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Monday, April 26, 2010

Sensory Lab, Melbourne

You don't usually expect a lab coat with your coffee order, but at the Sensory Lab in Melbourne, the making of coffee is a strictly scientific affair.

Originally we'd had best intentions to visit famed coffee shop St Ali, but on the morning of our day last in Melbourne, we just missed the tram, the next one wasn't due for 25 minutes and time was ticking down to our departure flight back to Sydney.

Billy and I head to the Sensory Lab instead, the coffee concept store by St Ali located at the Little Collins Street entrance to David Jones.

The look is retro minimalism with a dash of science lab geekiness. Jugs of water arrive in laboratory bottles, the sugar comes in squat brown glass jars, and female staff in starched white lab coats greet you with old-fashioned clipboards that detail the available drinks menu.

Decor inside the Sensory Lab

Chocolate-coated coffee beans

Sugar bowls

The coffees are an impressive list of blends and single-origin beans. Four types of brewing methods are used here, and a handy chart helps cutomers identify which methods are recommended for which beans. Espresso machines and pour over (drip filter) methods are reasonably common to most consumers. Cold drip involves a slow-drip of water through premium coffee grounds for 3-7 hours. Like moths to a flame, we're immediately drawn to the spectacle of the syphon method.

Hario coffee syphon

The coffee syphon was invented by Loeff of Berlin in the 1830s. In recent years, the coffee syphon, or vac pot, has experienced a resurgence in popularity, particularly in Japan. According the barista on duty, this intensive brewing method was identified as an ideal way of extracting the most flavour out of the low-quality coffee beans available in post-war Japan. Today, the siphon is being embraced as a means of preserving the purity of beans and minimising bitterness.

Brewed coffee

The syphon consists of two glass vessels, with water in the bottom and coffee grounds at the top. As the water is heated and approaches boiling point, the building pressure forces the water up into the top chamber containing the coffee. The brew is stirred briefly, the syphon is removed from the heat, and as the temperature cools, a vaccuum forces the liquid back down into bottom chamber, ready to drink.

The process looks complicated but it only takes five minutes. It makes an impressive spectacle regardless.

S-2 blend and single origin Ethiopian Yirgacheffe

We try two coffees brewed by syphon method, the S-2 blend and a single origin Ethiopian Yirgacheffe. It's strongly advised to drink syphon coffees without sugar or milk, to appreciate the subtle nuances of flavour. Both are described as having citrus notes and as we drink them we do note hints of sourness - an odd encounter until you remember that coffee beans are actually the seeds of a cherry-like fruit.

The S-2 blend has a marked lemon tang whereas the Ethiopian Yirgacheffe is slightly more intense, although still fruity with lemon and peach notes. I'm not sure I quite yet appreciate the joys of coffee with a sour aftertang, but it's an interesting learning curve in recognising that coffee can be more than robust and nutty and bitter.

Don't forget today is the last day to enter the Freebie Friday competition to win a Royal High Tea package for two at The Victoria Room worth AU$135 (Entries close 5pm today!)

Grinding coffee beans

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Sensory Lab on Urbanspoon

Sensory Lab by St Ali
David Jones entrance
297 Little Collins Street, Melbourne, Victoria
Tel: +61 (03) 9643 2222

Opening Hours:
Monday to Wednesday 9.30am - 6pm
Thursday to Friday 9.30am - 9pm
Saturday 9am - 7pm
Sunday 10am - 6pm

Takeaway Hours:
Monday to Friday 7am - 6pm
Saturday 8am - 7pm
Sunday 9am - 6pm

A limited cafe menu is available.

Grab Your Fork visited Melbourne as a guest of Tourism Victoria for the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival. Sensory Lab was visited anonymously and coffees were paid for personally.

> Read the next Melbourne post (Degraves Espresso Bar and Roule Galette)
< Go back to the first Melbourne Food & Wine Festival 2010 post

Related Grab Your Fork posts:
Melbourne - Abbotsford Convent Bakery
Melbourne - Lord of the Fries
Melbourne - Madame Brussels
Melbourne - MoVida Aqui
Melbourne - Red Spice Road

ADDED AT 00:40 27/04/10


Over 50 amazing entries were received for the recent Grab Your Fork Freebie Friday competition to win a Royal High Tea for two at The Victoria Room. Congratulations to Emma M - I am sure you will enjoy an amazing afternoon!
18 comments - Add some comment love

posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 4/26/2010 03:01:00 am


  • At 4/26/2010 10:12 am, Blogger Phuoc'n Delicious said…

    This is my kinda lab! I'm loving it! Thanks for sharing, I'd like to visit this place on my next trip to Melb.

  • At 4/26/2010 11:37 am, Anonymous Hannah said…

    This is all a bit beyond me - I usually order a decaf long black! I'll stick to making chocolate tasting notes and leave the fancy coffee to to you :P

  • At 4/26/2010 12:18 pm, Anonymous tangerine eats said…

    Love the decor and the interesting methods! I really want to try this now

  • At 4/26/2010 3:32 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    This is such an interesting concept. I am not a big coffee drinker but hubby is. This is definitely his kind of lab :)

  • At 4/26/2010 5:02 pm, Anonymous Tresna said…

    Glad you got to experience Sensory Lab whilst in Melbourne - it certainly offers a new take on coffee, doesn't it? I find the peach and rose-hip notes in some of the Ethiopian beans intriguing!

