A Wellingtonian's Guide to Drinking Coffee in Melbourne
We decided to investigate what makes Melbourne's coffee brilliant.
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Coffee. It's the brew that unites old friends, helps make new ones and even acts as a gateway to new opportunities. 'Going for coffee' has become shorthand for some of the most important events in a Wellingtonian's life: jittery first dates over tightly gripped mugs have been successfully converted into second ones, the foundations of long-lasting friendships have been laid by a bed of freshly roasted beans, and even job interviews have been given with a faithful cup in hand.
Yet, as much as we like our bread-and-butter flat white, just across the Tasman, our Australian cousin Melbourne (also known as "the coffee capital of the world") has been doing some wondrous and interesting new things with the coffee bean. Pour overs, cold drips, AeroPresses and plenty of other exotic ways of enjoying coffee have been brewing on her shores.
We decided it was time to investigate our neighbour's cafe scene and figure out what has made her such an esteemed lady on the coffee circuit, and what we could learn from her. So, we took a quick weekend trip to Melbourne to do a bit of a qualitative research, leaving Wellington at 7:58am and arriving at 9:25am in Melbourne on the new Jetstar direct flight on Friday morning. The trip was so easy that packing a passport was almost an afterthought.
Once landed, Concrete Playground immediately began what would become a weekend of coffee transfusion; armed with nothing but a freebie tourist map lifted from the airport, a handful of suggestions, the mobile version of Concrete Playground Melbourne hosted by dodgy roaming plan (note: something to sort out before leaving the country) and a sense of direction that’s vague at best.
Ah, 7 Seeds. The Melbourne Prefab, sort of, if it got a little more ruffled and was commissioned by Greek builders. The staff at the micro-roastery are exponentially more smiley than almost every café this reviewer has experienced in her career. Mid-length ponytails swing chirpily along on waiters of both genders efficiently bouncing along on gummy Nikes, Docs and workmens boots of an unknown brand I would like to know. The combination of such brilliant service and the high-grade coffee is enough to energise any person lucky enough to call themselves a 7 Seeds customer.
In terms of coffee you’ve got a lovely choice of batch brew, pour over, cold brew, iced lattes and - if you’re visiting over Easter - a Cadbury crème egg affogato. These are made with either Brother Baba Budan; Traveller Coffee; or Hortus and in-house roasted Seven Seeds coffee. Their sources span the globe – from Burundi to Ethiopia to Brazil to Colombia, and all beans are acquired as a result of direct relationship that the roasters have with farmers. There are seasonal shifts in supply too.
As an avid member of the new cold brew cult following in New Zealand, I eagerly ordered a glassful. It was beautiful. Their cold brew is served like a good whiskey with a giant ice cube and nothing to take the edge off. Fruity, bold but not abrasive. This was followed by that creme egg affogato (couldn't not order it). The affogato is just a fun, foamy, chocolate-infused beautiful mess.
The quality fare and warmth at Seven Seeds makes us want to forego our reviewing career and just become a local there. It’s good people doing good business and that’s what we like to see.
106 Berkeley Street, Carlton
Located in a Newtonesque ‘burb, St Ali is a multi-layered multi-roomed warehouse space known as one of Melbourne's original cult-status cafes. Fairy lights adorn the ceiling, incrementally changing the lux of the space, and also giving off the appearance of being daytime glowworms spun systematically across the ceiling. Tables are packed like Tetris blocks, humans lining each one to the brim. Music and conversation hum in an indiscernable stream. For the most part the space embodies (and we are told, is responsible for) the dominant Melbourne cafe convention, that being: an off-street warehouse filled with furniture sourced from the Australian equivalent of Trade Me as well as IKEA.
While the décor may be unfinished the coffee certainly isn’t. I tried the barista's breakfast which is a three-part coffee ceremony consisting of filter, espresso and white coffee. The El Meridiano black coffee was a single origin from Rioblanco in Tolima grown on one of the ASOCEAS Co-ops. Punchy, fruity, crisp. The taste of their black coffee doesn’t easily let itself be forgotten, monopolising your mouth with a strong lurking aftertaste.
The white coffee was a little bit more friendly - a 50% Colombia Supremo from a Pitalio Co-op in Huila and 50% Brazil Yellow Bourbon from Fazenda Rainha, a Sao Sebastiao origin blend. The flat white was a soft wakeup swirling in a cup. A caramel greeting. Unfortunately, by this stage the hands were giving a little caffeine twitch, so Concrete Playground decided to forego on having that filter coffee.
12 Yarra Place, South Melbourne
1000£ Bend is the Melbourne love child of Fidel’s and Meow, with an in-house cinema and gallery thrown into the mix to keep things fresh. The place has even inherited some ex-Fidel's staff.
It's a Cuban flavoured derelict warehouse with mismatched sixties orange schoolhouse chairs, chipped wooden tables and bunch of retro TVs that don’t work but are nice to look at anyway. A few stacks of old VHSes are piled atop said TVs, as if the TVs felt that pretences had to be kept up with anyway. The barista has his own separate lonesome station, toiling under the bulk of the continual coffee orders.
They serve husky coffees by Will & Co – even their flat whites have a bit of a growl. Unfortunately we couldn’t interrogate the barista further due to the relentless rate of reproduction of the orders piling up at the barista's station. However, Will & Co's website lets us know that their Eight-o-Eight blend is 100% Arabica beans from Guatemalan and Brazilian origin. More than that we cannot say.
