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We Talk Sydney Expansion With Ben Bicknell Of 5 Se...

We Talk Sydney Expansion With Ben Bicknell Of 5 Senses Coffee

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Our longtime friends and partners at 5 Senses Coffee in Australia do things a little differently. Rather than open coffee bars, their model is collaborative, working as a dedicated wholesaler with a wide variety of small businesses, cafes, restaurants and shops across Australia. They support these wholesale partners from a series of training centers, operated as the Australian Barista Academy—ABAs have been open in Perth and Melbourne for several years, and in 2015, Five Senses opened their third in Sydney. And their work with green coffee at origin is widely respected across the specialty coffee industry—even in Australia, an industry milieu where respecting someone else’s coffee is no small feat.

In the excitement surrounding the launch of their Sydney barista academy, we sat down with Ben Bicknell, the Strategic Project Manager at 5 Senses who helped design the new space. Bicknell is also a long-serving World Barista Championship judge and friend of the site. We spoke with him via email from Sydney.

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First, give us a top-down overview of who Five Senses is, and what the Australian Barista Academy is in relation to it.

At the core of it, the people of Five Senses love collaborating with other passionate folk to help serve out excellent coffee experiences. We’re based in the sunny land down under and have roasteries in Perth and Melbourne from which we roast a range of delicious beans throughout the week and ship them to our café partners throughout the country. Truly excellent coffee experiences only come to life when all of the parts of the puzzle are put together and that’s what we’ve aimed to bring all into one place. We source and roast amazing direct trade coffees, work with leading brands like Marco and Synesso and then provide comprehensive, progressive training to the baristas and café owners slinging the shots. This is where our Australian Barista Academies come in: the ABA is the education arm of Five Senses. There’s a diverse curriculum to equip students with the skills and knowledge to go out into the world, engage with their customers and serve out cracking coffees. We now have Academies in Perth, Melbourne and, just recently, Sydney!

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So you guys don’t do cafes then? Just wholesale partnerships? What are some of your favorites?

Our focus over the past 15 years has been on being the best roaster partner we can be for our customers rather than splitting our head space between being great retail operators in addition to nailing the supplier side of things. It’s so difficult to choose favourite partnerships! Each of them are on such unique paths of their coffee journey and the variety is truly one of the most interesting parts of the job. One of our proudest relationships is a little bit of a hidden gem but it represents much of what we love—the crew at Corinthians—based around 23km southwest from Melbourne in the outer suburbs, is a great café launched by 2 brothers, George and Sarkis, with an insatiable passion for community and coffee. In a pretty unlikely spot, they’re showcasing specialty coffee at its most excellent; tricked out with a pressure-profiling Synesso Hydra, EK43 grinders, alternative brew methods and rotating microlot single-origins on offer, the guys at Corinthians are pairing these excellent extractions with an unending font of enthusiasm. People are loving it!

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We’re also big fans of what the Top Paddock crew do–we’ve been working with them on their coffee program since 2007 over 6 cafes: it’s been great to see our coffee being served out at such consistently high standards even under such heavy demand! While it’s hard to pick out all our favourites, some that jump to mind are Bar 9 in Adelaide, Harry’s Espresso Bar and Excelsior Jones in Sydney, Bunker in Queensland, and Voyage Kitchen and Bench Espresso in Perth. Many of these guys have been part of the Five Senses family for years.

Australian Barista Academy—is this like a coffee college, or more like a coffee trade school? Are attendees in class for months, or weeks, or just a few days or what?

The reality of the demand for baristas in Australia means that most of the time, people who attend our Academies already have a job in the hospitality industry. Given the short time they can break out to come along to a course, we’ve developed our content into intensive, half-day bite-size chunks. Each of the Academies is kitted out with top-end gear (our new Sydney space has 4 x Synesso Hydras, a swag of Mazzer grinders, EK43 grinders, Marco Uber Boiler, Marco SP9, Marco Jet Brewer and a whole bunch more!) and focuses on small classes which are able to get very hands on with focused attention from the trainer. The courses can be strung together into a pretty wide curriculum spreading from core espresso fundamentals to refractometry and alternative brew methods to sensory and palate development. For those wanting to explode their brain with coffee knowledge and sensory development, we also regularly host the weeklong Q Grader courses in conjunction with the Coffee Quality Institute.

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Tell us a bit about your new Sydney location. What’s the neighborhood like? What’s the space like? Who designed it?

I have to say, we’re pretty excited about our new Sydney location! We’ve been collaborating with some great café owners in Sydney for a number of years but have been needing to jump in to do training after hours, which is taxing for everyone–offsite training is WAY more of a win. The Sydney Academy in a way is a bit of a ‘thank you’ to all of our partners who have hung in there making do and a welcome to all those in the future who want to push their knowledge. Our space is at 2A Cannon St, Stanmore—it’s a beautiful, slightly older suburb of Sydney’s Inner West, about 6km west of the bottom of the Central Business District. An old warehouse building just off the main thoroughfare of Parramatta Road houses the space divided over 2 levels. On the ground floor, we’ve set up a technical workshop, where our service team wield their tools for healthy gear, along with a couple of ping-pong tables for burning off the caffeine. We’ve actually got a fair bit of room free down there but wanted to give ourselves a little bit of flex space as we figure out what we need over the coming years. Up on the first floor and we start seeing some more action—the bones of the building are what we initially fell in love with: the cyprus floorboards add an immediate warmth and the white-walled entrance hall dramatically widens to an open-plan warehouse space with exposed trusses.

