An eclectic brew in Melbourne

In this Australian city, coffee is a religion, one that can be bitter and intense, or light and frothy, depending on personal taste

Barista and judge Maria Paoli
Maria Paoli, a barista trainer and a former national barista competition judge, gets on a caffeine high at the Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar, one of Melbourne’s most visible and famous cafés. Image courtesy: Maria Paoli

On my first morning in Melbourne I get a sense of why the city is the coffee capital of Australia. We’ve headed over to the Artisan Bakery & Bar pop-up which is part of the annual Melbourne Food and Wine Festival that’s held in March every year. Set up on Queens Bridge Square, along the banks of the Yarra River, the bakery is famous for its bread and desserts. But it’s also serving coffee and though that’s not its speciality, this is Melbourne and they won’t get away with anything less than a mean cup of Joe. My first cup of coffee is dark, bitter and intense. Sipping on the strong coffee as I nibble on a gooey custard tart I can feel the jet lag slowly wash away.

Melbourne is justifiably famous for the quality of its restaurants and the food and wines from its surrounding regions. What many people aren’t aware of is that it is also one of the top cities in the world for a coffee experience, and also a global influencer of coffee trends.

Melburnians love to begin any conversation about coffee by telling you that Australia is one of the few countries in which Starbucks was extremely unsuccessful. In 2008, eight years after the US chain came to Australia, it shut down nearly 70 per cent of its stores. There are only five outlets in all of Melbourne, and that’s because the city is so fussy about its coffee that a Melburnian would rather avoid it than drink a brew that it considers not up to the mark.

The next morning Maria Paoli, a barista trainer and former national barista competition judge, gives us the lowdown on the city’s passion for coffee as she takes us on a café tour through its neighbourhoods.  One of the most knowledgeable people about Melbourne’s evolving coffee culture Paoli, who has been training professionals from the Hospitality and Airline Industries for the past 15 years, has the wired energy of a person on a permanent caffeine high.

An Australian piccolo latte
Piccolo latte is served in a shot glass at the League of Honest Coffee

Our first stop is at The League of Honest Coffee on Exploration Lane, a bright café with plate-glass windows and very Nordic minimalist interiors. Two sea-green painted Slayer espresso machines—the Lamborghini of coffee machines—dominate the counter. The menu offers a mix of single origin and house-blend coffees. We’re introduced to the Piccolo Latte, which Paoli explains with a laugh, “is not an Italian name because ‘piccolo’ is never used for volume in Italy. Linguistically, it’s totally incorrect, but it’s totally Aussie; the name was coined in Sydney.” Served in a tapering demitasse, or a shot glass, piccolo lattes are ristrettos (half to three-fourth of an espresso) or single espressos topped with foamed milk.

The most famous Aussie-style coffee, which has jumped across the Pacific and Atlantic on to menus in the UK and the US, is the ‘flat white’. There is some debate over its origins since, like the Pavlova (meringue dessert named after Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova) and Lamington (squares of sponge cake coated in chocolate sauce and coconut), both New Zealand and Australia stake a claim to its invention. However, the consensus among food historians is that while Australia invented the flat white, its current form was perfected by New Zealand baristas. Served in a smaller cup than a café latte, but with the same quantity of extracted coffee and a thinner band of the textured milk, a flat white is a smaller, stronger latte.

How to tell a good cafe in MelbourneThese days though, the flat white is giving way to ‘magic’, another Melburnian-style coffee, says award-winning latte artist Ben Morrow, a barista at ST.ALi, one of Melbourne’s top cafés and roasters. Magic, a double ristretto or espresso topped with textured milk, increases the intensity of the coffee and also marks a transition in the coffee drinking culture of Melbourne.

The drink came to the city with the very first British migrants in the late 1700s and early 1800s. However, this coffee was brewed in large urns and sold at market stalls in the city centre. The second wave of coffee making came with the migrants from Italy, Greece and the Mediterranean in the 1950s. Along with their stove-top pots and roasted beans, they brought with them a history and culture of coffee drinking. Pelligrini’s, one of Melbourne’s most visible and famous cafes, dates back to this period. The Italian espresso style of coffee making dominated Melbourne for the next few decades.

Today, most of the cafés in Melbourne are part of the third wave, which is more about rediscovering coffee and has strongly been influenced by Asian tastes and New Zealand roasters and baristas. Over the last six to seven years, the focus has shifted to different styles of filter coffee that produced a lighter brew, rather than just espresso and high-tech coffee machines such as Slayer, the German brand Mahlkönig, Synesso (made in America) and Italian maker, La Marzocco that allow for better control of the brewing process. There’s also more emphasis on high-quality and expensive single origin coffee beans and sometimes even micro-lots (specific batches from a single origin plantation) and specific varietals like Esmeralda and Gesha for more complex flavours.

Krimper Cafe, Melbourne
Krimper café, which is housed in a heritage warehouse

Morrow suggests that Melbourne’s cafes have entered the fourth wave: The method of making coffee is now as important as the raw materials. Algorithms, scientific principles and highly specialised equipment like refractometers which measures how much coffee flavour is extracted from the grounds, and how concentrated the coffee will be, are being employed in the quest for the perfect cup of coffee.

And customers are lapping it up. The city has roughly 2,500 cafes for a population of just 4 million people. Though about two per cent shut down every year, most are doing reasonably well while some like Hardware Societe Café have long queues outside them.

Compared to Hardware Societe, things are quieter at Krimper, a large café with a full food menu housed in a heritage warehouse that was once a sawmill and then a cabinet-making factory. In the centre of the water-blasted brick wall room, a disused 100-year-old lift car and mechanical wheels has been repurposed into a solitary dining booth.

Cold-drip coffee
Cold-drip coffee, which is prepared by steeping the grinds in room temperature or cold water and allowing the extract to drip overnight

At Krimper, we sample a rather unusual, but popular form of coffee in the city: The cold-drip. Not to be confused with cold coffee which is cold black coffee blended with chilled milk, cold-drip or cold brew coffee involves steeping coffee grinds in room temperature or cold water and allowing the extract to drip overnight. The whisky-coloured liquid is fruitier and less acidic than a normal coffee.

For the coffee purist, Melbourne is a great place to taste some of the best beans in the world, prepared in the most meticulous way. And when you do place your order, remember to have a chat with the perfectionist barista—there’s just so many ways they can do a coffee for you.

Published Forbes Life India July – August 2015

Australian coffee lingo

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