Coffee tips from Australia’s number #1 barista

Matt Perger is a man who knows coffee.

Having won his second Australasian Specialty Coffee Association Barista Championship title, as well as an array of international accolades, Perger is a sought-after talent in the coffee industry.

Currently the so-called ‘coffee guy’ at Melbourne’s famed St Ali, Perger spends his time ensuring quality is up to scratch, as well as training and educating barista’s and staff.

Also heavily involved in the café’s new projects, Dynamic Business caught up with Perger in Sydney, currently in town to open St Ali’s new offering – Sensory Lab – set to open later in the year in Bondi.

With a focus on specialty coffee, alternative processes and coffee innovation, Sensory Lab will take a scientific approach to producing the perfect brew, using methods such as cold-press.

How do you get a title like Australia’s number one barista?

(laughs) Oh just a few hours of work…. I’ve been doing competitions since I started as a barista. I’ve competing in barista competitions for five years now, and I guess you just chip your way up by working with companies who can support you – because it’s quite expensive. And then having the patience to prepare, because it’s at least 100 hours of preparation for every competition, and if you’re doing it well, it would be more like 200-300 hours.

What exactly is cold-pressed coffee?

Cold pressed coffee is when you infuse coffee with cold water, instead of hot water. It’s a different method of extraction. When you change the temperature of the water, you start to extract different things, and the coffee behaves quite differently.

So with hot brewed coffee, which is obviously what most people drink most of the time, you get a lot of acids, sometimes create an emulsion, you get a lot more out of the coffee, it can sometimes be quite acidic, but when it cools down, and if you leave it sit for some time, it starts to taste quite acrid, and not so nice.

If you brew coffee with cold water, over a longer period of time, you need to brew if for longer because it doesn’t have the reaction energy from the water. So you need to replace that energy with contact time, and that usually takes about 12 hours or so. Then you get different things out of the coffee. It’s much mellower; it’s less acidic, and less bitter. And it seems to last a lot longer after you brew it – more ‘shelf stable’.

Are many café’s doing cold-pressed coffee?

Until recently it’s been in the realm of specialty cafés, and pretty niche establishments, it was a bit of a trend last year in New York, and it’s been starting to pick up here. And now also a lot of cafes are bottling and selling it. And now recently we’ve seen Dare get on board, and release their cold-press coffee as well.

Australians tend to be very proud of our coffee culture – what makes Australian coffee culture different to what we see elsewhere in the world?

I think the biggest influence was the Italian population and migration, bringing with them the espresso culture, and then taking that espresso culture out of Italy – it’s been the merging of cultures here that have really evolved our unique coffee culture in Australia.

Walking around the city, there is no shortage of cafes. What sets those really successful, really great cafes apart?

Knowledge is a big one. A lot of the best café owners are alumni of other really great cafes. They’ve worked with the best, so they understand what’s required first-of-all, they have a fair bit of passion for coffee itself, not just for operating a café, but actually good quality coffee is part of their reason for having the business.

And that fuels a need for quality that’s probably much higher than the average café owner. They start sourcing out better coffee, they put in better systems in the café because they understand more about the coffee, and they’re also willing to sacrifice a bit of profit, to spend more on the raw ingredients and the labor, to achieve a better quality coffee. In turn, they get busier, and so the volume pays the bills, rather than the per-cup price paying the bills.

What do you look for in a really good coffee?

It has to be really good quality green coffee to begin with, and recently harvested – as in no more than a year old from when it was harvested.

Roasted fairly lightly – I don’t like dark roast coffee or coffee that tastes like ash, or bitter, or anything like that. So that means looking for fruit-driven, acidic, bright, sweet coffees. And then I prefer it to be brewed – if it’s an espresso – a longer style espresso so it’s slightly weaker. Or if it’s a filter style coffee, like a pour-over, or any drip style coffee, something a bit weaker.

So when you go into a café, what are some telltale signs that you’re going to get a bad coffee?

A dirty bar, disorganisation, umbrellas and ugly street banners … they’re all signs it’s not going to be good coffee. Asking the barista a simple question like where’s you’re coffee from, or who’s your roaster, or what coffee should I drink today? And if they answer with “I don’t know”, then they probably don’t have much pride in what they’re doing, and I don’t think it’s going to be a good experience.

Do you have a preferred region for sourcing beans?

We buy our coffee from wherever is seasonal, so it’s always changing throughout the year. At the moment, we’re using Brazil’s – they’ve just arrived. We’re just finishing up with our Costa Rica beans, because they started in March and it’s been about six months. At the beginning of the year we’ll start to use central American again, and Africa is coming in soon as well – so what matters is really what’s in season, rather than where it’s from.

So for something thinking of opening a café in Sydney – it’s an advanced palate, there’s a lot of competition – what would be some key elements in getting the café and the coffee right, in order to truly make a splash and be competitive?

I would buy my own machine, so I’m not constrained to one coffee roaster. That’s usually the deal – if you buy coffee from a roaster, they’ll give you a machine, but then you’re stuck with them. But having your own machine gives you ultimate freedom. You can buy your coffee from all of the roasters and try it, you can receive training from whomever you want, serve it anyway you like.

So I’d say go to the cafes you like most, and see if you can get the coffee that they’re serving, or if they’re roasting their own coffee, see if you can buy it from them. Find a business that you aspire to be like, and then get involved. Meet the owner, shake their hand, and meet them, learn about them, because it’s a friendly industry and there aren’t really any secrets.

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