I was recently informed by a friend travelling from the States that “Australia has the most ridiculous coffee culture she has ever encountered.” I was surprised, to be honest, I assumed that many European cities would be deeper into the great world of coffee than us, but then again we do have artisan coffee available on pretty much every corner, and a strong hipster (read: snob) subculture surrounding coffee. I decided to do a little research about the history of coffee in our great continent to see how deep we go.
Coffee first landed on the shores of Australia on the first fleet in 1788, but as you can imagine, after months at sea in wet, hot and poorly stored conditions, the coffee was of questionable quality when it arrived. The next step, of just growing coffee here began. The first recorded growth was in 1832 in Kangaroo Point, Brisbane and then extended throughout the decade to all along the East Coast of Australia, from Northern New South Wales to Northern Queensland. Thus, an industry was born.
The Temperance Movement of the 1830’s promoted moderation of alcohol, not just plain abstinence, us Aussies love a drink after all. But the coffee industry piggybacked off this change and in the 1880’s a number of hotels and pubs were converted to “Coffee Palaces” where no alcohol, just coffee, would be served. Doesn’t THAT sound like the dream. But with the waning influence of the temperance movement, a lot of these hotels applied for liquor licences or were simply demolished.
With steam-driven coffee machines commonplace in Italian groceries in the 1890s and the created of the first patented espresso machine by Luigi Bezzera in 1901, coffee stalls and European style coffee lounges sprung up and adopted the technology. Then following the Second World War, European migrants from Italy, Greece, France, Turkey, Austria and Hungary, landed on our shores Bringing with them a rich history and knowledge base about coffee, they lay the foundation for the rich cultural coffee scene that we know today. And the past 50 years have shown an increase in coffee consumption go up from 0.6kg to 3.0kg per capita, so we’ve definitely been making the most of it.
So we’ve got the history down pat, but since coffee is available everywhere, why do we get the rap for being such snobs? I’ll tell you why! The great Starbucks failure is a wonderful example. After a landslide entrance into the Australian market in 2000, Starbucks shockingly announced they were closing 61 of their 84 stores, losing 685 jobs and A$143 million. What could possibly have gone so wrong?
Their previous successes were in the US, Japanese and Chinese markets, where there was little previous coffee drinking culture. Starbucks failed to realise that most Australians were living in cities with already thriving cafe cultures, and world class baristas. There was no room in the market for the service provided by Starbucks, fast, American style, expensive coffee, poorly made by inexperienced staff. Not only this, but the rapid expansion of the company gave the perception of being forced upon the public. Without need or want for Starbucks, they seemed to pop up everywhere. And isn’t it like Australians to cut down that tall poppy who tries to strive for domination? We wanted quality over quantity, and were happier supporting local cafes over an American giant.
With a classically refined history, culturally rooting for the underdog, and staunchly fierce about the kind of coffee we accept into our cities and towns, this might be why we gained that reputation of being coffee snobs. But who’s to say that’s even a bad thing, we kinda like it…