It's been a big year already for Melbourne's St. Ali Family, bounding off the successful open of their first Sydney location and pushing ahead towards a two-stop European tour, with dates set for early April in London and Milan. But a few weeks back the brand held court for a week at Coffee Workers in the Gangnam neighborhood of Seoul, offering a slate of classes taught by Matt Perger, reigning Australian Barista Champion and 2nd place finisher in the world at the 2013 World Barista Championship. Course availability sold out completely, as hundreds of Korean baristas attended workshops ranging from brewing techniques to refractometer analytics to latte art (taught by St. Ali's staff latte art guru, Ben Morrow).
Sprudge.com assistant editor Alex Bernson sat down with Matt Perger via email to talk about St. Ali's pop-up projects, Korea's world-class coffee scene, and some of Mr. Perger's favorite shops in Seoul. Curious onlookers can catch the next St. Ali pop-up event April 3rd-6th in London.
How did the collaboration with Coffee Workers' come about? Has St. Ali done work in Korea before?
We have an amazing Korean barista at St Ali, Shin Kiru, who has a lot of connections in Korea. She worked with a company called Bean Brothers to find a space in Seoul for us to rent for the week. They chose Coffee Workers because it's off one of the most famous streets in Shinsa, Gangnam. Think of it as Rodeo Drive in Seoul.
Can you tell me a little more about Coffee Workers?
Coffee Workers is a fairly understated and quiet cafe in Shina, Seoul. They aren't really loud like some of the better known companies like Coffee Libre, but they do a great job. There's a 1kg Giesen roaster in the corner, and a matte black La Marzocco Linea that held its own while we got slammed at 9pm each night.
How was the reception to the popup cafe? Were people familiar with St Ali already? Excited to try an Australian roaster?
The reception was a little overwhelming. I had no idea St Ali was so well known in Korea! The cafe was really busy from day one, and all of the classes we held were sold out. I was also really interested to see that more than half our customers weren't coffee professionals. I really thought we'd only be frequented by the Korean pros, but there were so many civilian enthusiasts and people who just love trying coffee. For example, the lady who hosted the house we stayed at has nothing to do with coffee, and recognized that the bag of Ethiopian Mesele Haille I gifted her was sourced by Nordic Approach. Crazy.
[Sprudge.com editors agree that the nature of this interaction was indeed crazy.]
We've heard that the Americano is by far the most popular drink in Korea. Did you get a lot of those orders?
We were a little surprised with the number of Americanos ordered at the popup. In Australia, the ‘Long Black' is a staple beverage, but this was something else. Most people who tried our ‘Coffee Shots' really enjoyed their highly textural and super sweet flavours.
Who were the people attending the classes you offered? How did they go?
The lectures were full of roasters, baristas, cafe staff and some enthusiasts. The more intensive workshops were attended by roasters and baristas. Overall, the classes went really well and we've received a lot of positive feedback. During the classes I was answering a lot of thoughtful and intelligent questions; the coffee crowd there is definitely on top of the newest trends. In the workshop, I made and tasted a lot of different coffees at very high extractions and low strengths. Initially, the students were a bit apprehensive about this style, but were really enjoying these extractions with our light roast style.
Did you manage to try coffee any other places while you were there? Any particular stand outs?
The best coffee we had was at Anthracite Coffee Roasters. They're roasting is quite light but still well developed, and their espressos are made very well. The barista who served us there also attended our after party til the end, and was still totally on point when we arrived the next day. Solid effort. I also had a great espresso at the newer Coffee Libre cafe. It's a wonerful space with amazing textures and surfaces everywhere you look.
How did you find the coffee to be on your trip? We were pretty blown away by the range of roast degrees (all well done for their style) in the Coffee Collection 2014, profiled recently on Sprudge. Did you find a similar range among the shops you went to?
The coffees I tasted were generally pretty well roasted. During my workshop I asked guests to bring 250g of coffee so we could make them together and have some dialogue about different roasting and extraction styles. A majority of these coffees were what I'd call light espresso roasts, and then there were a fair few darker, smokier espresso roasts. I can still recall one coffee from Monster Roasters, a Kenyan Tegu, that was extremely well developed and very very light (my favorite). We pulled a few traditional espressos, and also experimented with making a few lungos at around 4% strength which were quite novel for, and enjoyed by the Korean ‘americano' palate.
Can Korea look forward to more St. Ali excursions in the future?
Absolutely. We're super keen to get back to Korea. There's plans for Japan in the middle of the year, and very likely South Korea in November for the Cafe Show. Can't wait!
Alex Bernson is the assistant editor at Sprudge.com. Read more Bernson here.