It was back in 1788 that coffee first came to this lovely country with the First Fleet sailing from Britain. During this time, however, coffee and the locals didn’t exactly hit it off. Perhaps this was because the coffee brought by the First Fleet was of questionable quality.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t until the 1830s that cafés opened up in Australia. It has been indicated by historians that this was a result of the Temperance Movement in the 1820s. In short, this means that the abstinence from alcohol led former alcoholics and newly proclaimed teetotalism to seek out a new addiction.
However, much like the first arrival of coffee, the addiction was short-lived. It wasn’t until the post-war 1950s that coffee began its revolution within Australia.
Sometimes referred to as an espresso boom, this period saw European immigrants fleeing to the warmer shores of Australia after the terror of the Second World War. As they populated and colonised, they soon realised they were missing the authenticity of their coffee from back home.
Therefore, it was these immigrants who began setting up some of the first successful cafés in and around Australia. Here in Melbourne, many Italian immigrants did just this in the inner city suburbs. Namely, Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar (still alive and selling today), Mario’s and Blackcat Café. The Italian immigrants treated coffee differently to how it had previously been treated, with much more focus on creating the best ‘crema’ for a tastier brew.
Fast forward 50 or so years, and coffee is a fundamental component of contemporary society in Australia. Simultaneously, café culture has become an undeniably ubiquitous entity in itself and a very real part of Melbourne’s own culture. Indeed, tourists now specifically visit Melbourne due to its infamy as the coffee capital of Australia.
Why does Melbourne have the best cafes in the world?
Does Melbourne have the best cafes in the world? What a question – who's been everywhere, who has ever tasted the coffee in every country? But it makes you think about what makes Melbourne cafes so good, and it's an excuse to spend some time investigating. After lounging at communal tables around town, we came up with 11 reasons why we think Melbourne's cafes are the best.
One thing about Melbourne cafes is that there is no template for a "Melbourne cafe": the best are embedded in their neighbourhoods and take their character from them, in design and food and in the kind of people who hang out in them.
So in Collingwood, you might find yourself drinking filter coffee in an old shop front that's been converted (with sledgehammers and paint rollers) into a downbeat brew bar (Everyday Coffee) alongside a tableful of Macbook Air-tappers or sipping a silky flat white in a red-brick textile mill that's become a destination for cafe-goers, like Proud Mary.
South of the Yarra, it could be that back-lane building that became the prototype warehouse cafe (St Ali) or The Kettle Black, which emerges surprisingly from a grand, lacy terrace house with a postmodern apartment block grafted on top.
In Brunswick, some young folk with beards and big glasses turn a dead corner shop into a good spot to hang out and drink coffee, and the whole neighbourhood joins in. At A Minor Place, the corner comes alive with benches on the footpath. Dogs hitched to the old verandah post and crowds at the tables inside.
In Reservoir, another row of dusty shopfronts in a forgotten side street gets an op-shop refit to become Lady Bower Kitchen. At the same time, in Kew, a brother and sister convert their local milk bar, keeping the homey feel and the lolly jar on the counter, but adding a Synesso and food from a one-page menu of suburban brunch faves at Adeney Milk Bar.
Footscray has a new cafe made, appropriately, out of shipping containers planted on a landscaped vacant lot (Rudimentary); Carlton has Brunetti, the last word in New World Mediterranean style, a cafe that never sleeps and where the brass and marble trace the journey of Melbourne's Italians from the poorhouse to the townhouse. At the same time, the CBD is dotted with coffee holes in unlikely places – from station underpasses and switchboard cupboards to office lobbies and the entrance behind St Paul's – and it seems there's a trendy coffee bar down every one of Melbourne's famous laneways.
They're not all in Fitzroy.
...even if sometimes it seems that way. Good cafes are spread through suburbs as diverse as Reservoir (hello again Lady Bower Kitchen) to Mordialloc (Hendriks), Gardenvale (Omar and the Marvellous Coffee Bird), Werribee (Corinthians), Burwood (Foodrinkery) and beyond. Build it, and we will come – for good coffee, creative, tasty food and casual but special spaces to enjoy it in.
Not just for hipsters
There might be colourful tattoos, big glasses, craft beards and skinny jeans, but not everyone can be pigeonholed by eyewear or facial hair. Research by Roy Morgan earlier this year found that 63 per cent of Melburnians went to cafes to drink coffee – we can't all be hipsters or ladies having lunch.
You also see workers swinging corporate lanyards or wrapped in high-vis vests, parents with pushchairs and dog-walkers with poodles, Schnoodles and Labradoodles. We might be catching up with old friends, indulging in a family ritual, taking preschoolers for a morning stroll, hatching plans for a project, working on a thesis or just whiling away the afternoon. A cafe is a place to do all those things in Melbourne.
The communal table
A big, low table made for lounging close to the ground or a high table with stools to match could be the symbols of early 21st-century Melbourne civilisation. The communal table is one of the important ways our cafes mark themselves as shared public spaces where the only price for taking part is the cost of a cup of coffee.
