This City In Australia Has The World’s Best Café Culture And Croissant. Here’s Why.
Distressed brick walls rise to fifty feet in height. Chinese periwinkles, monsteras and ficus trees add green pop to the 19th-century powerhouse. Waiters dressed in neat black and chambray maneuver between tables, dropping drinks and food. On a tray: Flat Whites; the other: poached eggs on thick toast dusted with pink sumac. What might qualify as an outstanding dining experience in any other city is just another day in Melbourne’s world-class cafe culture.
Higher Ground on Little Bourke Street opened in 2016 and aimed to evoke the all-day chill hipster vibe found in hotels like the Ace. In truth, Melbourne has been at the forefront of hospitality for more than a decade, bringing together innovative design, haute breakfast fare and third-wave coffee. The city’s manifestation as the ideal place to linger over an avocado smash with a short mac (slang for short macchiato) brewed by a talented barista has roots in immigration, wealth accumulation and a laid-back culture , which gives priority to conviviality.
Of Boats and Beans: The Italian and Greek Immigration Wave
Wide open spaces and generous wages have long been an allure of Australia. Although the first crush of Italians flocked to Australian shores during the gold rush of the 1850s, the tide that influenced modern coffee culture came in the post-war period between the 1950s and 1970s. The diaspora from the boat brought their love of espresso – and wine – with them on the sea voyage. The state of Victoria saw the largest concentration of Italians.
“Coffee in Australia is a classic story of the impact of Italian migrants after World War II,” said Mark Dundon, co-owner of Seven Seeds Coffee Roasters. “The first espresso machine came out sometime in the 1950s. The roast was dark and the espresso dominated.”
Some of the Italian espresso bars that popped up in Melbourne in the middle of the last century are still open today. However, the scene changed in the early ’80s, following the birth of specialty coffee and Aussies’ desire to linger longer in cafes, a pastime favored by Greek immigrants.
The Greeks also came after World War II. While her homeland struggled to rebuild, civil war broke out in the mid-1940s. At that time, the Australian government introduced a “populate or perish” immigration program that it offered to Greek citizens. Thousands of Greeks accepted and relocated, bringing with them their love of coffee and fondness for days of socializing in cafes.
Sowing the seeds of Specialty Coffee
Dundon has played a central role in Melbourne’s contemporary coffee development. He opened his first coffee shop, Ray, in 2002. Challenged by the inconsistencies of his coffee sources, he attended a coffee education conference in the United States, where the specialty and beverage movement was underway. With new insights, he developed a business plan to control quality by roasting the beans himself. Seven Seeds was born, first as a roastery and then as several iterations of Seven Seeds coffee shops including Seven Seeds Coffee Roasters in Carlton and Traveler on Crossley Street.
Specialty coffee and solidly good coffee in general spread throughout the city. Melbourne’s citizens demanded quality and could pay for it.
“Consumers are knowledgeable and researching. The country is affluent, which allows people to spend money on coffee, which in turn allows cafe owners to spend on beautiful interiors, especially as Melbourne residents take the time to enjoy it,” said Nicole D’Incà, General Manager of Auction Rooms in North Melbourne.
Concrete, steel and brick add an industrial touch to the lofty spaces of Auction Rooms. Behind an oversized counter, baristas pull espresso shots and brew V60 bean pour overs from St Ali, which was founded and then sold by Dundon and is one of Melbourne’s most respected roasters. “They were one of the first companies to introduce third-wave specialty coffee,” D’Incà said. “They do direct trade. There is a great relationship between farmers and roasters.”
Good wages, high standards: treat cafes like restaurants
The role of specialty coffee in the café scene is not just an industry trend, but fits into a larger ethos around food and drink. The city’s chefs and restaurateurs place a high value on local produce because, given the warm, sunny climate and abundant resources, they can be. While acclaimed Eurocentric chefs elsewhere focus on tweezers-tasting dinner service, Australians bring comparable creativity and flair to breakfast and brunch.
Other hallmarks of the Melbourne café are the knowledgeable and attentive kitchen and front-of-house staff that define the scene – a reflection of the country’s commitment to living wages. This contrasts with the US, where typing workers view barista jobs as low-paying, entry-level positions.
The colorful seasonal dishes served at Industry Beans dwarf the idea of brunch elsewhere. Instead of an overpriced plate of soggy eggs with broken hollandaise, customers are snacking on turmeric beet bagels topped with smoked black garlic cream cheese. Instead of charred, dark-roasted coffee, guests sip pour-overs brewed with high-altitude beans from Colombia’s Nariño region. While such a description might sound affected on paper, the convivial atmosphere in this converted Fitzroy warehouse belies any misguided notion of pretense.
Proud Mary, another traditional roaster serving sophisticated brunch, started a few years after Seven Seeds in 2009. The founders, husband and wife team Nolan and Shari Hirte, successfully exported the café concept from Melbourne across the Pacific to Portland, Oregon, where perishables are popular Cheese, yoghurt and kombucha are made in-house as they are at home. In 2022, Proud Mary opened a second American location in Austin, Texas.
From specialization to globalization
The extraordinary brunch pleasures have not supplanted the tradition of standing espresso. Several contemporary flagships in the Central Business District (CBD) cater to office workers, including Patricia on the corner of Little Bourke & Little William St, up an alleyway, and Little Brother Baba Budan, also owned by Little Bourke St by Seven Seeds.
Lune Croissanterie’s CBD outpost on Russell Street specializes in buttery, crunchy croissants that are worth the wait. Working with Coffee Supreme, Cameron Reid, a director of Lune Co, chose the flavors of a Guatemalan and Colombian blend for the store’s espresso and filter coffee to pair with the traditional croissant.
Over in Fitzroy, Lune’s elegant bakery and retail store is home to The Cube, a kitchen purpose-built for making croissant dough. In addition to the flaky classics that would embarrass Paris, Lune offers decadent twice-baked almond croissants and lemon curd “cruffins,” which are such beautiful foods that Instagrammers would rather admire than eat.
Lune’s croissants are so good that global food critics openly question whether they’re the best in the world. At least they’re good enough to publish a new book dedicated to the art of this beloved pastry title Lune: croissants all day, all night (Hardie Grant, 2022), written by Lune Croissanterie founder Kate Reid.
When asked what makes Melbourne the world’s largest coffee and cafe city, Reid highlighted Melbourne’s love of espresso, great service and a desire to highlight every part of the supply chain from farm to roaster. “The espresso culture is so interwoven into our lives that everyday enjoyment has been refined at the highest level.”
In just over a decade, Melbourne has transformed itself into a coffee mecca. Espresso drinks are still the norm, but batch-brewed filter coffees and pour-overs, all with a finely tuned focus on sourcing, processing, and lighter roasting, can be found in abundance. Given the high level of competition, the bar continues to rise – as does the ongoing export of Melbourne’s café culture. The Australian invasion of New York City was witnessed back in 2013 when Little Collins arrived on Lexington Street. Today, London, Paris and Singapore all have their own outposts, but nothing quite compares to a lazy breakfast paired with a cup of Ethiopian Yirgacheffe while soaking up vitamin D Down Under.
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