Coffee Club: Changes in Australia’s Café Culture

Coffee South Yarra-Katherine Lim
  • Article by Amy Bradney-George
  • April 02, 2015 at 11:32 AM

Australians might still be associated with alcohol around the world, but now the average Aussie is just as likely to have a latte as a lager.

Café culture has boomed over the past five years as more and more people wake up and buy their coffee. It’s not just about the caffeine hit though – people are well and truly engaged in what makes a good coffee and what cafes will give them the best experience.

Unlike other countries where a daily cup of joe is the norm – such as the US, Canada and the Netherlands – Australia has shunned coffee chains like Starbucks in favour of smaller cafes and coffee shops. The result is an unhomogenised café culture where you could favour a place down the street, while the person next to you loves one around the corner – and both places are likely to have coffee-related awards on the wall.

Australia is also getting a global reputation for its coffee expertise, particularly when it comes to espresso varieties. As well as having a huge level of representation in barista championships, the country’s coffee offerings inspired mega chain Starbucks to launch a “new” coffee option on the North American market: the flat white. Cue ruckus over what a flat white is, what it should be and how we “do coffee better”.

But controversy aside, the Starbucks move has brought Australia’s love of coffee into the global eye, and highlights how much the average Aussie can talk about coffee. So how did such a small nation get to the point where “coffee snob” is both a descriptive insult and compliment? Let’s take a look at our country’s coffee journey so far…

Australian coffee culture origins

Centre Lane Melbourne-Rae Allen

While people overseas might be surprised by Australia’s love of coffee, it’s actually part of the country’s rich, cultural history. During the 20th century, immigrants from Greece, Italy (and France, Turkey, Austria and Hungary to a lesser extent) brought their love of coffee across the seas to Australia.

As entrepreneur and teacher Peter Baskerville explains in a Quora post, espresso coffee makers were seen as an important piece of luggage in the journey from Greece and Italy to Australia.

“The Italian and Greek immigrants loved their espresso coffee and eventually wanted to share this experience with friends in their new found home. Roasting coffee businesses, distribution networks and Italian-style cafes soon followed,” Baskerville – who has founded, owned and managed over 15 cafes – explains.

Even with the pressures placed on immigrants to assimilate – such as the White Australia Policy – coffee remained a part of Greek and Italian Australian life, before expanding to include many other Australians.

“The quality espresso coffee culture took root in Australia in the 1950s, expanded significantly in the 1980 until it finally became the gold standard for cafes and coffee shops right across the nation today,” Baskerville explains.

“While not every cafe has reached the gold standard, quality espresso coffee can be found somewhere close-by where ever you find yourself in Australia.”

The Australian Pacific College goes one step further than this by suggesting that in the past two decades Australia has developed its own coffee culture and “obsession”.

Look around any suburban street and you will find many people with takeaway coffee cup in hand even if it means juggling bags, mobile phones or prams,” an APC blog post says.

Australia’s top baristas

Over the past decade Australia has built up a reputation for producing some of the world’s best baristas, with people like Matt Perger, Luca Costanza and Paul Bassett among the many placing and winning awards at international barista events. Bassett is actually the only Australian (so far) to be crowned a World Barista Champion, taking out the illustrious title in 2003.

But even the baristas that haven’t placed or competed in competitions have a worldwide reputation for making good coffee. Australian baristas have become so well known that there have even been stories of them “taking over” major international cities including New York and London.

In a blog post titled “Is All New York Coffee Secretly Australian?”, foodie writer Liz Clayton says espresso culture in New York owes a lot to Australians.

“Though the elevation of espresso as a culture is a credit traditionally given to the Italians, and those Seattleites who followed in their wake, those who’ve grown fond of sleek, modern cafes focusing on exceptionally prepared espresso would do well to credit friends much, much further away: the Australians,” she writes.

“A coffee culture so focused on excellent espresso that filter brews are still coming around as a good idea nationally, the Australian emphasis on espresso—and its influence on New York’s cafe scene—can’t be stated enough.”

