It was my distinct pleasure when, just a few weeks ago, I traveled from Melbourne to Sydney for the purpose of documenting G&B Coffee's week-long takeover at the Paramount Coffee Project in Surry Hills. Paramount's unique model allows them to host guests in residence from around the world — see my earlier feature on Coffee Collective's takeover in late 2013 — and I was there to cover the event for Sprudge, as well as to take part in a Q&A panel with Kyle Glanville & Charles Babinski themselves, alongside Mark Dundon of Seven Seeds.
Kyle Glanville & Charles Babinski have a pedigree: Glanville is the 2008 United States Barista Champion; Babinski has placed second at two consecutive US nationals and is poised to make a run again in 2014, having won the SW regional competition a few months ago in Los Angeles. The pair have opened two cutting edge shops in LA — G&B and Go Get ‘Em Tiger — that are much loved and talked about by the LA Times, LA Eater, and of course Sprudge. With all this, you’d think that these two would be super-intense coffee folk, spouting lyrical about the history of the coffees they’re serving and geeking out about the considered technical aspects of their business. I found them quite the opposite, equally interested in chatting about the National Basketball Association and non-coffee related topics at their coffee bar.
Their focus is largely on interaction, both between themselves and their customers across the bar, and between the customers and their neighbouring coffee-drinkers next to them. For G&B it’s all about creating a conducive environment for that interaction, with great coffee being a delicious perk of the genuine human connection in service.
The transformation of PCP under Charles Babinski and Kyle Glanville’s watchful eye was a pretty impressive one. Out went the manual brewing equipment, soy milk, and chocolate on cappuccinos, and in came coffee batch-brewed on the Fetco, almond & macadamia milks, and pre-ground and dosed espressos.
G&B brought a slew of phenomenal North-American roasters with them, serving Ritual (San Francisco, CA), George Howell (Acton, MA), Heart (Portland, OR), and Forty-Ninth Parallel (Vancouver, BC, Canada). When I visited, the Colombian Guacimales from Forty-Ninth Parallel was shining on the espresso machine, and the Fetco was pumping out two delicious Ethiopian filters with the Borboya II from George Howell, and the Ethiopia Chelelektu from Heart.
They also introduced a few of their unique G&B and Go Get ‘Em Tiger specialities, including the Business & Pleasure (an espresso served alongside an iced almond/macadamia milk latte), the G&B Coffee Shake (blended espresso and vanilla ice cream, which “effectively brings all the boys to the yard”, according to my editors), their delicious citra-hopped sparkling white tea, and a sweetened latte served with a specifically measured amount of simple syrup.
Some of the biggest changes to the Paramount takeover, however, weren’t necessarily obvious to the average customer walking in, with most of the changes going on behind the bar. As at their establishments in the US, Glanville & Babinksi set up a unique workflow, pre-dosing and grinding their espressos and employing an a second set of portafilters to constantly be rotating in. Essentially, less fussing around with Robur-E grinders fluctuating from shot to shot in the heat of the moment, more exactitude in drink recipes, and more focus on what they believe to be the most important job of the barista — customer interaction.
Once upon a time (in Australia, at least), the biggest point of difference between a ‘bad’ coffee shop and a ‘good’ coffee shop was whether you saw the barista grinding fresh for each cup. In coffee, as in any young industry, technical capabilities are constantly in flux, and it’s only in recent years that people are moving away from traditional concepts of what makes a ‘good cup of coffee’. Coffee lovers and professionals around the world are opening up their minds to trying out new (and old) ways of doing things, taking a scientific approach with refractometers as well as trusting that age-old soft science of what tastes good. It's an exciting time to love coffee.
Pre-grinding and dosing espresso is pretty far off the beaten path for how they do things at PCP, or any respected coffee bar in Australia for that matter, but the team from G&B wore this method on their sleeves in Sydney. As a technical detail, workflow in this manner made sense once it was up and running; but as a conceptual adjustment, pre-ground espresso (up to fifteen or twenty minutes before pulling a shot) was definitely a change of pace. It's something that most coffee-making dogma of the past is firmly against.
In the Panel at PCP on the first night after service in Sydney, Charles Babinski offered an interesting insight into their decision-making process at G&B.
Having travelled to both G&B and Go Get ‘Em Tiger in Los Angeles, as well as seeing Paramount Coffee Project when it’s running on its own, it was a fascinating thing for me to see how PCP changed during its Glanville & Babinski takeover, and how the customer experience changed with it. The typical service model in Australia is queue up, order/pay, then wait for your coffee. G&B's approach enables a more bar-style service where you can be served at any location and pay at the very end of your experience. This creates more time for an informal, engaging experience for both guests and staff. This opportunity for greater connection, whether it be about the coffees served or the basketball games going on, is an experience still unfortunately rare at most specialty cafes.
The exchange program at Paramount Coffee Project is, we here at Sprudge believe, without peer in the world. It fosters the sharing of coffee ideas generated tens of thousands of miles away, transplanted to a lovely little cafe in Surrey Hills. In an industry where so little is truly new and revolutionary, exchange programs like this one tick all the boxes. I hope we see more of them. It's a daily guessing game for coffee lovers and professionals, what the future of delicious coffee might hold, but you know what? I think we were treated to a glimpse of it with G&B Coffee in Sydney.