Communal tables help make cafes a place where it's OK to be alone in public, where people respect your existential bubble but also share it. You can bring your laptop or your book-club novel or just yourself. The communal tables in our cafes have no time limit on them.
Cafes are remaking Melbourne's public space, and although they are still about consumption, it's local and personal, and the owners are mostly small business people.
They are often young, energetic and entrepreneurial, a sign that you can make your way in Melbourne with a good idea and hard work. Cafes give us an enlarged sense of what it means to live in this city, with a connection to the community that chain stores and shopping malls can never make.
Brunch is for jerks.
So wrote The New York Times's David Shaftel last year, quoting Julian Casablancas, lead singer of the Strokes, as saying: "I don't know how many, like, white people having brunch I can deal with on a Saturday afternoon". While The Guardian called brunch "a symptom of the soulless suburban conformity that is relentlessly colonising our urban environments".
In Melbourne, brunch means eating creative food without spending a packet, and menus allow fantastic flexibility. Brunch is a small but tasty indulgence that we should all be allowed, an hour or two catching up with friends, family or just ourselves over coffee and a plate of french toast or smoked salmon and poached eggs or a pulled-pork bun. Brunch is for everyone, and Melbourne cafes do great brunch.
Cuisine: Australian cafe
When you travel overseas, people often ask, "What is Australia's cuisine?" and you reply "barbecues" (too American), "meat pies" (too British), "seafood" (too vague) or "pasta, sushi, pho and…" (multicultural fusion).
Maybe we should be saying avocado smash with Vegemite, a dukkah dusting, or a spritz of lime and coriander is our national dish – add a poached egg. How about a brioche bun stuffed with pulled pork, bacon and egg, or fresh crayfish? Why not perfect corn fritters (crisp outside, creamy inside)? Australian cuisine could mean Melbourne cafe cuisine: relaxed, casual and democratic food.
Filter brews all around.
Melbourne's cafes have taken to the batch brewer, and cafe-goers have taken to filter coffee. This is not just an inner-north thing. You'll see people lingering over batch brews at Glovers Station in Elsternwick or Bluff Town in Sandringham.
Filter brews match the lighter roasts preferred for specialty-grade beans, letting the flavours shine in ways that espresso doesn't. With easy filter brewing, we get the fruit without the acidity. Filter brews make a great food match, too.
Try a cup of Colombian next time you order a Mexican egg breakfast and taste how that hit of chilli brings out something in the coffee you didn't know was there.
World champion baristas
Since Dave Makin (now Axil Coffee) finished second in 2008, Melbourne baristas have been right up in the world championship rankings: Matt Perger finished 3rd in 2011 and 2nd in 2013, as well as winning the filter brewers championship in 2012.
Perger (2011, 2013) and Craig Simon (2012, 2014) swapped first and second place in the Australian championships for four years. That draws baristas from around Australia and the world to work in coffee here, one of the factors contributing to ...
The best coffee in the world
Melbourne's espresso culture stretches back more than half a century. People say, "It's not like the coffee in Italy," and it's true. Italian taste has stayed pretty static. Italian roasters still add robusta to their espresso blends, and its inner-tube sweetness gives Italian espresso its distinctive quality. Melbourne prefers 100 per cent arabica, and that's reflected in the flavours here.
Melbourne is at the cutting edge of sourcing, roasting and brewing specialty coffee, with filter-style brews and single-origin espresso on many cafe menus. We regularly make the list of the world's best coffee cities – on CNN, Huffington Post, Lifehack, BBC Travel – but they're just telling us something we already know.
The world wants some, too.
Last year, The New York Times reported on an invasion of Australian-style cafes, pointing out about a dozen places where, if you walked in with a kangaroo and an emu on your passport, you'd feel right at home. The combination of creative, tasty food, great coffee and friendly service is something Americans don't expect from a cafe.
It seems that Melbourne's cafes are the template. Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood is home to a cafe called Brunswick, which The New York Times described as "an Australian cafe" in the way you might say "a French bistro" or "an English pub.
Elsewhere, New Yorkers enjoy avocado toast and flat whites at Bluestone Lane (in Greenwich Village, started by Nick Stone, a former AFL player) and Little Collins (owned by former Melbourne lawyer Leon Unglik) in Lexington Avenue.
Something similar is happening in Europe. There's a place called Holybelly in Paris (owned by a couple who had stints at Market Lane and the Duchess of Spotswood), as well as a cafe called Tuckshop that has avocado and Vegemite on toast, long blacks and flat whites on the menu.
In Milan, Pave's cafe features recycled armchairs and a big communal table – which Italians took a while to accept, says the owner, Luca Scanning. Pave was inspired by the "lazy breakfasts and lovely spaces" of the cafes Scanni haunted in Fitzroy during two stints as a journalist in Melbourne.
Workshop Coffee in London's Clerkenwell district ticks all the Melbourne boxes: bare brick walls, warm timber, and a big coffee roaster up the back.
On the shelves at Workshop is a coffee blend called Cult of Done, the legacy of an early association with St Ali. The hip little coffeehouse Prufrock in Holborn, with its classic blue espresso cups, chalkboard menu and brew-bar-meets-science-lab aesthetic, could be in Collingwood.
