University of Melbourne Magazine

Coffee king’s caffeine buzz

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    Salvatore Malatesta at his St. Ali cafe in South Melbourne: “I feel like we own the collective coffee brains trust in Australia.” PICTURE: JULIAN KINGMA


    If you go back to where it all started, it was probably the frozen dim sims that did Salvatore Malatesta’s young head in.

    Wrinkly, sad and pale, and with a filling of indeterminable origin, they were simply unappealing to a lad bought up by restaurant-owning parents.

    It was food like this on the University campus in the early 1990s that drove Malatesta and his friends to the cafes, trattorias and bars of neighbouring Carlton.

    “There was a myth that all students were poor, or all students weren’t willing to spend money on food,” he says. “I was in a faculty where students had a disposable income and were willing to spend it.”

    They also had an interest in food that young Malatesta (LLB(Hons) 1998, BA 2002) decided to test. He opened a cafe, Caffeine, on campus and with a dose of Italian brio – not to mention good espresso – offered an alternative to standard takeaway fare. And that’s when and where his coffee addiction took root.

    Salvatore Malatesta – Sal to most – is a Melbourne institution, fast thinking, faster talking, solid in build and with a laid-back fashion sense that allows for an ever-changing array of hats.

    Just talking to him is a bewildering exercise. The conversation is interrupted as he receives texts, calls out to his PA, greets passers-by, checks the time and considers his next move, which might mean suddenly leaving the room and jumping in a car to catch someone before they leave for the UK.

    It’s a frenetic pace, not unlike an overcaffeinated buzz, except Malatesta, known widely as the coffee king of Melbourne, doesn’t overdo it on the coffee.

    He leaves that to others. You could say he depends on it, and in Melburnians he has found more than willing partners.

    “Melbourne definitely has led the coffee renaissance globally,” he says, “and right now Melbourne is synonymous with being a global heavy hitter in coffee.”

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    According to Roy Morgan Research, in any given three-month period, 11.5 per cent of Melburnians visit a cafe for coffee 16 times or more, making the city the coffee capital of Australia. Not that the country’s other cities are far behind. In 2013 the Australian coffee market was valued at $1 billion.

    And now Australians are spreading the word of the bean globally. From Paris to New York to London you will find many an Aussie accent behind the coffee machine, influencing tastes and trends.

    By the time Malatesta graduated with a law degree he ran 15 cafes. The law engaged him for just 18 months, long enough for him to learn it wasn’t for him. He then he set out building his St. Ali coffee empire, based in a South Melbourne laneway. Eventually he would have 11 outlets under four brands.

    While figures aren’t forthcoming, some media estimates put the group’s annual turnover at about $35 million.

    Then, in about 2005, Malatesta had an epiphany. He found the depths of his coffee passion.

    “I discovered specialty coffee, which is terminology often misused,” he says, “but essentially refers to the craft of sourcing, roasting and making quality coffee using a score of 84-plus (on a 100 point system).’’

    Specialty coffee doesn’t come cheap; it’s two to three times the commodity price – but, ah, the taste.

    “It was like a God-shot. Until that point I thought about (coffee’s) crema and milk texturing,” Malatesta says.

    The coffee that opened his eyes wide was a Panama Geisha Don Pachi celebrated for its complexity, its jasmine, bergamot delicacy and mouthfeel. And its steep price.

    “I thought, Wow! All this stuff I know about coffee, I know nothing!

    “It’s an Australian strength that St. Ali appreciates; that smooth velvet that brings out the taste in the coffee.”

    “I knew then that I was on to something. No one was going to put up with bad coffee, no one was going to put up with blends anymore. It wasn’t about brands, it was about us being custodians for the farmers’ work, it was about us celebrating the subtle characteristics of single-origin, single-estate microlots.”

    It was a clarion call.

    In 2010 he branched out, heading to London to establish St. Ali (it changed to Workshop Coffee after he fell out with his business partners) in a former nightclub.

    Word got out fast on social media. The review on the Coffee Hunter blog was typical of the enthusiastic welcome: “The espresso is excellent but what makes St. Ali stand out is the smooth velvet froth they are creating for flat whites and lattes.

    “It’s an Australian strength that St. Ali appreciates that smooth velvet that brings out the taste in the coffee.”

    Today, he has four outlets in the city and has set a course for world expansion.

    Following St. Ali pop ups in Milan, Jakarta and Seoul last year, Malatesta announced plans to have a permanent presence in Jakarta, in partnership with Indonesia’s Common Ground Roastery. Bali is due to get its own St. Ali this year.

    The reasoning behind the expansion is simple: “Indonesians drink coffee all the time.” Specialty coffee would be new to them but he was encouraged by their enthusiasm to know more, something brought home after St. Ali held masterclasses in Jakarta during the World Barista Championships some years ago. With admission costing up to $200 a head, classes still sold out.

    Malatesta is now ready for coffee’s next wave, which will be about improving brewing technology and the science that lies behind creating the perfect espresso.

    It begins with the main ingredient – water. Minerals in water can hold the key to higher extraction rates, so his researchers (he has three) are using reverse osmosis purifer technology to determine the most desirable composition of water in coffee making.

    Water temperature is also being studied, along with the quality of the coffee grinder.

    “We’re doing some funky stuff at the moment,” he says, adding it’s a bit of a secret. Trademarks and patents are involved. But then he proceeds to divulge a tantalising taste of what’s to come.

    “I don’t know if you know anything about brakes on a race car but they are made out of porcelain so they don’t heat. We’re doing the same thing with grinder blades.

    “We make them out of porcelain so when they grind coffee the blades don’t heat and spoil the coffee.” These grinders are being developed with mass sales in mind.

    And they are just some of the ideas being explored by “director of education”, young Melbourne barista Matt Perger – a former Australian Barista Champion and World Brewer’s Cup Champion – who is Malatesta’s business partner in Sensory Lab.

    “I feel like we own the collective coffee brains trust in Australia,” says Malatesta.

    “We are getting closer and closer to an exact science.’’