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Melbourne has been long been passionate about it's coffee, but in recent times that has been elevated into a science. The place is chock-full of coffee nerds searching out the best macchiato or latte, the best coffee roaster or barista, and then squirreling on about it to like minded nerds. I'm not fond of the nerd appellation, but I'm similarly passionate about my coffee. I source only the best beans, often getting them from specialised roaster by mail order, I grind my own beans to ensure it's just the way I like it. Half of my friends are similarly nerdful.
Melbourne has been one of the leading coffee cities in the world probably since about 1990, when the public consciousness switched from instant coffee and the occasional frothy cappuccino to coincide with the emergence of a multitude of cafes throughout the laneways and arcades of the CBD, and through the inner city suburbs. At the same time coffee making came to be seen as an art – hence the barista, a groovy job looked on with respect and envy by many, and as something similar to being a good sommelier in status.
In recent years this has gone through the roof. There is probably some aspect of navel gazing in the universal reverence for coffee in this city, and the self congratulation that goes along with that. There are plenty of coffee snobs in Melbourne, and the success of a cafe will depend entirely on the quality of the coffee they put out – there is nothing more important, certainly not in the CBD where workers vote with their feet. And when Starbucks dared to open here Melbourne looked down its collective nose at them – and Starbucks failed (it's not just that the coffee lacked individuality, or that it was an American chain store – I would contend Starbucks took coffee too lightly for Melburnians taste. In a city where coffee is put out by craftsmen working in boutique cafes the mass produced department store approach is never going to work. As I said, Melburnians are great coffee snobs, but they are also purists, and know just what they want). Coffee drinking and making in the city is a serious business, and is without doubt a pretty central part of our local culture.
It has now got to the point that it also a very big business, with industries and sub-cultures all consequent of that. There are now professional coffee tasters much as there are wine tasters. The technology roasting, grinding and creating your cup of coffee has become incredibly innovative. (St Ali in South Melbourne and its sister operation, Outpost, in South Yarra, are good examples of fine coffee being taken to the nth degree). It's hard to think of another city in the world that takes its coffee as seriously as what Melbourne does, and there is good reason to think that Australia is the coffee capital in the world.
All this is good I guess for someone living here and with a passion for coffee – and yet I feel a slight misgiving at how far cafe society has progressed in the last 20 years. Is it too much? It's hard to make that claim when the quest for a good coffee counts so high. And yet I wonder if we have made too much of it. In a way it's the old difference between the amateur and the professional, one does it for love, and may fumble doing it, the other for profit – though doubtless there is still much passion. In considering this I feel a little like the man who has been sweetly flirting with a pretty girl on the tram, only to discover she's a burlesque dancer in her spare time. There's a certain piquancy, but also a subtle loss of innocence…