Monday, 14 March 2011

Freestyle surfing

What do you get when you cross a grown man in a bib with a coffee bong and a micro roastery? The third wave of coffee. Or is it the fourth wave now? I don't know, I’m still on my boogie board surfing the second espresso wave...dude.

I hadn’t been home to Australia in the 4 years I’ve been living in London so thought it was time for a trip back to check out what has been happening in my absence.

If you thought London was starting to get seriously geeky about coffee, you ain’t seen nothing yet if Australia is any indication of where it’s  all heading.

There seems to have been an explosion of micro- roasters, single origin coffees, lighter roasting, drip brewing, hi-tech gadgetry and perhaps most inexplicably, baristas wearing bib aprons.

Never one to leave cafe exploration to chance, I went armed with a long list of ‘the best’ cafes to try in Melbourne.  First stop, Proud Mary: the Fat Duck of the Melbourne café scene.

Located down a side street in Collingwood, (what used to be a pretty dingy part of Melbourne but now home to all the hot new cafes, bars and restaurants in town) Proud Mary is a modern and airy warehouse conversion that epitomises the pointy end of the coffee revolution in Melbourne.

There’s an impressive array of coffee paraphenalia on display to provide customers with a choice of  extraction methods: syphon, filter, clover, cold drip, or if you’re old school, an espresso based coffee made with the world’s first custom built 6 group Hydra Synesso machine which allows the baristas to adjust the temperature of each group head to suit particular single origin or blended coffees. Each day they offer 3 different single origins as well as 2 blends for their espresso based coffee drinks. And that's just the espresso.

It was here that I had one of the most amazing coffees I’ve ever tasted.

60mls of cold drip single origin Sumatran coffee extracted over 12 hours, served on ice. The taste was indescribable – so sweet, clean and smooth, it was like a fine liqueur.

From there I visited the cafes set up by the Seven Seeds coffee roasters:

Brother Baba Budan in  Little Bourke Street (Photo courtesy of Breakfast Out)

De Clieu in Gertrude St, Collingwood
The original, Seven Seeds in Carlton. Note men in bibs.

The East Brunswick Project in Nicholson St who roast their own coffee called Padre.

St Ali in South Melbourne

The Sensory Lab in David Jones in the city,

More men wearing bibs.

And the Auction Rooms, who roast Small Batch coffee, in Errol St, North Melbourne

As I went down my ‘best of’ list I was starting to feel a little bemused and alienated, and not dissimilar to how I felt during the Summernats car festival when I was living in Canberra. There seemed to be lots of boys revving their engines and admiring their reflections in big shiny machines, speaking a language I didn't understand.

This new wave of coffee does provide some good entertainment (as does Summernats) but what I really wanted was a welcoming space to catch up with friends. What had happened to the little unpretentious and quirky cafes that I loved about Melbourne and where were all the chicks? Fear not, as they are also there in abundance, going about their business, serving fantastic food and coffee but without quite so much noise or petrol fumes.

At Bell Jar in Smith Street Collingwood,

Photo courtesy of Melbourne Gastronome
Milkwood in Nicholson St, Brunswick East

Mitte in Michael Street, North Fitzroy


Pope Joan in Nicholson Street, Brunswick East

Amsterdam in Richmond

Photo courtesy of Melbourne Gastronome
Cornershop in Yarraville

and North in Rathdowne St North Carlton

When someone asked me on my return what was the one thing I wanted to steal from Melbourne cafes for Lantana, I had to think long and hard. The cafes where I had the most enjoyable experience were not necessarily the cafes where I’d drunk the best coffee, seen the most impressive barista theatre, eaten the best food or seen the most stylish fitout. My favourite cafes were the ones where I felt the warmth, individuality and personality of the staff and the owner. They were the cafes that felt like they weren’t copying someone else’s style or following the latest trends just for the sake of it.

I read a comment on twitter recently by a visitor to London who wrote “I am left with a feeling I've visited the same coffee shop on different sides of town. Are the London third wave independents a new chain?”

It has been something that has been nagging me recently too as I see some of the new cafes opening in London that seem to be copying other cafes or following fads and lacking in individuality. 

When I read that twitter comment I knew what I wanted to hold onto from my trip back home. A commitment to individuality. 'Independent' is an ethos, not a brand.  I'm going to surf my own wave.