It was here that I officially fell in love with cafe culture. Most think of Italy as the epicenter and birthplace of the modern day cafe, which is not disputed, but fewer know of other cultures that have adopted the idea and taken it on as their own. Australia is one of them. I should mention that Australia’s cafe culture is very strong, but doesn’t quite have the flamboyance that defines the Italian ritual. Namely, the buzzing vespas whipping around corners, pulling up and parking next to several others, and dashing inside a cafe for their morning espresso. Very noticable too are the sounds of cups, saucers, spoons, steam-wands, and the bow-tied barista bursting into the streets on nearly every corner. It is this exact moment that you realize what it could and should be like. That coffee is about people, and their daily lives. How have we turned that beautiful tradition into drive-thru chains and 20 oz. caramel frappuccinos?
Back to Oz. So what makes Australia’s culture notable and unique? Well, like Italy it seems that there are more cafes around than anything else. Not just on every corner, but rather several on one block. Even occasions where nearly entire blocks were comprised of some form of cafe. At this point we are using the term a bit loosely, and may be including businesses that are not coffee-centric, but hey, I’m painting a picture okay? What struck me was how integrated good coffee was to the Australian diet. They know it, but they don’t know it. I mean, even a gas station in Australia has the potential to make a decent shot and steam an acceptable jug of milk. This blew me away. In America, the emergence of coffee-centric establishments has been on the rise since the 90’s, particularly in the northwest, but has not yet affected your basic cup of joe. To add insult to injury, you can also make a lot of money as a barista in Australia. It’s typical, in a nice coffee shop, to make anywhere from $20-25 dollars an hour as a new hire. I enjoyed this perk myself, and was able to afford a lot more as a barista in Australia, than previous stints in England or America.
Attitude. While the Italians do it with collared shirts and vests, the Aussies do it via their ability to create unique environments. They are not afraid of mixing and matching, of designing their spaces, nor of graffiti or street art. Newtown Social Club (pictured above), is a great example of this and resides on Brunswick Street in Melbourne. This tiny little shop was a favorite haunt because of the quality of product, the warm and eclectic furniture, and its position in one of Melbourne’s more artistic neighborhoods. Another noticable and enjoyable trait of many of these cafes is the youthful spirit. These are not sterile and uninspired spaces with lethargic staff, these are buzzing places abound with social spirit. They’re exciting.
Quality. Here is the twist. Where America lacks in overall cafe culture, it makes up for with people who fight the good fight. People who want to change the perception that American coffee is undrinkable. These people have grown in number over the years, and because of it, some of the best coffee in the world (in my humble opinion) can be found right here in the US. Australia seems not to have this urgency in their culture to defend their coffee, frankly because they have been doing it pretty well for quite some time. Having said this, a similar sub-culture of coffee nerds is emerging in Oz, with shops like Campos defining what an elevated coffee experience should be like. While I find the shop a bit cold at first, Campos never makes a mediocre drink. I can rely on them for this, and always get a well-crafted coffee.
So where does this leave things? Well, no doubt there are many different ways and angles from which to judge coffee shops. I try to have an open mind and also to realize that at the end of the day, its a cup of coffee. Now, I’m not dumbing down the social and environmental impact, or the sustainability or ethics with which coffees are sourced, but as a customer I’d love to be able to ignore it from time to time. This becomes possible when you find the right coffee shop, who’s owner truly gets it. It is our responsibility as cafe owners to ensure that your coffee has been sourced properly, roasted appropriately, and prepared diligently, so that you don’t have to. For those of you who don’t currently live in Australia or Italy, and who can’t wait for Astro Coffee to actually open, I suggest making a stop through Nickels Arcade in Ann Arbor for the best coffee within an hours drive, Comet Coffee.
Drink up, buttercup..