Yvan’s Sydney-Coffee Rating System

Note: This entry has been restored from old archives.

My Sydney-Coffee Rating System is what I use to “score” a coffee house. It is simply a comparison to well known Sydney coffee houses. The comparison is to either an espresso or a ristretto (where they understand the term) and is considered based on use of the “house” coffee blend (i.e. Woolloomooloo for Toby’s). It should also be noted that my image of coffee places is typically circa 2005/2006 – prior to my being exported to the UK. This list may grow a bit over time, as I need to remember new comparison points to match places I find outside of Sydney. As a result this document will occasionally float to the top as my edits alter the date.

First, I should clarify ristretto and why it is my preferred coffee. The term ristretto is basically Italian for “restricted” and when applied to coffee can simply (and inaccurately) be thought of as: espresso with half as much water (really half to three-quarters, and extraction time is also important). In my mind, and that of many more qualified coffee lovers (but there is some disagreement!), the ristretto gives the best flavour of the coffee. Just enough water to to miss out on stronger flavours overriding more subtle and interesting nuances, just enough to get more flavour and less bitterness and acid. I wont go into any further technical details, the old ‘net is already packed full!

  • Good ristretto information: Espresso Mini-FAQ
  • Rancilio Silvia, the machine I want to buy when I buy a machine (but not the matching grinder), no coffee at home for me for now though. This page also has good information on making espresso and ristretto and an indication of the variability of opinion on size (I’m at the smaller end of the scale): Rancilio Silvia Espresso HOWTO
  • Amusing and cynical ristretto article on coffeegeek.com (not a bad site in general, a lot of noise though), it really does sum the whole “thing” up though: Coffeegeek Etiquette & The Ristretto Shot
  • Beware, there is a lot of shitty information out there. The Wikipedia entry on ristretto is, at this time, pretty terrible.

Asking for a ristretto also gives a good early indication of the quality of the coffee house. A very good coffee house will attract coffee lovers who order ristrettos – and thus the baristas will know what this is. It is almost always good sign when asking for a ristretto passes without comment or question (except when they’ve misheard you and bring you a latte, it has happened). It simply isn’t worth ordering a ristretto from a big-chain store, you wont enjoy the experience, if I really need a “coffee” from such a place I get it watered down: americano style.

All in all you don’t really want a ristretto unless the coffee, grind, machine and barista are all just-right – only when lent a lot of confidence by the atmosphere of the place will I try to order a ristretto without having first sampled the default espresso of the house. In the UK, if you’re game and some of the factors seem okay you can, at a stretch, ask for: espresso with half as much water. This works okayish because on most café machines (especially in the UK) the pre-set espresso volume is set very high, in fact in many places “half the water” will give you a reasonable espresso volume rather than ristretto. For this reason I’ll try to wrangle this sort of pseudo-ristretto out of many more places than I expect a real ristretto from. Beware: It is possible to cause mental damage to the typical base-class barista you find in the average café and chain-store if you go off the plot.

Last note: Add milk to coffee and you’ve got something that isn’t coffee. My rating of a coffee place has nothing to do with milky stuff and good ristretto doesn’t imply good latte (but it is possibly a safe bet).

And finally, the rating “scale”, ordered from “coffee utopia” to “coffee purgatory” (I dare not venture beyond):

Rating: Toby’s Estate aka Toby’s

Typically: ristretto

Location: A few, but I always went to the Woolloomooloo café on Cathedral Street.

Description: The highest honour. I’ll go well out of my way for a Toby’s ristretto and they consistently make it just-the-way-I-like-it. Toby’s is the place that taught me to like ristretto the way I do and the first place I started experimenting with tasting different single-origins (thanks to them having a two grinders, one for the standard blend and one for a “single origin of the day”). I will emphasise at this point that my rating of coffee houses is, clearly, based on detailed personal preferences. While I place Toby’s at the top of my list a good friend and fellow ristretto drinker back in Sydney preferred TBA’s offering (see next) – based upon personal tastes adjacent ratings in my scale could easilly be swapped around in somebody else’s eyes.

Rating: Ten Buck Alley aka TBA

Typically: ristretto

Location: Bourke Street near William Street corner, Darlinghurst

Description: Very close to Toby’s (physically as well as coffee rating). Dave at TBA knew how I liked my ristretto and when he made it it was good, possibly they have somewhat of an advantage here since they were the closest good coffee to the office in Sydney and I had coffee there a couple of times every day! The only significant point that puts TBA below Toby’s is my preference for Toby’s earthier blend. It helps that that every barrista at Toby’s did my ristretto just right, but with Dave almost always at TBA that was rarely a problem. TBA’s and Toby’s are both well above the Sydney standard, let alone London, and a place comparable to either is likely to be worth a trip for the ristretto alone. (When it comes to food TBA wins without competition, Toby’s advantage is that they’re really only about the coffee. But this is only about coffee.)

Rating: New Orleans Cafe (omission of acute their own) aka New Orleans

Typically: espresso

Location: Corner of Pacific Highway & Willoughby Road, Crows Nest

Description: A funky café in Crows Nest, this was the closest good coffee to us back when we lived in Sydney, in Wollstonecraft. In the coffee “ball park” a level below Toby’s and TBA, New Orleans offered a consistent, though slightly too long, espresso with good, though slightly too acid, flavour. A New Orleans standard coffee stands out as excellent in London.

Rating: The Bathers’ Pavilion aka Bathers’

Typically: espresso

Location: Balmoral Beach

Description: One of those trendy destinations that I love to hate. In truth they do some pretty good food and usually provide an entirely adequate dining experience. The coffee is what one would expect of a good Sydney restaurant, consistent, a little dull and always too long. A place to have coffee because it isn’t bad and happens to be in a beautiful spot. A Bathers’ coffee is merely adequate, this is still a reasonable achievement however and can be said to be “above average”.

Rating: Gloria Jean’s aka GJ’s

Typically: espresso or americano

Location: Every-bloody-where.

Description: Chain coffee. The lowest grade coffee and only Sydney chain-coffee I’ll drink, if I’m after a coffee more for the caffeine than for the taste this is it. In fact I’ll often order an americano just “to be on the safe side”. GJ’s biggest problem is their size, the roast isn’t terrible and is actually above average (of all coffee the average is pretty low) but with a high rotation of young staff you’ll rarely get a decent barrista who can make the coffee into an espresso that is worth drinking. Places like Nero and Costa in the UK get a GJ’s rating. A rating of “not even GJ’s” can be interpreted as: You’d be better off getting a diseased cat to drink it and regurgitate it back into your cup before touching the stuff; places that deserve this rating are unfortunately common, especially in the UK.