Strike up a conversation with an Australian abroad and you will inevitably uncover a national quirk: the obsessive quest for a ‘decent’ coffee. It will usually be accompanied by disapproving tales of the watery/weak/burnt offerings that have crossed their path (unless of course you happen to be in Italy, where the tone may well be deferential, though increasingly less so).
Global chains like Starbucks were surprised when they failed to take root in Australian cities, seeming not to have noticed there was a fully formed coffee scene already in place and some very fussy customers to contend with. Coffee drinking is, in fact, a diehard national habit with real estate sold on its proximity to café strips, and baristas, roasters and even an increasing number of growers who are internationally recognised.
Rum was the country’s first favourite beverage, though it was soon usurped by tea; it was not until the 1920s that Russian refugees such as Ivan Repin opened coffee shops that rapidly popularised brewed coffee and take-home beans.
Repin is credited with paving the way for the espresso onslaught of the 1950s. As Italian migrants arrived in number to Australia, prized stove-top coffee makers were often stashed in their suitcases. Roasting businesses, distribution networks and Italian-style cafes soon followed. Things fired up in earnest when the first Gaggia and Cimbali machines arrived in the early 1950s, care of Peter Bancroft and Gino di Santo respectively.
Melbourne’s Pellegrini’s restaurant (66 Bourke St, Melbourne) is an ever-enchanting survivor of this generation. The brew in their signature Duralex glasses may be unremarkable to contemporary tastes, but the Italian brio, urban bonhomie and original décor are as authentic as it gets.
As the inner city neighbourhoods rapidly gentrified in the early 1980s, Sydney’s Bill & Toni’s (74 Stanley St, East Sydney), The Arch (81 Stanley St, East Sydney) and Tropicana (227B Victoria St, Darlinghurst) – all still serving up flat whites and foccacia – lured a new generation who claimed cappuccino-drinking as its own.
Italy’s Lavazza coffee began its export business in Australia around this time, a whole decade before chancing it in UK and US markets, while local outfits like Melbourne’s Genovese and Grinders, and Brisbane’s Merlo (Ann St, Brisbane; www.merlo.com.au) became household names.
While the original family-run roasters still prosper, and most of Australia remains content with a simple latte or short black (perfectly made, of course), the cities are now in the grip of coffee’s third wave: single origin beans, premium small batch roasts, terroir and alternative brewing methods such as the Clover syphon, filter and cold drip. They are part of a global phenomena that includes Chicago’s Intellegensia, Seattle’s Caffé Vita and Oslo’s Tim Wendelboe. It is the era of the micro-roastery.
In a Melbourne warehouse conversion that wins in the sustainability as well as style stakes, Seven Seeds (106 Berkeley St, Carlton; www.sevenseeds.com.au) is also part café, part retail outlet and part instructional facility with a mission to ‘relentlessly’ pursue coffee excellence. The city’s Sensory Lab (297 Little Collins St; www.stali.com.au/sensory.php) ratchets up the science; white-coated staff will analyse customer’s palates before recommending a single origin or blend.
Sydney’s booming Single Origin (60-64 Reservoir St, Surry Hills; www.singleorigin.com.au) has a Surry Hills flagship that is the favoured pitstop for the local creative industries, with tables spilling out onto the footpath and across the street. They uniquely offer a small batch version of Australia’s other much loved brew – pale ale.
Cup Specialty Coffee (85 Russell Street; www.cupcoffee.com.au) in Brisbane’s West End sources seasonal and traceable green coffee and still roasts on site in view of its café, fitted out to play to the light industrial setting and the owner’s DIY ethos. Gold Coast stalwarts, Crema Espresso (27 Tedder Av; www.cremaespresso.com.au) might be a tad more traditional, but have been roasting on the coast for years. And as Queensland and Northern NSW’s coffee industry grows, expect Brisbane and Byron Bay’s roasters to be proudly using local beans soon.