“The march of the flat white”

Flat_White_Coffee-OceanKiwi Wiki

The international presence of Australian (and New Zealand) baristas was even given a fond nickname several years ago: “the march of the flat white”. While it was just an industry insider reference to our baristas back when it first appeared (around 2011), the term also foreshadowed the widespread adoption of the flat white and it’s eventual move into the mainstream.

“It was part of a backlash against cappuccino, when people just didn’t want all that foam any more,” Paul Bassett said in an interview with The Australian back in 2011.

“The real reason the flat white has spread around the world is because a lot of baristas from Australia and New Zealand are out working with coffee producers in other countries. Their stories are shared and it’s like a natural evolution.”

While flat whites have been around in Australia since the 80s or 90s, they are still relatively new elsewhere in the world, making it a trendy option in the US, US or Germany, while Aussie coffee aficionados treat the flat white fervour with a more blazè attitude – even if not every Aussie or Kiwi is exactly sure on how to correctly make a flat white.

In a Bon Appetite feature about the surge in flat white orders in the US, former Barista World Champion (2010) Michael Phillips says very few American baristas are clear on what it is, and getting a straight answer from an Australian barista can be hard.

“People will argue all day long about what a flat white is,” he says.

“And as soon as this story is published, every Australian and New Zealander is going to chime in in the comments section and say that this guy has no idea what he’s talking about. For them, it’s a point of pride.”

According to Five Senses barista Jennifer Murray, the flat white began as a trend and “doesn’t fit perfectly into any box” as a result of its origins.

“The neat thing about trends is that they are always changing — and I actually think we are on the cusp of another shift. The truth is that speciality coffee people start most of the café trends which have anything to do with amplifying and differentiating the coffee experience,” she explains in a Five Senses blog post.

“They push the boundaries and take the time to educate their customers (for which they are often criticised) but in the end, because their ideas are sound and based on taste, eventually other cafés follow suit — all the way down the chain. And when finally the whole industry is on board, it’s time for another change: enter the next trend here.”

The rise of specialty coffee

If Murray is right, then it’s probably only a few years before Australian coffee aficionados and “snobs” start ordering something else. In fact, there’s already a whisper of a new espresso option: the “magic”. As Good Food describes it:

“A magic is a double ristretto – about 45ml of syrupy espresso – topped up with milk in a 150ml tulip cup (or is that 120ml?).”

“The story goes that it was dubbed the magic at Ray in Brunswick some time back in the early 2000s: it’s Melbourne’s gift to the coffee world,” writer Matt Holden explains, adding that it’s similar to and “just as tasty” as a piccolo.

But it’s not just espresso coffee that is being consumed by the cupful in Australia. Out obsession with coffee has led to a thriving industry with a variety of other options both in cafes and at home.

On the café side of things, some of the trendier places have begun experimenting with drip and filter coffee options. One the café side of things, there has been a surge of interest in cold drip coffee since 2013.

While espresso and other more common forms of coffee brewing are focused on heating the coffee, cold drip (as the name suggests) sees cold water drip slowly (anywhere between 5-24 hours) through the coffee to create a richer, more concentrated cool coffee drink that’s particularly popular in summer.

In an article for BeanScene Magazine, Danes Specialty Coffee Director Paul Jackson says alternative brewing is becoming a key component for trendsetting cafes around the country.

“Customers are no longer satisfied with just a quick caffeine fix. They have become more discerning in their preferences, and with this, comes greater expectations on baristas and café owners to deliver coffees with more complex flavours, and provide further education,” he says.

“Alternative brews, with their ability to highlight the unique character of coffee, are able to cater to this customer want, and offer the added advantage of theatrics.”

As well as cold drip, Jackson says there is more interest in AeroPress and immersion brewing, decoction brewing (aka Turkish coffee), pour over brewing (ie The Chemex), and vacuum filtered coffee.

“Learning these manual methods enables baristas to control every variable in the brewing process and in doing so, create a cup exactly suited to one’s preferences,” Jackson says.

On the home front, research shows an increase in the purchase of beans and ground coffee over instant coffee. A recent report from Roy Morgan found that 38.4% of the population bought fresh coffee in any given four week period in 2014, up 2.1% on figures from 2010. It also showed a 5.9% decrease in instant coffee purchasing in the same period.