FAQs About Melbourne Cafes
Australian coffee history began during World War II when Italian and Greek immigrants started to bring coffee machines to Australia (particularly Melbourne) and introduced espresso coffee. It changed the way coffee was consumed, and its popularity in the inner-city over time helped fuel coffee culture.
Even though the country is renowned today for its coffee culture, coffee didn't become prominent in Australia until the mid-20th century. The country's coffee sector largely developed thanks to Italian and Greek immigrants, many of whom moved there after the Second World War.
The beginning of coffee history in Australia started in the wake of the Second World War when Italian immigrants started bringing coffee machines to Australia with them. ... As a result, the Australians weren't drinking coffee. They were drinking espressos. From the start!
The most popular cup sold in cafés and coffee shops in Australia was the latte, followed by the flat white and the cappuccino.
Espresso first came to Australia in the 1930s with Italian immigrants, although espresso and the European café culture - which had existed for more than two centuries abroad - didn't become popular in Australia until around the 1950s, following an influx of WWII European immigrants.
Reasons Why Coffee in Australia is the Best
If there’s one country on the planet well-known for its specialty coffee culture, it’s Australia.
Over the years, Australia has become home to the best-tasting specialty brews, which has created a coffee culture that is as serious as it is unique. You may remember when Melbourne was crowned as one of the world’s coffee capitals or when the popular chain Starbucks closed down 70% of their Australian shops after losing almost $143M? This is clear proof that we take our coffee seriously and that there’s no room in our country for an average cup of Joe.
But what is it that makes coffee in Australia so good?
The experience is unique.
Our local cafes completely understand that drinking coffee is about more than just the caffeine hit; it’s also a form of relaxation and socialising. This is why Australian cafes make sure they not only provide great coffee and great service but they also provide a complete coffee drinking experience.
Australia's coffee culture is also solidly focused on the many different types and varieties of specialty coffee. As Fleur Studd, the founder of Melbourne’s Market Lane, says, “When you walk into many cafes now, the barista will be able to tell you where your coffee was grown, who produced it, and what variety it is.
You will often be offered coffee brewed as a filter as well as espresso. The menu will showcase coffees that are in season and specialty grade, and the labels on retail bags of beans will tell you when it was harvested and roasted.” Do you see? It's serious business!
Australian baristas push the boundaries when it comes to their coffee art.
It's also our local baristas’ creativity that sets our coffee industry apart from the rest. They have already perfected their lattes, macchiatos and our invention, the flat white.
But they also aren’t afraid to experiment with different kinds of caffeinated beverages, and Australia leads the way to new coffee trends. Think turmeric lattes, unicorn coffee, and avocado lattes.
We have access to high-quality coffee beans and cutting-edge equipment.
No wonder we can serve the rarest and the best-tasting coffee. Our exciting coffee industry is supported by lots of dedicated industry groups and major events here in Australia that help to expand the availability of unique coffee beans for roasters and cafe owners alike.
The Melbourne International Coffee Expo (MICE) is held every year proudly and expertly works to help grow Australia's coffee industry. Thousands attend the yearly event to see the latest in coffee technology and machinery, along with the best Roasters and Baristas in the country.
We have our style of cafes and our style of coffee.
With such a strong culture, it's no wonder that we've put our style and spin on coffee. According to Ben Bicknell, the strategic project manager for the Five Senses group,
“We’ve got a local vernacular for our coffee: the flat white, short black, magic and long macchiato. Most of these drinks are just slight adjustments on the amount of espresso to milk to foam quantities, but even those small differences can determine whether your daily brew hits the spot.”
So, given that we think Australian coffee culture is the finest on the planet, where should you go to enjoy it at its best? We can't name every place in a single post, so we'll highlight a few of our current favourites:
- Coffee Alchemy, Sydney - Their baristas roast their coffee beans in-house. Customers can buy these beans to craft their cups of coffee at home.
- Patricia Coffee Brewers, Melbourne - A standing-room-only shop for customers on the hunt for artisanal coffee and small, delicious treats.
- Proud Mary Coffee Roasters, Collingwood - A producer of exceptional coffee. This roaster/cafe serves a wide variety of coffee drinks that will satisfy your caffeine needs.
- Matcha Mylkbar, St. Kilda - If you’re into unique coffee drinks, like red velvet lattes and turmeric lattes, here’s where you should go.
- Twenty & Six Espresso, North Melbourne - Gorgeous interior, delicious coffee, and an extensive list of specialty teas.
- The Kettle Black, Victoria - One of the most “Instagram-worthy” cafes in South Melbourne. There’s a coffee cart in front for those in need of an on-the-go caffeine hit.
- PURE Boutique Coffee Bar, Adelaide - A coffee shop by day and a bar by night. Pure offers a huge array of blends worldwide and a wide selection of delectable baked goods.
- Campos Coffee, Newtown - The home to the best-tasting single-origin coffees.
- Bar 9, Adelaide - Adelaide's most awarded specialty coffee - enough said.
- La Veen Coffee, Perth City - Serves up cups of coffee made with finely sourced beans and milk. Indeed one of the best cafes in Perth.