The evolution of Australia’s coffee culture

Australia’s coffee culture

Volume three of the MilkLab Barista Social Club highlighted the evolution of Australia’s coffee culture and how dairy alternatives now play a role in the fabric of café menus.

The MilkLab Barista Series has become a unique way to unite the upcoming barista community and learn from influential industry figures.

The first series event ‘From Bean to Cup: The Coffee Bean Journey’ took place in April 2021 at Three Pence Roasters in Sydney. The second instalment, ‘Mastering the variables affecting espresso quality’, took place in May at the Coffee Commune in Brisbane with Certified World Brewers Cup and World Coffee Roasters Championship Judge Danny Andrade.

The third event on 6 December, however, was an open invitation to all. At Mecca Coffee in Sydney, registered baristas viewed the livestream of a panel discussion on the evolution of Australia’s booming coffee culture, preceded by an in-person workshop on ‘top tips for competing in coffee competitions’, led by Ona Coffee Account Manager and Milklab Master Barista Hany Ezzat.

“The biggest point I emphasised was the self-development that comes with putting yourself on the biggest coffee stage in Australia, the ‘upgrading’ it does to not only your coffee skills but your people, performance and life skills,” Hany says. 

He also spoke about the value of preparation leading into competitions and the importance of being familiar and completely comfortable with the rules. 

“The Australian Specialty Coffee Association competition has pushed me personally in ways I didn’t think were imaginable, no matter the result. There’s an infinite value that comes out of competing, volunteering or being involved in any way in these competitions,” he says.

More than 500 people across Australia, New Zealand and Southeast Asia then joined the MilkLab Barista Series livestream event. In addition to Hany, guest speakers included St Ali Coffee Founder Salvatore Malatesta, and Mecca Coffee Founder Paul Geshos. Coffee Curators Founder Caleb Holstein emceed the event, with the purpose to help viewers build on their industry knowledge.

Mecca Founder Paul kicked off the discussion on Australia’s evolution as a coffee nation, recalling the large influx of Italian roasters who infiltrated the Aussie market in the late 90s, early 2000s, with their imported product, including illycaffè, Lavazza, and Segafredo. 

“There were a few people roasting in Sydney at that time, but no-one was doing a good job of marketing it,” Paul says. “At that stage there was just a small group of people grinding fresh to order, which was unheard of, and steaming milk in a way they could pour latte art. From that, a little coffee community developed.”

The difficulty, Paul says, was getting insight information from the roasting community, which was quite closed off at the time.

It was hard to know what went on behind closed curtains, so it promoted me to learn more about coffee and roasting. It wasn’t until I travelled through Scandinavia that I started seeing the impact of coffee, and what was happening on the ground,” he says. 

“It’s also where I met Paul Bassett, the first Australian to win the World Barista Championship [in 2003], who then introduced me to Norway barista Tim Wendelboe and its specialty coffee scene, which was just so impressive. The coffees were super bright, super clean and complex, it was a different world to what we knew back home.”

St Ali’s Salvatore says the early 2000s was a time when there were only four or five big players in the Australian market pioneering the third wave specialty coffee. For St Ali, it was also about pioneering the direct trade movement. 

“I remember my first trip to Honduras. I went with zero idea of what I was doing with a few contacts, including one for Don Pachi Estate. I arrived with one small suitcase and a suit, which I decided to wear for farm visits. I was picked up at the airport by the Vice President of Honduras and I went around knocking on doors. One contact led to the other, and by the end, I found myself having Sunday dinner with the Petersons [of Hacienda La Esmeralda],” Salvatore says.

“For me, the epiphanic moment was when I tasted cherries off a tree. I hadn’t realised how important terroir was, and the lexicon of single estate and micro lots. It all made sense. There were many of us all chasing ‘the God shot’, including the ‘OGs’ of the specialty movement – Stumptown Founder Duane Sorenson and Intelligentsia’s Geoff Watts. But the next step was educating the customer base, because guys like us are really custodians for the farms, and we needed to protect that.” 

Ona Coffee Account Manager Hany represents the next generation of coffee professional. He was inspired to launch a career in coffee after tasting a milk coffee that tasted like blueberries.

“I left school at age 17 and started a café with the owners of a Turkish family restaurant I had worked with since the age of 11 doing dishes. Once I was ready to take the next step in my barista career, I went to the best café in town – The Cupping Room, by Ona Coffee in Canberra – and handed over my resumé,” Hany says. 

“The waiter asked me if I wanted to taste a coffee that tasted like blueberries. I had been drinking dark Italian coffee up until then, making it more than I consumed, but that one blueberry cup dragged me into the rabbit hole, and it started a love affair with coffee.”

Mecca’s Paul says that common ‘rabbit hole experience’ is also what drove him into a deep dive of the best brewing mediums to showcase the expressive nature of specialty coffee. 

“I flew to Japan to experience the culture of siphon coffee bars and replicated the idea in our Sydney shop. We had a line of customers out the door. People were completely mesmerised,” he says. 

Salvatore experienced the same “toy craze”, also investing in siphons, drippers, coffee machines, and other devices that would enhance coffee in the best and most crazy ways.

“We were just a group of coffee lovers having fun,” Salvatore says. “I’d go to Stumptown in the United States and think it was really cool because they had all the gadgets. But then it got to the point that we had everything cool going on at our own place in St Ali. Now, everywhere in the world, cafés are being mimicked to replicate Sydney or Melbourne venues.”

In the early days of St Ali, Salvatore says 97 per cent of cafés made coffee with dairy milk. Now, he estimates one in four beverages is made with plant-based milk. 

“Some people may refuse to move with the times and don’t offer dairy alternatives, but at St Ali, we offer everything,” Salvatore says.

“Our roasters cup each batch of coffee four to five times a week with dairy alternative products to ensure the correct balance. I always say to them, ‘our customers don’t taste coffee the way we cup it’, so we need to cup our coffee with dairy and dairy alternatives.”

Salvatore is a firm believer that oat milk is a market leader in the alternative milk category. He also predicts hemp-based products will see a strong global movement in the coming years as it becomes legalised, and people become experimental.

 “I think oat milk will continue to ride the 40-foot wave over the next three years and then hemp will make its move,” he says.

Paul adds that nowadays, attitudes towards dairy alternatives are largely inclusive in the roasting community.

“Many roasters have adopted the fact that dairy alternative are part of café life and are prepared to test and adjust how their coffee profiles stack up with dairy alternative products. It’s this level of care, experimentation and inspiration that people are looking to Australia for – in flavour and taste,” he says.

Hany adds that for his generation of baristas, dairy alternative drinks have been on the bar since the get-go.

“I’ve entered the coffee world at a time where dairy alternatives have been part of the café culture from the beginning. What’s been nice to see is that attitudes towards alternative milks have been extremely positive because of the quality of products available, the fact that some are more sustainable, and have added health benefits,” he says.

“Australia is quite a progressive country, so people are naturally more curious about where their product comes from. In the past two to three years, there’s been a milk war happening as people discover what’s compatible to their needs, and I truly believe MilkLab is at the forefront of cafés using dairy alternatives. Its almond milk is the number one alternative product served in cafés.”

What’s important to remember, regardless of dairy alternate preference, is that coffee is culturally specific, and customers have the right to their selection of beverage without judgement, whether it be served as espresso, filter, or with dairy or dairy alternative milks.

“Our job is to serve the customer, give them the best experience, and ensure what we deliver is top-quality,” he says. “That’s been evident from the start of most people’s coffee careers and will be the defining thing to uphold as the industry continues to evolve.” 

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This article appears in the February 2022 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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