the purchase of a $22,000 coffee machine.

''It was about optimal extraction, optimal pressure levels to make the best coffees,'' he said, justifying the purchase of the top-flight Synesso Hydra machine for his TopHat Coffee Merchants shop.

''It is the sole biggest and most important investment.''

Cafe owners and baristas in Sydney are displaying a new level of dedication to the coffee bean, embracing expensive technology to help them pack accurate flavours into every cup.

At Coffee Alchemy in Marrickville, head roaster Hazel de los Reyes coyly admitted her Kees van der Westen spirit espresso machine was more expensive than her car.

''New technologies may present dazzling features but, unless a barista is knowledgeable enough to understand the features and improve their skills, any new piece of kit is a useless toy,'' she said.

The most obvious change in customer preference was appreciation for black coffee, she said. ''I remember 10 years ago I could count with one hand how many short-black orders I got in a week,'' she said. ''Now it's easy to lose count in 30 minutes.''

Tuli Keidar, the head roaster at Mecca Espresso, said knowledge of how to roast and brew coffee had ''grown in leaps and bounds''.

''It's no longer a bitter jolt or a slap in the face. Espresso can be subtle, complex, even restrained,'' she said.

And it's not just the professionals getting into it. Coffee aficionados who prefer a home brew are roasting, grinding and brewing their own coffee beans, which can cost hundreds of dollars a kilo. And they can purchase home coffee machines priced at more than $5000.