It’s 9:30 on Sunday morning and at Stagger Lee’s, a cafe in the fashionable Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy, things are heating up. A young crowd, bleary-eyed and languid, is rolling up for coffee and eggs and all the other things that, depending on who you believe, are a perfect cure for the inevitable results of a well-spent Saturday night.
Nobody, though, has bigger bags under their eyes than me. I’m battling jet lag, having arrived about 12 hours earlier. It’s a good city to be tired in, though; I’m here to find out about coffee in what, I’m assured, is just about the most coffee-obsessed place on Earth — and the home, some say, of the flat white, currently the world’s most en vogue way to absorb caffeine. Stagger Lee’s, a bare-timber-and-brick place, is the first stop on a week-long trawl through Melbourne’s complex, multifaceted coffee scene.
Just how complex things are is quickly becoming clear. There’s a huge variety of apparatus behind the bar at Stagger Lee’s. I know what the long white thing is — an espresso machine. I’m just not sure about the other stuff. I’m puzzling it out when a server strolls up to my table. “How are you getting on with the menu?” he asks, not unreasonably. “Can I get you a coffee?” I stutter something about not having made my mind up.
I decide to be adventurous. I forgo my staple, the flat white, in favor of filter coffee made with a single variety: Maputo La Nube from Ecuador. Served in a glass, it’s full of subdued bitterness, with a sour tang that takes me by surprise. I’m not getting much in the way of floral and cherry flavors, though, nor caramel sweetness, as the menu suggests I should.
It’s obvious I need help, so on Tuesday morning — still a little groggy — I head off to meet Matt Holden. Matt is the editor of “The Age Good Cafe Guide,” a book that named Stagger Lee’s the best new cafe in the city last year. If anyone can help me, it’s him. We meet at Seven Seeds, a converted warehouse in Carlton that was named cafe of the year last year and where the (very good) coffee of the same name is roasted.
It’s a drizzly morning and Seven Seeds is pretty much full at 10, mostly with students from the nearby university. At the table next to us, three girls coo and purr as they sample one another’s food. I’m interested to find out, first of all, how it is that Melbourne has developed this incredible coffee culture. “There’s a lot of reasons,” Matt tells me. “There was a huge influx of people from the Mediterranean after the war — Italians and Greeks — who brought coffee with them. And then there was Australia’s licensing laws, which meant pubs had very stringent opening hours — that left an opening for coffee.
“And Melbourne has always had a bohemian side. It’s always attracted people from across Australia who want something more interesting; I came here from Perth in the 1980s, because by comparison there was nothing there.”
The rest of Australia has changed a lot since then, but Melbourne still leads the cultural charge. It’s not ashamed to shout about it, either. When I arrived at the airport the previous evening I’d been struck by signs boasting “You’re in Australia’s coffee capital,” which, in small type at the bottom, detailed how much you’d pay for the cheapest cup in each of the airports’ five java-selling outlets.
At both Stagger Lee’s and Seven Seeds, though, coffee is only part of the attraction. Food — in particular breakfast — is equally important, a point driven home when I visit the Auction Rooms. It’s in North Melbourne, a rapidly gentrifying area that, with its wide roads and semi-rustic architecture, has the laid-back feel of an Australian country town.
When I arrive at the Auction Rooms, with its high ceiling and faux-industrial polish, it’s already teeming with families and groups of friends. I take a seat and have a look at the menu; there’s a breakfast board of grilled chorizo, an ocean trout croquette, feta, avocado puree, a soft-boiled egg with rye toast slices (“soldiers”) and a black or white iced coffee (for about US$15.50), for example. It’s a remarkably diverse and sophisticated offering, I tell Andrew Kelly, owner of this cafe and roastery Small Batch, as he sits down to discuss Melbourne’s coffee obsession with me.
“I think that’s the way we’re going now,” says Andrew, 41, who taught himself about coffee after landing a job on a cart at the city’s exhibition center 12 years ago. “For a long time in Melbourne, coffee was fetishized. We’re more grown-up now, it’s more about the cafes than the coffee. It’s about food now, great alcohol, too. And we’re focused on making your coffee more delicious, too — there’s still some work to be done there.”
That’s a relief. I was a bit worried that my allegiance to the flat white would mark me out as irredeemably gauche in a city where some see milk as an affront to beans. Andrew, who is enjoying a “Barista’s Breakfast” (two cups — filter and espresso — and a glass of sparkling cascara tea), settles my nerves and goes on to address the question of the flat white. Like everyone else I ask in this city, he’s not about to claim it for Melbourne alone. “It’s a lot like [the actor] Russell Crowe,” he laughs. “Both Australia and New Zealand claim him. It’s fun.”
