A Melbourne cafe culture walk to get a taste of Melbourne’s coffee history should be high on your to-do list when you’re in the Land of the Long Flat White, as we like to call our coffee mad country, Australia.
Tragically, Melbourne’s “godfather of coffee”, Sisto Malaspina, co-owner with Nino Pangrazio of Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar since 1974, was killed on Friday 9 November 2019 in a Bourke Street ‘terror attack’. Sisto was loved by so many and such a Melbourne icon that the Victorian government has offered the family a state funeral.
We vividly recall our first espresso at Pellegrini’s over 25 years ago. It was a little bit of Italy in the heart of the southern Australian city and became our first point of call for an authentic Italian coffee whenever we visited from Sydney. A heady espresso was the best way to kickstart a Melbourne stay, and Sisto, in all his Italian-ness, with his warm smile, twinkling eyes, open shirt and loose tie around his neck, was a welcoming sight.
We thought we’d feature this post again to provide some context and background to the man who, along with business partner Nino, played a massive role in making Melbourne the coffee destination it is today. Our heart goes out to Sisto’s family and to the city of Melbourne itself, which is mourning.
Keen to explore more of world coffee capital Melbourne‘s cafe history, on our last trip back we decided to do a Melbourne coffee tour and enlisted the help of a local expert to better understand Melbourne’s increasingly sophisticated coffee scene and its long cafe culture history.
The Melbourne coffee tour we signed up for was the Melbourne Cafe Culture Walk with coffee lover and guide extraordinaire Fiona Sweetman, owner of Hidden Secrets, best known for creating Melbourne’s must-do walking tour, the hugely popular Lanes and Arcades tour.
On previous trips to Victoria’s capital, we’d sampled the crème de la crème of coffee houses and cafes. We’d admired latte art at decade-old St Ali, dedicated to quality beans, with award winning baristas who helped launch a café empire. We’d inhaled the aromas at Seven Seeds café and micro-roasters, established in 2008 that has been central to the development of Melbourne’s coffee palate. And we’d experienced a coffee cupping at Market Lane.
This time, I wanted to dig deeper, to step back in time to get to the roots of this continually-evolving coffee culture, to drink in the early cafe culture history, to get a taste of current trends, and possibly a peek into the future. I began at the beginning, with the Melbourne Cafe Culture Walk, a Melbourne coffee tour launched last year, which Sweetman kicks off at the Hill of Content bookshop in the city.
Melbourne Cafe Culture Walk in the Land of the Long Flat White
Inventors of the long flat white, for whom froth and chocolate are a distraction, Australians are undeniably coffee-mad. No more so than in its cosmopolitan southern city of Melbourne.
The Melbourne City website claims there are over 5,000 registered café-restaurants in the city that many now considered to be the world’s coffee capital.
According to local girl Fiona Sweetman, who runs some of Melbourne’s first and most engaging walking tours, there are now 3,500 café-restaurants in the city centre alone – many located in the elegant old shopping arcades and graffiti-clad alleyways she takes tourists through every day.
Melbourne Cafe Culture – Early History
“Because this is where the Italians started their community in Melbourne,” Fiona says to our small group of five on her Melbourne Cafe Culture Walk, to explain why we are starting where we are, gesturing to the grand European-style edifices around us that were built by the migrants credited with kick-starting Australia’s coffee obsession.
“The former Southern Cross Hotel across the road was on the site of the Eastern Market, which was as big as Queen Victoria Market… this is where Italians came for opportunity, not always out of poverty,” she explains, as we start our stroll up the road.
“They were the best builders, the best stonemasons, and they brought these curved arches and Renaissance influence to the architecture,” Fiona reveals, which partly explains why Melbourne is described as more Continental-European in style compared to Australia’s other more British-looking cities. They’re not only talking about coffee.
Fiona tells us that street coffee stalls, modelled on those in London, which sold cheap breakfasts to workers, popped up in Melbourne in the 1850s after gold was discovered.
But it wasn’t until the turn of the century that elegant European-style restaurants opened, which also served tea and coffee. And not until the 1920s that ‘Continental’ coffee lounges appeared.
Melbourne Cafe Culture – Italian Beginnings
This was the same period that a New York establishment installed its first espresso machine, invented in Milan in 1901. Still, it would be another decade before Florentino imported Melbourne’s first machine.
At the time, the city’s dining scene was dominated by Italian-owned businesses, including Molina’s, Café Latin, the Society, Mario’s, and Florentino.
But it wasn’t until the 1950s that Italian cafés opened amongst the clothes stores in what became known as the Paris end of town (thanks to its beautiful plane trees), including the famous cafe Pellegrini’s in 1954.
“The story goes that Mr Pellegrini, who had worked at Florentino’s and ran their coffee machine, left to open his own espresso bar,” Sweetman divulges, as we stop outside the legendary Pellegrini’s.
Pellegrini’s was Melbourne’s first Italian stand-up espresso bar and for decades it remained the city’s only espresso bar, as well as a spot for a traditional, home-style bowl of pasta.
It remained an icon even after Sisto Malaspina and Nino Pangrazio, whose father had also worked at Florentino’s, took it over in 1974. It gave us our first taste of Italian style espresso on Terence’s and my first trip to Melbourne together 25 years ago.
For several decades the retro corner space with the vintage sign (now heritage listed)) was Melbourne’s best café, producing the bitter, syrupy espresso shots that we still love, but which Sweetman tells us is now out of favour and considered old-school by coffee aficionados who prefer a “softer, lighter taste”.