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I was lucky enough to be entrusted with the design of the space and worked closely with a great young cabinetmaker/furniture maker/shop fitter, Steve from Porter and Maple. Together we’ve collaborated over the past 4 months to bring the vision to life, equipping it with a 7-meter-long, concrete-topped espresso bar, our now somewhat iconic mosaic-tiled ‘island’ brew bar and a lab space with blackened, rolled steel benchtops housing a 3-group Synesso Hydra and the new Marco SP9s. Almost everything was custom designed including the light fittings over the espresso bar and in the lab. We did, however, splurge out to get some amazing chairs by the talented Melbourne designer Adam Lynch.

Our goal in fitting out the space was to design an environment that represented the quality and attention to detail that is being exhibited by leading cafes and espresso bars around the world. High-quality, hard-wearing surfaces were accompanied by softer, more inviting textures of white-washed timber, leather, and cork. Just how the space and atmosphere of a café play into the serving of an excellent café experience, we wanted our Sydney ABA site to inspire students of all experience levels to take their craft seriously but to have fun exploring further.

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Five Senses is a multifaceted company: a roaster, a training academy headmaster, and also a mill owner in Indonesia. Tell us more about that project.

Our Tiga Raja mill in Simalungun, Sumatra has been running for 12 months now and we’ve been lucky enough to have some excellent results from the very beginning. The Tiga Raja, or ‘Three Kings’ project, developed fairly organically; searching for more traceable, consistent Sumatran coffees, our green buyer Rich Austin met with the amazing husband-wife team of Leo and Lisa Purba and stumbled upon an opportunity to not only achieve the cup quality we were after but to have a significant positive impact on the people and recognition of specialty coffee in the area. We joined forces, with Five Senses funding the fitout of the Tiga Raja mill, overseen by Leo and Lisa and sourcing coffee from the local Talenta cooperative. By working with a stable group of small holder producers and tweaking our mill processing, we’ve managed to eliminate many of the defect-inducing practices that often cloud the exciting flavour range of Sumatran coffees. Just recently, we were able to showcase a stellar coffee from Tiga Raja called Lima Putri. It’s a natural process, wet-hulled coffee carefully handled by our mill—producing a flavour bomb of tropical fruit, honeydew melon, and brown sugar but is still really clean and consistent; something people probably wouldn’t have been able to experience without the hands on involvement and infrastructure that’s been developed at Tiga Raja.

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What’s a good way for people to learn more about Tiga Raja?

The best way would be to drink some of the coffee! We’ve got a very small amount of the natural Lima Putri still on offer alongside the delightful Tiga Raja washed coffee. Otherwise, we’ve got some great blog posts up detailing our journey and learnings so far.

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What techniques do you train people in at the Academies? How has the curriculum been developed?

We’re aiming to help people create truly excellent coffee experiences so we’ve made sure to set up industry-leading equipment in the Academies. We’re lucky enough to be the exclusive distributors for some incredible equipment companies—all of our ABAs have Synesso espresso machines, Marco brewing and hot water systems, Mazzer grinders, Acaia scales and Baratza grinders. We train across a full breadth of both technique and knowledge bases needed by baristas working in the ever progressing specialty coffee scene. In terms of the curriculum, the content and focus has really evolved over the years as we continue to learn more about coffee and listen to what our customers need. Andy Easthope, our National Training Manager, has done some awesome stuff with our content over the past few years as we’ve honed in on our philosophies around what quality in the cup means to us. We cover zones starting at the bedrock of dialing in espresso shots—being able to measure success with both calibrated tasting and quantifiable metrics around brew ratios is critical. Beyond that, we delve into courses developing workflow, quality control, advanced equipment parameters of pressure and temperature, alternative brew methods, latte art, sensory skills, the use of refractometry, and a whole bunch more. At the end of the day, the focus of the courses is to make sure that students can go back out into the workplace and can turn out delicious coffees while having the backup knowledge to drive their program forward and help new consumers take their next steps along the coffee journey.

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Name us some famous graduates if you don’t mind!

The Academies have been used by a bunch of great café owners and baristas over the course of their lifetimes, however, we see the Academy more as a hub for learning and skill sharing rather than claiming the success of individuals as our own. While we’ve loved having world champions, celebrated chefs, and knowledgeable coffee pros come through our Academies, we find a whole bunch of satisfaction in helping raise the overall standard of specialty coffee preparation on a broader scale through the hundreds of hard-working baristas who complete the courses to go back out and serve better coffees to their day-to-day customers. It’s going to be great to see how we can help equip Sydney’s next generation of baristas to progress specialty coffee with our new Academy space!

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Where to next with the Academy model? Brisbane? Canberra? Singapore?

Our focus for the next little while is firmly focused on Sydney—we’ve only just launched and there’s so much potential that can be brought to life, so we’ll be putting a lot of energy into that. It’s already been pretty exciting seeing how the space can help build the specialty coffee community and create a new standard for learning. In Singapore, we’ve been part of bringing Common Man Coffee Roasters together and have actually already launched an Academy up there and boy, the people are hungry for knowledge! We don’t have any definite plans for the next Academy, but it’s obvious that the specialty coffee scene all around Australia is growing at a rapid pace—5 Senses and our Academies have always been in the thick of it and it’ll be great to be a part of things wherever the next community of coffee pros are looking to drive things forward.

Photos by Tim Pascoe courtesy Five Senses.


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