Chairs at 1000£ Bend are hard to come by, style is not. The staff are really, really ridiculously good looking and there’s not time you can spend rolling in makeup or nice clothes to out-dress them. Accept their lovely coffee and their beauty, and that slightly long wait.
361 Little Lonsdale Street, Melbourne CBD
A black, expansive and cavernous space, reminiscent of Matterhorn in that sense, but a lot more err, black and minimal. Code is a spatial haiku. The narrow warehouse fits a roastery, kitchen, barista station and a tasting area, yet it's laid out so starkly and beautifully that one never feels overwhelmed. Simple lights crawl up against the wall like geometric poison ivy, providing enough lighting to not feel too encumbered by the sheer blackness of the space, but just enough to remain cosily hidden from sunlight without feeling claustrophobic about it.
Their flat whites are a smooth ride, hiding their caffeinated potency in its foamed gentility. Code see coffee as a science. A very detailed chart located in the tasting room explains seasonal shifts, peak times for harvesting and plenty of other colour coded algorithms. Point being, the coffee you'll taste at Code continually changes, but remains at peak quality. On this occasion Concrete Playground tried an interesting, nutty Colombia/Brazil/Ethiopia blend called the 3056. It's also worth noting that these beans are all coming from co-ops.
15 Weston Street, Brunswick
Charging to the lead of the direct trade scene in Melbourne is Proud Mary. One does not know what direct trade properly means until experiencing the cafe-roastery owner of Proud Mary enthusiastically waving his phone around showing pictures of various farmers he works with (referring to them by first name) and even showing some pictures of Juan from Guatemala's family, just for good measure.
Needless to say, we were impressed. After a quick warm up coffee at Proud Mary, we were carted to their actual roastery and black coffee tasting bar Aunty Peg's. There you can entrench an even deeper knowledge of Proud Mary's coffee bean story. We took a quick course, courtesy of the lovely barista, on three of their single origin coffees – the Colombian Alba Nelly, the Nicaraguan Ojo de Agua COE #4 and the Rwanda Tumba.
Here is what we found out:
Alba Nelly was harvested in the Southern Colombian region of Cauca, which produces coffee as great as that from Narino and Huila but doesn’t share the same fame amongst coffee enthusiasts.
The Ojo de Agua Bourbon varietal comes from a farm in La Laguna which was one of the first farms in the ‘80s to initiate the production of coffee in the region. It garnered fourth place in this year’s Cup of Excellence (COE), the most prestigious coffee awards in the world.
The Rwanda Tumba is even further off the beaten track, and won our vote. The Bourbon varietal, which comes from the Rulindo district in the northern part of Rwanda in a mountaineous area about 1800 metres above sea level. It has a vibrant acidity to it, but comes coated with a softened almost creamy feeling in your mouth which makes it very drinkable.
Of course, these also change seasonally, but it's nice to know the story of a bean's journey anyway.
200 Wellington Street, Collingwood
Church Street is the kind of street where you’ll find a couple on their Sunday morning stroll walking their pet lorikeet. You’ll also find Pillar of Salt, a busy coffee haven which stocks all sorts of interesting concoctions.
In terms of beans, they mostly stock Proud Mary, only making an exception for one blueberry-infused 5 Seeds cold brew. Having sufficiently sampled the former, we turned our gaze to a more experimental coffee – namely Jimmy’s Indonesian iced coffee which is made with condensed milk. A neon sign stating "I'd rather live full than die(t) hungry" overlooked the procedure. Again, the cafe's 'industrial chic' game is strong. Read previous decor descriptions further up in this article to get the Melbourne aesthetic vibe, variations are minimal.
I found that Jimmy's Indonesian coffee was a great refreshing kick for when caffeine resistance has begun to set in after a weekend of marinating in the stuff. It’s a lovely, highly recommended jolt. After blowing my cover as a civilian and being ousted as a reviewer from Wellington, I was then dutifully touted around the café to inspect various pour overs and to try the previously mentioned blueberry-infused cold brew. It was quite unlike anything I had tasted before. Somehow (well, through many a straining process) the café managed to seamlessly meld together and marry the flavours of blueberry and coffee. And what a happy matrimony it was. The two sing out together in a smooth tour de force berry punch.
541 Church Street, Richmond
Auction Rooms is a building inspired by cubism with square glass mosaics and hanging barrel lamps. With a conservatory out back stocked with an indoor tree and some exposed bricks, it also has a bit of an Italian vibe going on.
Here we tried the Candyman, a house blend (again, a direct trade specialty) roasted by Small Batch Roastery Co. The espresso blend hailed from the farms of Gladis Pena in Cauca, Dubier Horta in Tolima and Wilson Gomez and Narino. It was a lovely touch crediting by name the folk who grew said beans.
As a blend, Candyman is a warm embrace from an old friend. It has a slightly underlying nuttiness with a few fruity tones which aren’t too overwhelming. A tamed blend.
Staff are happy, patient sorts who abruptly staged an intervention when made aware that for the duration of a weekend in Melbourne I was yet to to try this ever-present ‘pour over’ coffee. Then I got a friendly lecture on AeroPress as well. This was at around 4:57pm when most staff would call it a day and just gentle try and guide you out the door. Not at Auction Rooms, these guys seemed keen to find a way of discussing coffee during every waking caffeine-filled hour. Genuine passion is hard to come by, and these guys have it in acres.
103 Errol Street, North Melbourne
Jetstar are now flying direct flights to Melbourne from Wellington. For more information visit their website.
Published on April 16, 2015 by Laetitia Laubscher