Melbourne Cafe Culture – The Third Wave
It’s not only the old style coffee that went out of fashion in recent decades, during a café revolution described by coffee professionals as ‘the third wave’. It was also the style of cafés. People wanted to sit down again – whether on contemporary Scandinavian-style chairs, comfy sofas, or milk crates.
Larger, light-filled, high-ceilinged coffee shops invited people to linger longer over good coffee and increasingly good food. Still, in Melbourne the coffee remained the priority.
The difference was that the painstakingly prepared, delicate drip of a filtered coffee took over in popularity from the deep rumbles and rapid spurts of an espresso. And Melbourne locals wanted to learn how to make coffee as much as learn about where it came from.
Melbourne’s best cafés began offering classes in coffee cupping, coffee bean roasting, and coffee brewing, bringing the behind-the-scenes work to the front-of-house.
And Melburnites learnt how to distinguish a pour-over from a batch brew, to identify where their beans came from, and know how they should be roasted.
Third Wave, Fair Trade – Provenance and People
“Cupping is just a way for us to assess the coffee we buy in its purest form,” Jason Scheltus had explained to us in the tasting room at Market Lane café at Prahan Market on a previous trip. Coffee roaster Scheltus co-founded the café with Fleur Studd soon after she established bean importer Melbourne Coffee Merchants in 2008.
As he added boiling water to the cupping bowls of freshly roasted coffee grinds, Scheltus described the evaluation process and techniques, and what we were looking for in the cup. The best coffee, he’d said, should be sweet, clean and balanced – a far cry from the complex, heavy-bodied blends Italian-Australian coffee lovers use to sip in the early days.
I recall that the most memorable for me was Musasa, a coffee with a buttery mouth-feel and peach, cherry and tropical fruit notes, grown by the Dukunde Kawa Musasa Cooperative in rugged northwest Rwanda. Scheltus had given us a card that described the coffee beans, how they were grown and harvested, the farm, the soil, and farmers.
Over the years, Scheltus and Studd travelled frequently to plantations to meet coffee producers, only buying coffee that was in season and roasting in small batches to ensure they were offering the best quality. They said they liked to share the coffee’s origin and stories to celebrate the provenance of the beans and people behind the coffee, but also to educate customers so they appreciate what’s involved in getting the beans to the cup.
Scheltus and Studd are typical of Melbourne’s third wave coffee suppliers and the backstory, coffee education, and quality of coffee they promoted is what Australian coffee enthusiasts in Melbourne and other cities now expect. But Fiona reveals that Fair Trade coffee was being offered in Australia long before the third wave.
The New Cafe Gives a Nod to the Old
As we stood outside Pellegrini’s, Fiona explained that the Salvation Army, whose former headquarters was across the road, that opened the Hamodava Café there in 2011 as an homage to their original Hamodava Coffee and Tea House established on the same site in 1897.
One of Melbourne’s first importers of coffee and tea, back in the early 1900s the Salvation Army was also the first Melbourne cafe to serve Fair Trade coffee – a long time before the Third Wave.
We turned the corner and ambled down the lane past Pellegrini’s to check out what Fiona said was a new style of cafe for Melbourne – minimally-styled, with standing room only, and nothing to identify it apart from a small neon sign with an old-fashioned shoe.
Named The Traveller, the petite cafe tipped a hat to the old-style espresso bar on the corner. The future of Melbourne’s coffee scene clearly had one foot in its past.
Fiona Sweetman’s Melbourne Cafe Culture Walk doesn’t end at The Traveller. We covered much of the city on foot (wear comfy shoes!), visiting numerous cafes and sipping coffee and sampling snacks at a handful of spots, including several cafes, a macaron shop, and Melbourne’s best chocolatier, Koko Black.
Book Melbourne Coffee Tours
Fiona Sweetman’s Hidden Secrets tour company offers 3-hour Melbourne Café Culture Walking Tours (A$95); 11am Monday to Friday. Meeting Point is The Hill of Content Bookshop, 86 Bourke Street, Melbourne. You can book the Melbourne Cafe Culture Walk tour here. We haven’t tried any other Melbourne coffee tours yet, but will do so on our next trip home.
Where to Stay in Melbourne
Ideally located for doing Melbourne coffee tours and exploring the Melbourne café culture, this self-titled dessert hotel is home to On Nom Dessert Bar and has complimentary candy bowls full of all sorts of sweets and chocolates, along with espresso machines, in its rooms. 187 Flinders Lane, Melbourne.
Book the Adelphi with our booking partner Booking.com
Book other city centre hotels here.
Where to Learn About Coffee in Melbourne
Market Lane Café
Market Lane Cafe offers classes in coffee cupping, brewing (pour over, Aeropress and plunger) and coffee bean roasting. Prahran Market, 163 Commercial Road, South Yarra. www.marketlane.com
Where to Drink Coffee in Melbourne
Hong Kong-born Australian Kenneth Meow spends most days sipping piccolos and we highly recommend you check out his social media feeds which read like a directory to the best Melbourne cafés. Follow this coffee guru on Instagram at emeow33 and Twitter at eMeow.
Buy the Ultimate Melbourne Coffee Souvenir
Kenneth’s tip: Melbourne’s most quintessential souvenir is a barista-approved reusable ‘Keep Cup’ – a Melbourne invention, which is welcome at the city’s best eco-conscious cafés. www.keepcup.com
Have you done the Hidden Secrets Melbourne Cafe Culture Walk or any other Melbourne coffee tours? If so, we’d love to get your feedback in the comments below.