Melbourne is a fun city, as I’m quickly discovering. After leaving the Auction Rooms, I head east, toward Carlton and Fitzroy, where the streets are full of restaurants and bars. I drop in at Everyday Coffee and break my longstanding one-coffee-a-day rule. It’s a small shop where various coffee-related products are artfully arranged on shelves, where relaxed young people sit peering at the screens of Apple products and occasionally chatting to their friends. Now and then, a peel of laughter breaks out. I order a filter coffee, from the growers Leonardo Lopez via Small Batch, and take in the starkly white space.
It’s the sort of cafe you can find across the Western world, but the proliferation of coffee roasters and high-quality venues in Melbourne sets the city apart. It seems to me that Melbourne’s combination of open-mindedness and wealth makes it extremely fertile ground for high-quality food, beer, wine and, of course, coffee.
And when I say wealth, I mean it. Australia’s abundance of minerals has helped trigger a twodecade-long boom. It’s not something that the natives necessarily appreciate, Matt told me. “It’s not just a weekend thing” that these cafes are full for breakfast, he says. “People don’t realize how rich they are.”
The next day, Thursday, I’m in a rush so I head for another of the city’s smaller coffee-shops, where food is restricted to a few cakes and muffins. Before leaving for Melbourne, I’d asked for recommendations on social media and one name kept coming up: Patricia. I find it down a nondescript lane off Little Bourke Street, but it’s hard to miss: there’s a smartly dressed line trailing out the door.
It’s a small room, really, although the high-quality tiling (black and white, spelling out “Standing Room Only” on the doormat; purest white on the back wall) as you enter demonstrates that this is a bit more than a hole in the wall. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s version of “I Put A Spell On You,” an appropriate choice, plays as an intense young man in a brown leather apron make my white. It’s a quick process, in and out, but the coffee — a blend from Seven Seeds — is as delicious as any I’ve had: rich, elegantly bitter and smooth.
It’s time for another wander. You really can’t avoid coffee in this city. Having traversed downtown — or the Central Business District, which is its rather uninspiring official name (CBD for short) — I’m walking down Flinders Lane when I pass Cafe Kinetic, which has a queue of people in front of it. “What did I order here?” an American-accented young man asks his colleague. “I just followed your lead.” It’s a piccolo, he’s told, a small latte.
Two steps further, across AC/DC Lane, there’s another coffee shop — called Bullrun — and another line. “A flat white, but a bit cold,” a woman asks (an odd request, I think, but each to their own). I can’t think of any city I’ve ever been to — and I’ve never been to some of the coffeeobsessed cities of the Pacific northwest and New Zealand, I must admit — where you’d find queues outside two adjacent coffee shops. Good coffee is everywhere, in huge abundance.
And it’s not a new thing, either. Matt alerted me to a place called Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar, in the center of town, a survivor of that first wave of Italian and Greek immigrants. It opened in 1954 and has been owned by the same people, Sisto Malaspina and Nino Pangrazio, since the early ’70s.
It seems too good to miss, so, on my final day in town, I stroll down to Bourke Street. There’s a sprinkling of customers sat along the long bar, one of whom is in conversation with the barista, who, I subsequently discover, is named Paul Panetta. I order a latte — served in a glass — and listen. The wooden bar itself doesn’t appear to have changed in a fair few years. There’s a kitchen at the back and a glass cabinet full of cakes. The menu offers Italian staples — lasagne, minestrone — and there’s an old radio behind the bar that looks like it might have come from Europe in the ’50s.
Spotting my chance during a gap in his conversation, I ask Paul a few questions. He’s been working here for 38 years. Has it changed? “No, I’ve had the same bosses all that time,” he says in an accent that’s a beguiling mixture of Melbourne and Italy. “It’s the same coffee. If you like strong coffee, you come here. Some young people don’t like that — but we have got customers who have been coming here for years.”
Pellegrini’s drips with Melbourne history. I ask Paul about the photo behind him; turns out it’s one of the owners, Malaspina, with the Australian Rules Football Championship Trophy back in the 1990s, when his team, Essendon, was champion. Paul shakes his head and smiles. “I support Carlton,” he says. A traditional powerhouse, they’re struggling at the moment. “It’s never been so bad.”
Paul’s sadness is more pantomime than serious, which is about how it should be. It’s hard to be unhappy for too long in Melbourne. Life in this blossoming Australian city, it seems to me, can rarely have been so good — especially if you love coffee.
Hawkes is a London-based freelance journalist.
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