It’s a sad paradox: some of the world’s best restaurants serve some of the world’s worst coffee. Thirty per cent of Michelin-starred restaurants, apparently, serve Nespresso. It’s hard to say why; perhaps because the burning cup of ashen brown liquid appears once the main event is over, so it’s an afterthought. “The Michelin Guide has two lines on its coffee criteria,” says Tim Varney. “It needs to have a crema and be served in a correct cup.”
Thankfully, times are changing. Attica, for instance, recently switched to venerable specialist roaster, Proud Mary. Lûmé serves only filter brews by Small Batch. But it was Noma, like in so many other instances, that set the trend. And Varney played no small part.
After stints at Illy coffee and the Tate Modern gallery in the UK, Varney took a position with Tim Wendelboe just as the world barista champion was opening his roastery in Oslo. (For readers without a BeanScene subscription, Wendelboe is a hero of coffee’s third wave, pushing green beans with very high standardised-cupping scores that are lightly roasted for filter brews, emphasising “transparency” over characteristics brought out through the roast). The Melbourne boy continued to make good in Norway, taking over roasting, green-bean sourcing and ultimately operations for Wendelboe.
And that’s when he met René Redzepi. “I used to help organise the Nordic Barista Cup, and we had René speak there,” Varney recalls. “At the end of the talk, he proclaimed he wanted to serve the world’s best restaurant coffee. Tim and I said to one another we had to be the ones to help him do that. Just as I was leaving Oslo, we managed to get our foot in the door at Noma.”
At the time, Noma was using a “relatively okay” roaster in Copenhagen. Varney and Wendelboe talked it into upping the ante. Since 2013, Noma has offered a Wendelboe roast, brewed in a V60 filter and served in a handmade vessel by head sommelier, Mads Kleppe. “They didn’t really filter the water that well, and they brewed it in a French Press,” he says. “Famously, the water is pretty atrocious in Copenhagen, so they’ve had to reverse-osmosis the water and put lots of work into that area. But they’re used to having all that mad attention to detail.”
Naturally, when Noma announced it’d be embarking on its Australian pop-up, Varney got a call. He’d been working with Andrew Kelly at Small Batch, and had just decided to go out on his own. “I have a really intimate knowledge of what Mads likes to drink, both from a coffee perspective and from a wine perspective,” he says. “Having a good idea of the ethos of Noma, and the experience, really helps narrow it down.”
For the restaurant’s 10-week residency in Barangaroo, Varney and his business partner, Tim Williams (yes, there are a few Tims in this story), will roast two Ethiopian varieties: a Bifdu Gudina with a tropical-fruit vibe from the country’s west for filter, and a more floral, citric Debello from the south for espresso. The flavour profile and the beans’ origin was selected in close collaboration with Kleppe, but Varney’s been left to his own devices with the roast. “Mads has put a lot of trust in me with the development of the roast profile. But, there’s been a lot of back and forth about how they’re going to present the coffee,” he says. “The brew profile is incredibly transparent. It’s not that far away from Market Lane, Small Batch and Seven Seeds, with their focus on aromatic-style brews.”
The Noma roast is something of an unofficial (and rather conspicuous) launch for William and Varney’s next project, Bureaux Collective. Taking inspiration from New York’s Pulley Collective, Bureaux is a “collaborative workspace” for roasters. Essentially, cafes that want to take the next step with their coffee can sign on and share a Probat P12 roaster. They can also draw on the partners’ vast experience in the international industry – all without having to shell out for equipment. “There are a lot of well-established coffee guys who have come through places like Proud Mary, Seven Seeds and Small Batch who have a great reputation and are keen to take the next step,” says Varney. “We’re providing them with a platform where we can give them the keys and they can go for it.”
But Bureaux Collective has no intention of being a roaster in its own right. The only brew with Varney and Williams’ name on it will be served at Noma. “It has been a dream working with people like that, because they’re never going to put the brakes on anything, and they’ve done everything they can to make the quality as good as it can be,” he enthuses. “Though it’s not that unusual for Noma to put so much effort into one particular ingredient, whether it’s coffee or live prawns, or the ants or whatever.”
It’s a good thing, too. If you can make it through that waiting list, you’ll need a coffee.