Melbourne's coffee culture has a long history, beginning in the late 19th century as temperance movements sought to ban alcohol. (JG Photo/Dion Bisara)

Laneways of Melbourne Hold Secrets to World-Famous Coffee


NOVEMBER 06, 2015

Melbourne. An authentic Melbourne experience would be incomplete without a sip from a cup of single-origin, ethically-sourced Arabican coffee in one of the city's laneway cafe.

The city has been deemed the world's most livable by international newspaper the Economist five years running, but for some, the city deserves the title for its coffee alone.


In every alley, or laneway as Melburnians called them, lurks minimalist, effortless Nordic styled cafes or hole-in-the-wall coffee shops where apron-clad baristas serves their latest brew invention.

And every hour, customers line up for their sustainable-sourced beans brewed cold, siphoned or poured-over.

Melbourne's coffee culture began in the the late 19th century with the development of lavish coffee palaces. These highly ornamental venues only served coffee as a substitute for alcohol, under influence by the period's temperance movement.

Only a handful of the palaces of old survive in Melbourne's central business district, but the coffee culture caught on, pampering city dwellers with exotic coffees from far flung locales like Ethiopia, Brazil and even Indonesia.

Serving methods also developed rapidly, with local baristas borrowing techniques and bean mixes from Paris, Damascus and Trieste among others, to develop their own signature brew.

"We have such a variety of coffee here we do not need Starbucks," said Simon, a Melburnian in his late thirties, while sipping a cup of flat white — an original Australian coffee invention.

In fact its hard to find the US coffee chain in Melbourne. Growing demand for artisan coffee from small, independent cafes has forced the chain to close most of its shops in the city.

"We are the ultimate coffee snobs ... People will be embarrassed if they go to work with Starbucks cup," Simon laughs.

For newcomers and visitors, however, the variety could be overwhelming.

"There are coffee shops in every corner in Melbourne, but you can bet they are good because if not, they would get out of business real quick," said Fiona Sweetman, founder and owner of Hidden Secrets Tours.

The award winning tour company offers guided walks through Melbourne's concealed spots and corners which make the city tick, including a smoke free open air arcade in the heart of Melbourne's CBD.

One of Sweetman's most prized tours, the Cafe Culture walk, would guide you from Cup of Truth, a hole-in-the-wall espresso bar in a subway underpass near the Flinders Street station, to a two hour walking pilgrimage filled with tempting caffeine aroma.

"Some Melburnians know some of the places, but few know them all," Sweetman told the Jakarta Globe in a recent tour for visiting international journalists.

Among the tour top stops is Local Bird, possibly the smallest coffee shop in Melbourne, which serves regulars from a three-meter space.

"But made no mistake, the retail place fetches $220,000 in rent, likely the most expensive in the city" Sweetman said.

After a short hop aboard a Melbourne tramway — free, inside the city center — Sweetman introduced another establishment called Patricia, whose simplicity at first could conceal the meticulous and complex preparations taking place behind the counter.

"These are the real taste of Melbourne’s unique flavor," Sweetman said at the end of the tour.