Bean curators turn coffee into art

Quality the key: Ollie Mckay brews at Assembly in Carlton.
Quality the key: Ollie Mckay brews at Assembly in Carlton. 

Chrissie Trabucco pours water slowly from a thin-spouted kettle into a filter cone as she talks a customer through the intricacies of brewing hand-made coffee: the weight of the beans, the temperature of the water, the length of the pour.

Assembly, the Carlton coffee house that Trabucco operates with her partner Ollie Mckay, is almost Japanese in its understated aesthetic: the walls are lined with pale timber; shelves bear small canisters of exotic coffee and tea with names like Ethiopia Bokasso Sidamo and China Golden Wuyi, and shrine-like niches display coffee brewing equipment and small earthenware teapots.

Two specialised grinders and a variety of coffee filters sit on a large bench at the back of the shop. The brews are served in handmade ceramic cups to customers who sit on a wall-length bench.

Assembly is one of the most specialised of Melbourne’s specialty coffee houses, part of a movement that you might call “curated coffee”. 

Rather than being locked in to beans from one roaster, often with an espresso machine thrown in to sweeten the deal, Trabucco and Mckay buy their coffee from a variety of roasters, based on blind cupping (tasting) of samples.

“There is a bit of blowback against the use of the word ‘curated’,” says Trabucco. “People think it means you’re stuck-up about coffee. People are surprised that anyone cares so much.

“But it’s exactly the right word for a careful selection,” she says: the point of what she and Mckay do at Assembly.

The couple recently expanded into the shop next door, adding an espresso machine to the filter-only brewing they originally used. The mood in the espresso bar is more upbeat – customers chat while they wait for takeaways or sit at small tables, lost in a laptop or the newspaper. But the coffee offer is the same – just one or two single-origin beans. At the moment, they offer the Ethiopian Bokasso from Sydney roaster Mecca Espresso, served as espresso or filter.

“Red berry and sparkling lemonade, which is really nice,” says Mckay of the Bokasso’s flavour, which to someone who doesn’t spend quite as much time as he does tasting coffee translates to a fruity, vibrant long black.

At Everyday Coffee in Collingwood the approach is slightly different. Everyday offers a variety of beans from different specialty roasters for different styles of coffee. There might be the Small Batch Candyman blend for milk coffee, a Colombian Gabriel Samboni for black espresso, and an Ethiopian Chele’lektu for filter.

Everyday’s Aaron Maxwell says that in selecting coffee, they “cup and cup again. Then for espresso we’ll brew it up on the machine".

Doing it this way offers Everyday the freedom to choose the best, says Maxwell. “Locking yourself in to one roaster means you’re missing out on all the good coffee that’s going around.”

Maxwell says he and his colleagues at Everyday look for coffee that suits their preferred flavour profiles. “We always want super-sweet coffee; sometimes we want fruit-driven, sometimes we want something a bit more subtle that you have to think about. And sometimes we want a coffee that just tastes like clean, delicious coffee.”

Customers at the business, which is just over a year old, have responded well. “At first we were worried that people would be upset by the constant changing,” says Maxwell. “But we see customers coming in and looking at what’s new on the board. We find people commenting on how a coffee has changed over time. And we’ve seen people moving from espresso to filter coffee, where the differences are easier to taste.”

Says Chrissie Trabucco at Assembly: “When we’re cupping the big question is, ‘Would you be happy for customers to drink this?’” Not everything she and Mackay cup gets served. “Sometimes you think something is going to be great and it’s not; other times you think it won’t be so good, but it is.

“It’s important not to have preconceptions – selections are based purely on taste.”

“The beautiful thing about being a curator of coffee is that you have no motivation other than seeking quality,” says Trabucco. “It’s not about what’s cool or the branding of the roaster. It’s not about who we think should taste good – it’s about what does taste good.”

Matt Holden is editor of the Age Good Cafe Guide 2014, available for $5 with the Saturday Age today from participating newsagents, while stocks last. It is also available in selected bookshops and online at theageshop.com.au for $9.99.