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The Sydney Cafe scene- banisher of Starbucks...

I measure coffee culture in the crema of my very short ristretto. This is nigh near impossible to do in Indonesia, where an espresso can come in cups as big as cappuccino mugs. Often the cafes of Indonesia make the mistake of changing the time honoured drink preparations to suit the perceptions of the coffee drinkers of that country, instead of educating them to what is a short black, a piccolo or a doppio. There is a tale, which may or may not be true, about the opening of the first Starbucks in Jakarta, Indonesia. A lady came in during the first week of trading, looked at the menu board for some minutes. She finally ordered an espresso. When she got her coffee she complained “Pelit banget lho!!” (Your very stingy) she said, as she looked at horror at the 30ml barely covering the bottom of her cup. That’s Indonesia…

Sitting here in the musty, cool surrounds of the café in Victoria Street, Kings Cross, the owner explains to me that this lack of understanding too was the problem in Australia in the 1950’s and 1960’s. “they wanted milky drinks, big ones too. It was not the way we did it in the old country, so we went about teaching the Australians about good coffee”. Obviously Australia and New Zealand somewhat benefitted from the migrant wave from Italy, Yugoslavia and Greece after World War II. The Italians, in particular, arrived down under in force, bringing espresso based coffee culture with them. They arrived to find tea ruled the roost, second place taken by instant coffee and essence based coffee syrups such as Bushells.

In June Starbucks Australia announced the closure of 2/3rds of its Australian stores. Was this a result of the economic circumstances in Australia, or testament to the fact that Aussies like the freshly roasted coffee culture that the independents have been bringing to this country for years?

The Surry Hills area of Sydney is closely fenced in by the seedy red-light district of Oxford Street on the West and the railway line to the south. The suburb is fashionable, with old terrace houses being refurbished, apartments appearing in old warehouses and office blocks. This is the heartbeat of Sydney’s specialty coffee culture, with cafes of quality literally found every 200 metres. The great thing is there is not a Starbucks, Coffee Bean or Gloria Jeans in sight. Perhaps more telling; there is hardly a café selling the Italian stalwarts- Illy or Lavazza either. This is pure home grown, locally roasted coffee. There is Single Origin, Genovese, Campos found on these streets- being served from big cafes to hole in the wall joints. Across Oxford Street into Kings Cross, there is the Grandfather of them all- Hernandez Coffee.

Juan Hernandez started his coffee roastery and café back in the 1970’s. At the time good coffee, roasted locally, was really hard to find. He had arrived from Spain and initially worked as a salesman for Nestle. When he decided to go it alone he was told by everyone that he would fail, as there was no market for locally roasted coffee. On the contrary he pioneered and created the market in Sydney- with customers including actors, models, businessmen and even a Prime minister or two! Today his café still is an epicentre of coffee for the city. At any hour of the day the small shop is crammed with customers after their caffeine fix.

Over the other side of Surry Hills, Single Origin Café is buzzing. The cliental here are generally younger than those seen at Hernandez. Sydney’s young professionals enjoying quality espresso being churned out on Natascha, the espresso machine. The espresso is sweet and chocolaty, with a hint of capsicum and pine nuts. The place seems to always be crowded, even though it is only open 5 days a week. Inside space is tight, however there seems to be an endless supply of tables that can be whisked out and placed along the sidewalk. The hipness here is what is mirrored in Independents all over metropolitan Australia and New Zealand, the surrounds are not important, its what is in the cup that counts. The owners, the barista, the staff are all passionate and knowledgeable. This passion is seen in the faces of the customers.

For sure the education provided to Australians by the wave of European immigrants is going to be difficult to replicate in Southeast Asia. Coffee is also not necessarily a part of the national cultures of the countries north of Australia’s shores. For this, the big chains will be glad of. The markets of China, Indonesia and India are potential gold mines for coffee. However the chains should be wary of the Independents. L’affare, the Wellington NZ based coffee pioneers recently opened a store in Shanghai. Other quality coffee merchants will eventually turn their passion and ideas to Asia. Hallelujah
 
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