Brew-tiful, how Melbourne’s coffee culture bloomed


There are a lot of key moments in the development of Melbourne’s coffee culture. Some old and some new, but most of them have been defined by a drive to bring people together over a great cup of coffee.

When Wells Trenfield began Jaspar Coffee, a specialty coffee roasting business, in 1989 with his partner Merilyn Parker, he knew the power of coffee but he never expected his Arabica single origin roasted obsession would turn the city’s coffee market on its head.

“We didn’t come from any previous experience or any other methodologies,’” he says “except for ‘let’s put it in a cup and taste it.’”

Trenfield’s influence on the Melbourne coffee scene is substantial and his desire to provide the best coffee to his customers unyielding.

Consider this, on an average morning he tastes 40 cups of coffee to check the quality of coffee that is to be served at his four cafes around Melbourne. That’s dedication to quality.

Wells Trenfield has had an extraordinary career following his love for coffee. Source: Jasper Coffee.

But that’s only part of the the story. There is also they desire to continually improve the product; its flavour, body, and aroma.

“It’s the rigor behind the investigation,” says Trenfield in relation to why Melbourne has become the ‘Promised Land’ for so many coffee lovers. “The people in the coffee industry is this city are prepared to explore the boundaries. They’re always looking at how they change the way coffee is being made and extracted.

“There becomes a focus on why you’re doing it. It’s no longer simply about the ritual of pouring a cup.”

Melbourne’s coffee culture’s humble beginnings

Surprisingly, Melbourne’s coffee obsession isn’t a modern romance but dates back to the late 1800s when alcohol was becoming a very real problem for authorities.

In attempt to curb bad behaviour and alcohol uptake, Christian lobbyists encouraged police to push people towards coffee lounges, rather than bars. This gave birth to the coffee palace.

Coffee palaces were a very significant part of city life. As grand Victorian buildings, the descriptor ‘palace’ was no overstatement, and as much as they dominated their surroundings, so they did Melbourne daily life. They were the people’s place of choice to meet and discuss the happenings of their emerging city. A city that was booming.

In the 1880s, the city was awash with money from the gold rush and was in the midst of its first property boom and this is when Melbourne’s coffee palaces reached their peak. However, when the boom spectacularly burst, their popularity fizzled and many applied for liquor licences to supplement their meagre earnings.

While some were transformed into hotels, many of the grandest, including the Federal Coffee Palace and the Queens Coffee Palace were torn down.

The Federal Coffee Palace on Collins St was one of Melbourne’s grandest. Source: Urban Melbourne

For the love of espresso

While most post-WWII European immigrants arrived with very few possessions, they did present Melbourne with one of coffee’s greatest gifts, the espresso.

Pellegrini’s Espresso bar, one of the first Italian hot spots that still stands today, rose to prominence in this time.

The Italian’s focused on creating the best ‘crema’ for a tastier brew, truly initiating the beginnings of what has formed the modern-day coffee in Melbourne.

Trenfield agrees the Italians were influential but believes coffee’s greatest shift occurred with the introduction of single origin coffee.

It’s something Jasper Coffee has prided itself on, with over 30 plus individual beans forming their Melbourne offering – a trait that Trenfield compares to fine wine.

“In exactly the same way we talk about a particular wine blend, each estate is different,” he says.

“I don’t see coffee any different to all the other sensory experiences we have. We have developed a sophisticated palate through a gradual evolution if you like, but we’re now seeing a different mentality and a different excitement with what has happened.

Out with the status quo

A defining moment for Melbourne’s coffee culture came back in the early 2000s when US-chain Starbucks arrived and set out to quickly capture a large slice of Melbourne’s coffee market.

Impressive though its global growth and reputation was, Melburnians aren’t ones for fawning adoration, especially when it comes to coffee. They simply chose to judge the chain it on the quality of its product. The results were telling, and not favourable. While 22 Starbucks had opened in Melbourne, by 2008 Starbucks had closed 17 of them.

So many catch-ups occur over coffee. Source: iStock.

“[Melbourne has] a wonderful sense of culture in our music and in our pub scene – it’s the same mentality with coffee,” says Trenfield. We’re not bogged down by perceptions of having to fit with some reality; we just create our own.”

Because of this, the city’s inhabitants are more likely to show interest in rainbow, turmeric or matcha lattes.

Trenfield thinks the coffee craze will further intensify in the near future.

“In Melbourne, we have come to a realisation that we can change the rules, can change the sensory perception and we can change the way we enjoy coffee.”

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