Escapism Magazine, February 2015. Original article (p64-68).
Coffee houses of Melbourne, the caffeine addict’s paradise
To tell you the honest truth: you don’t need any help to get good coffee in Melbourne. Australia’s second city is a haven for caffeine addicts, as you’d be pretty unlucky to get a bad cup. As mayor Robert Doyle discovered when he dared suggest that “coffee is coffee; it’s not life or death” – Melburnians take their black brew very seriously. Lucky for them, and for everyone who visits, the overall quality of the city’s offering is nothing short of outstanding. But that doesn’t stop people from battling it out over who’s got the best beans in town.
Melbourne’s thing for coffee is a running theme in the cityscape, as you don’t have to walk far between watering holes. The grid that makes up the downtown area, the CBD (Central Business District), is a mixture of broad streets and tiny lanes, both equally busy as people are always popping out for a cup or three during the day. It’s not uncommon for a Melburnian to get up a little earlier just to have time to sit for a bit in a café, either for a slap-up breakfast or to just read the paper over a wake-up shot before work.
The local taste calls for a gunpowder strong brew: ask for a Short Black and get a tiny yet forceful shot of espresso that hits you at the back of the throat. A Long Black will give you the same, eased out with some hot water. Starbucks may be serving Flat Whites now but if you want a great one, Melbourne will sort you out: the Flat White is an Antipodean invention that’s been going strong since the 1980s. Speaking of coffee chains, you’ll find very few of them in Melbourne: Starbucks closed almost all of its Australian branches back in 2008, realising they were selling ice to Eskimos.
While coffee was originally brought to Australia by the First Fleet of ships from England, Melbourne’s love affair with coffee started in earnest during the 1830s, during the Temperance movement. Italians, who remain the city’s second-largest ethnic group after the Anglo-Celtic, took it to the next level when they arrived after World War II, bringing with them the custom of espresso.
Today, this tradition has blossomed into a city that’s nothing short of obsessed with coffee, to the point where baristas become local celebrities and people proudly proclaim themselves to be coffee snobs. In addition to the usual fare, espresso menus often offer up things like single origin beans, cold brews, signature blends, or siphon drips, all created by expert hands who see their jobs as a calling.
Don’t worry, you can get decaf or soy milk in a Melbourne coffee house too – after all, what’s most important to a good barista is that customers enjoy themselves. Just don’t ask if they have any flavoured syrup.
Market Lane Coffee, 163 Commercial Road (Prahran)
The proprietors of Market Lane Coffee run a single-minded operation, obsessively sourcing “memorable” coffees that can stand on their own without blending. Serving only beans that are in season, there is full transparency around the process too, meaning the barista will probably know who grew the beans and how they got from there to your cup. Located next to Prahran Market in an airy building that mixes glass and steel, Market Lane Coffee takes its role as educator very seriously, offering free tastings, or “cuppings”, every week. If that doesn’t inspire confidence, we don’t know what will.
Atomica Caffé, 269 Brunswick Street (Fitzroy)
It’s a bit rough around the edges, with the peeling paint and scruffy decor, but you’d expect that in Fitzroy. Atomica Caffé fits right in with the funky vintage and cool design shops on Brunswick Street, but don’t let that distract you from the fact that this place has a heck of a reputation for its beans. Roasting its custom mixes on site twice a week, Atomica’s style is to deliver the goods without fuss or frills, keeping flavour squarely in focus. Duck into the dark interior with the chequered floor, bring a book and hide from the world but not for long: in 20 minutes that caffeine will kick in.
The League of Honest Coffee, 8 Exploration Lane (CBD)
Coffee is a way of life for the proprietors at the League of Honest Coffee, who serve up single-origin or custom-mixed brews, roasted in small batches with the goal of “create a fulfilling flavour profile for every bean”. As hardcore as this may sound, rest assured the shop on Exploration Lane is just the opposite: a light and airy space where concrete floors meet wooden ceilings, with friendly baristas inviting you to sit and relax. Coffee snobs will appreciate the Slayer coffee machine, the ultimate reassurance that this place really is second to none.
Pellegrini’s, 66 Bourke Street (CBD)
Melbourne’s first espresso machine was delivered to this address in 1954 – at least that’s what the proprietors claim, and we have no reason to doubt them. Pellegrini’s is one of Melbourne’s oldest coffee houses, and a proud piece of Italy. Everyone come to Pellegrini’s: kids, office workers, Saturday shoppers, theatre-goers – everyone is encouraged to take a seat at the counter or communal table, and order a shot or two from a waiter in a white shirt. You could even have lunch – it’s not always listed on the board, but they often serve up some pretty decent lasagna or gnocchi.
St ALi, 15-18 Yarra Place (South Melbourne)
Walking through the eventless streets leading up to St ALi, you’d never think there’d be a world class coffee roastery hiding around the corner. The converted warehouse makes for a great place to linger, as the spacious café has plenty of rugged atmosphere with its mish-mash of chairs, plants and coffee sacks. If you have time, stay for lunch: the eggs are excellent. Though the main draw is the coffee, which is roasted “with care” and brewed “to exacting specifications”. In any case, you can’t go wrong with St ALi: come and hang out a while, bring your friends, and leave jittery. Remember what it says on the wall: “Decaf is like kissing your brother.”