Melbourne’s Coffee Culture: The Story Behind Your Daily Fix

Melbourne's Coffee Culture.  A quote from Curtis Stone: I love coming home to Melbourne.  The first thing I do is have a coffee.  It's just so much better here than anywhere else.  It's better than in Italy and I travel a lot.  I crave it.

It’s a well-known fact that Melburnians love their coffee.  According to Tourism Australia, Melbourne has “more than 2,000 cafes as well as some of the world’s best baristas”. As we pause to take a sip of our daily latte, let’s take a moment to think about the story behind Melbourne’s coffee culture.

Popular thinking is that Melbourne’s loving relationship with coffee began after the Second World War with the arrival of Greek and Italian immigrants, but the story starts much earlier than that.  Coffee in modern-day Melbourne has become an urban art form but the love affair began in the early 19th century, in the guise of the extremely grand and (supposedly) genteel establishments that were set up in an attempt to combat drunkenness in the rapidly expanding population.

Coffee was one of the more palatable imports brought into Australia by the First Fleet in 1788.  By the 1830s the Temperance movement had emerged in Australia. They set about building coffee palaces that were often imposing and impressive buildings, aimed at competing with hotels and pubs, and designed to draw people away from ‘the demon drink’.

Melbourne’s beautiful Windsor Hotel that still stands today once spent part of its life as The Grand Coffee Palace. At the re-opening when it was converted from a hotel, Temperance leader James Munro ceremoniously burnt the liquor license that this establishment had once held.

Ultimately, The Grand, along with many of the other coffee palaces suffered financial problems as this business model based around coffee proved not to be as lucrative as conventional hotels, where much of their income would have been from the sale of alcohol.  Ironically, many of them were converted back into pubs!

During the gold rush years, there were coffee stalls in abundance on street corners to feed the booming population of workers in the CBD.  By the 1930s, Melbourne had established European-style coffee lounges.  During this time, the Espresso machine landed, having been invented by a young Milanese man called Luigi Bezzera. The espresso machine, which is now a mainstay of everyday life in Melbourne was initially only used in select restaurants and some small Italian-owned grocery stores.

After World War II there was an influx of European migrants, particularly Italians who established cafes in the CBD and inner-city suburbs, creating the European-style cafe culture that we know and love today.

Melbourne's Coffee Culture: The Story Behind your Daily Fix
Image - close up of coffee pouring out of an espresso machine.

This omnipresent cafe culture, with its sense of community and history that links back to good Italian-style coffee, may explain why some of the big faceless corporations such as Starbucks have not done so well in Melbourne.

I must confess, since arriving in Melbourne I have become a bit of a coffee snob and the big global coffee chains would now be my last resort if I wanted a good cup of coffee.  Honestly, there is so much choice here.  I love being able to support independent coffee shops and there’s nothing nicer than having a friendly chat with the local cafe owner as they prepare your regular order without even needing to ask what you want.

After the long lockdown in Melbourne in 2020, one of the first things we all wanted to do was to go to a cafe with friends and sit down with a barista-made coffee, in a proper cup.  It was a momentous event, as reported by The Guardian back in October.

Following numerous and ongoing lockdowns, due to the Covid 19 pandemic, it is heartbreaking to see lots of small businesses in our city closing down.  But what of Melbourne’s coffee culture? 

Melbourne's Coffee Culture: The Story Behind your Daily Fix
Image: empty coffee cups on a table in a cafe.

For those cafes that have managed to survive, the future may look a little different as they are forced to adapt to a new normal.  According to a recent report, social media marketing has played a large part in bringing foot traffic in through the doors and will continue to do so. 

In addition, trends (even before Covid) show that more people are using cafes as a place of work and for holding professional meetings.  Hence, considerations such as table size, phone charging points, access to the internet, and maybe even the ability to create social distancing, will be just as important as the type of coffee bean on offer.

For further reading check out this page at Museums Victoria. The State Library of Victoria also has further information about the Temperance Movement’s involvement in the early days of Melbourne’s coffee culture.

The Melbourne Mum

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2 Responses

  1. andy davies says:

    Another superb , informative & well written article – can’t wait to visit

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