A different vibe

Ichanged my routine today. I left for work 15 minutes earlier than usual and after checking into the office strolled down the road to have breakfast at Liar, Liar. Liar, Liar is one of the hip caffeineophile (to coin a new word) cafes like you only really have in Melbourne. I guess there about a dozen that are generally acclaimed for the quality of the coffee they produce, which is seen as a very serious business. Liar, Liar is a brother to St Ali, another high in the charts, and the barista’s are typically hip dudes with attitude, facial hair and beanies, laid back and cool but at the same time intent on their trade – or is it a calling? 

Whatever it is I’m grateful to it – the coffee is excellent, and distinctly different even from the good stuff you can commonly get. I sat there with a latte and ordered some eggs feeling a little separate to it all in my suit. I felt like a businessman mixing out of my milieu – which is incorrect as while I am corporate in some way shape or form my heart is elsewhere, and if I could get away with growing a raggedy beard and sloping around in jeans and beanie then I’d be in like Flynn. I’m there in spirit bro. 

It’s a different vibe having a cooked brekky midweek. It’s part of the established pattern for lazy weekends, but outside of the occasional breakfast meeting rare during the week. It’s nice though, which is why I chose to do it. I was in the city the other day on some personal business and with 30 minutes to kill sat at a cafe in one of the laneways of Melbourne. I had a coffee and a serving of toasted banana bread and watched the world go by. It was a simple thing really. For about 30 minutes I felt like the still point in a world that continued to bustle around me. 

It was not quite like that this morning. There was too much activity in the cafe as the door revolved with people coming and going to collect their first coffee of the day. I was aware to that I had to return to the office soon enough. I’ll do it again though, and might try somewhere different just for the variety. Right now of course I feel that post-big brekky sleepiness. The downside of this is that I can’t curl up and have a nap. As I know too well, you can’t have everything.

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Home of the coffee nerd

A latteImage via Wikipedia

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…

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