The bottom line is this: as far as Australian coffee drinkers are concerned, good coffee is as much about the type of coffee as it is about the way it’s made and the type of coffee ordered in a café.

 Coffee-Single Origin Roasters

Specialty coffee and specialty cafes

The increased interest in coffee brewing methods and specialty coffee has coincided with a rise in specialty cafes, all with their own take on what constitutes as a good coffee.

The most obvious of these specialty cafes are the domain of specialty coffee houses such as Five Senses, Seven Seeds and St Ali in Melbourne, Anvil Coffee Co and Parlour Lane Roasters in Sydney and Blackboard Coffee and Little Cove in Queensland. It’s worth noting this list could stretch on and on not just around the east coast of Australian, but all over the place – there’s simply too many coffee company’s with retail outlets to name them all.

But beyond coffee company cafes, there are also quirky themed cafes springing up to meet the growing Australian consumer’s desire for more unique experiences.

Melbourne’s Cat Café, for example, provides a “fun, comfortable, and most importantly, kitty filled space for you to relax” while also serving a limited range of food and drink. As the website says: “This means you can sit back with a cat on your lap and enjoy your latte!”

The Lost Boys in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, on the other hand, offers a Peter Pan-inspired atmosphere while also focusing on being carbon neutral and organic.

Then there’s also the growing number of Paleo cafes opening up around Australia, offering either “bulletproof coffee” (black coffee with butter) or standard espresso with various milk substitutes.

The Paleo Café, for example, is a Cairns-based franchise that offers all of these options. It lists coconut milk, almond milk and lactose free milk alongside the standard cow’s milk options, and describes its bulletproof coffee as a “long black, upgraded MCT Oil & Grass fed butter”.

The fact that these kinds of niche cafes have risen alongside the popularity of speciality coffee shows that Australians are not only becoming more discerning about coffee but also about café culture in general. And as staple café fare here (like the flat white) becomes trendy elsewhere, it looks like we are set for even more unique drinks and café experiences in the years to come.

Images: Coffee in South Yarra, credit: Katherine Lim; Melbourne laneway cafes, credit: Rae Allen; flat white, credit: OceanKiwi via Wikimedia Commons; a variety of brewing methods on show at Single Origin Roasters in Sydney, credit: Iain (Flickr).

Centre Lane Melbourne-Rae Allen
Comments (6)
  • April 15, 2015 at 9:22 PM

    It is surprising to know that an average Aussie prefers to have a coffee more than beer. I would only say that cafes in Australia is really set to grow as it is witnessed that cafes in South Yarra have a unique cafe settings and latte offerings.

  • April 16, 2015 at 10:56 AM

    Great article, I actually read it over my mid-morning coffee ;)
    It’s definitely interesting that beer has become a stereotype but we drink more coffee. Maybe that’s partly also because it’s socially acceptable to drink coffee at any time of day?

  • Amy Bradney-George
    April 16, 2015 at 10:58 AM

    Thanks for commenting, “cafe in South Yarra”! I actually live in South Yarra and it’s great how many places there are that do really nice coffee. One of my favourite things is going to local cafes and indulging in a coffee while I read, write or catch up with friends. Where is your cafe? I’d be interested to check it out :)

  • April 16, 2015 at 11:04 AM

    I still struggle to get a good latte in Brisbane, but there are a few decent places. Will have to check out Lost Boys soon…

  • Amy Bradney-George
    April 16, 2015 at 11:07 AM

    J, I used to live in Brisbane and I remember there were a couple of places I used to like in West End and South Bank…I can’t remember if I ever found a good spot in The Valley but it seems to be a lot more hipster now.

  • June 13, 2015 at 4:50 PM

    Australia has one of the healthiest cafe cultures in the world. It’s very natural for Australians to visit their favorite cafe every day (or at least during the working week). The average Australian adult drinking 9.2 cups of coffee a week. This cafe culture is partly the reason why Starbucks wasn’t successful in Australia. wesendcoffee.com delivers freshly roasted coffee beans of Barista in Australia.