  • At 4/26/2010 7:08 pm, Blogger missklicious said…

    Such a quirky take on a cafe and great decor!

  • At 4/26/2010 9:50 pm, Anonymous Mark @ Cafe Campana said…

    A very quirky looking place. I will need to remember it next time I am in town. I have never heard of a coffee syphon. I think I will need to wiki it to find out how it works.

  • At 4/26/2010 10:12 pm, Anonymous Amy @ cookbookmaniac said…

    I'd like to give this a try for the gimmick-factor, but I am quite happy with my flat white with one sugar first thing in the morning.

  • At 4/27/2010 1:02 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Hee hee sounds like fun though I doubt someone like Yas could wait 5mins :P! Hope they start intro'ing themed restaurants into Sydney

  • At 4/27/2010 9:24 am, Blogger Angie Lives to Eat (and Cook)! said…

    I am not a coffee drinker though will have the odd cappucino or latte here or there but this makes me want to go there and try it anyway! I do like the smell of freshly brewing coffee.

  • At 4/27/2010 10:24 pm, Blogger A cupcake or two said…

    Melbourne is all about hip and happening cafes. How interestingly geeky. Love it.

  • At 4/28/2010 11:14 pm, Blogger Yas @ hungry.digital.elf. said…

    Hmmmm I'm very much intrigued! But, well, yes, FFIchiban might be right about me LOL

  • At 4/29/2010 12:09 pm, Anonymous Tebonin said…

    Love your blog...I loved the shoes shop in Lit collin. How can I miss this sweet place??? I will check it out today!

  • At 4/29/2010 7:12 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Phuoc'n Delicious - It's a cool concept isn't it? I did love the science aspect of it. Most compelling.

    Hi Hannah - Well you certainly have chocolate-tasting down to a fine art. Now imagine doing that for a full-time job!

    Hi Tangerine Eats - The decor was very retro cool and as a learning experience, it was fascinating. I hear they may have opening one in Sydney soon?

    Hi Ellie (Almost Bourdain) - Ahh yes, hubby does like his coffee. It was quite interesting to see how the taste was affected. Would be curious to hear what Mr J would make of it all.

    Hi Tresna - It was an eye-opening experience indeed. Would have loved to have tried more of the menu. Much to learn!

    Hi missklicious - I agree. The decor is fab. Such a lovely feel to it.

    Hi Mark - I had to wiki it to find out myself :) Quite an intriguing process, although we did wonder if washing up might not work for the clumsy!

    Hi Amy - I think it's worth trying once, just to see how coffee can be opened up in terms of taste. For the moment though, I think I'll stick to my flat whites too!

    Hi FFichiban - Haha, you troublemaker you. It's quite fun to watch though - just like a science lab experiment! Apparently they are hoping to bring the concept to Sydney soon :)

    Hi Angie Lives to Eat (and Cook!) - The smell of coffee wasn't as strong, but it was quite a show to watch the syphon work its magic. The flavours are a lot more muted though - I think it would appeal to people who are more interested in the flavour of coffee than a caffeine "hit".

    Hi A cupcake or two - Melbourne is very cool. The geek factor definitely appealed! The decor was awesome.

    Hi Yas @ hungry.digital.elf - lol. I am sure you would be swayed by the cool factor! It's worth trying once anyway.

    Hi Tebonin - Oh yes lots of great clothing and shoe shops on Little Collins Street :) Hope you managed to find it. It's a great place just to chill for an hour or two.

  • At 4/30/2010 2:58 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I was looking forward to the single source Ethiopian syphon-prepared. After fifteen minutes, and with an appointment to go to, I left without it. Waitress was very nice (and very apologetic). Mr Barista was too busy talking to Will Minson to do his paid job. For those who neither know, nor care, Minson apparently plays for the Western Bulldogs (AFL). The coffee COULD be bloody magic for all I know!

  • At 5/01/2010 6:08 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Anon - Sorry to hear about your recent experience - always disappointing when intent doesn't follow through with success. I'd still give it another try - worth experiencing at least once :)

  • At 6/28/2010 3:33 pm, Blogger hazchem said…

    hmmm, sourness screams defect to me. Either in the roast or in the brewing. Citrus acidity I would expect from either of these brews, but not sourness per se. That said, Sensory Lab is an exciting concept, especially when you consider the range of brewing methods they offer and potential for educating coffee consumers outside of the Specialty Coffee world. There's no Sensory Lab in Sydney _yet_ but there are a few purveyors of fine Specialty Coffee in town.

  • At 7/04/2010 2:12 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Hazchem - Thanks for your insights. I guess it's a fine line between citrus acidity and sourness? I'd be curious to hear what you think if the Sensory Lab does make it to Sydney - or if you get to Melbourne!


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