When Kieran Spiteri, the co-owner of Collingwood’s Terror Twilight cafe, talks about coffee, he uses words like variety, uniqueness, even authenticity.
In his cafe in the heart of Melbourne’s wide and well-caffeinated hipster belt, Spiteri says people will wait in line for 10 minutes, or travel across suburbs, if it means they get their hands on a consistently quality cuppa – bonus points if it’s a one-of-a-kind, locally sourced blend.
“People know value and they want something different,” he says.
Australia’s coffee scene is changing. Customers at cafes like Spiteri’s and the eight outlets run by Melbourne roaster Market Lane are looking for a more bespoke experience. According to Market Lane co-owner Fleur Studd, micro coffee roasters, like micro breweries, are catering to drinkers who are more discerning, more willing to experiment, and more ethics-focused.
“I think what’s changed in the last decade or so has been the provenance of the coffee and where the coffee is sourced, where it comes from,” said Studd, who is also the founder of specialty coffee-importing business Melbourne Coffee Merchants.
Market Lane has developed long-term relationships with coffee producers from Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Guatemala, Columbia, Bolivia and Brazil; its customers want coffee beans sourced ethically and transparently.
“We’re really trying to build up individual farms and individual producers, in the same way that you go to your favourite wine shop – there’ll be things you might know about a particular variety or region of wine,” Studd says.
Her customers are even “embracing full-cream milk that’s got great traceability”.
And they are prepared to pay: milk coffee at Market Lane is sold at $6 a cup, irrespective of extra coffee shots or alternative milks. Studd says the premium comes from paying growers a rate “way above” fair trade and commodity market prices, as well as from inflation on fertiliser costs that have risen by 300 per cent.
A reliable industry
But Les Schirato, the founder of Vittoria Coffee and one of the forefathers of espresso-based coffee in Australia who started in the 1960s, has a warning for coffee drinkers seeking out smaller brands.
“Where I always have a bit of a chuckle is all the hipsters and the trendies who think they know so much – they don’t even know who’s behind the coffee brands,” he says.
Some brands such as Allpress, Toby’s and Campos have been bought out by multinational giants: Toby’s Estate, established in 1998 in Sydney’s Chippendale, hasn’t been independent since 2010, and is now owned by Japanese coffee giant UCC Holdings. Beverages behemoth Asahi acquired Melbourne coffee company Allpress in April 2021. Two months later, iconic Sydney roaster Campos was scooped up by Dutch giant JDE Peet’s.
Schirato, a former long-time president of the Australian Coffee Traders Association, doesn’t begrudge competition, but says it’s a misapprehension to think his company is “big”. It’s not when compared to the multinationals.
“I’d like [people] to support the local cafes that support local brands [like Vittoria],” he says.
While COVID-19 brought swaths of the hospitality sector to its knees, particularly in business districts, Australians’ unwavering love of a cup of joe has arguably made the coffee sector one of Australia’s most resilient industries.
Generating more than $8 billion in revenue a year, about nine in 10 Australians (88 per cent) like coffee in some form, according to figures from social researcher McCrindle. Per person, we’re consuming 1.9 kilograms of it per year.
According to IBISWorld estimations, revenue is forecast to grow at an average of 2.1 per cent a year to $11.9 billion by 2026.
“Although spending on cafes and coffee shops is discretionary, many consumers consider coffee an affordable luxury,” IBISWorld senior industry analyst Suzy Oo says in an April 2022 report. “Consumers are often unwilling to forgo their daily coffee.”
Australians’ relatively steady consumption, even through lockdown, was precisely what made coffee businesses like Allpress so attractive to Asahi.
“It’s an opportunity for these big companies to [have] a presence in Australia. It’s also a huge opportunity for the small coffee businesses, which were local, to expand on a mammoth level … their operating efficiencies increase, their reach increases, and purchase costs would decrease,” says IBISWorld industry analyst Disha Jeswanth who expects there to be further consolidation in the future.
Lockdowns weren’t just a boon for suburban cafes that benefited from people working from home, retail sales of beans also jumped, as did sales of coffee machines and pods. Even Schirato, who swore his company would never make instant coffee, was forced to do so by the pandemic.
“It was the supermarkets that saved us,” he says. “If I didn’t have supermarkets, we probably would not have made it through COVID.”
Changing tastes and high expectations
But much as we love coffee, there are few home-grown options: 99 per cent of the beans we consume are imported. What is grown in Australia comes from just 50 commercial growers, who produce 600 tonnes of coffee beans a year.
But there are research efforts under way to ramp up these figures. AgriFutures, a government-funded research organisation aimed at strengthening rural industries, is conducting a five-year project on developing Australia’s local coffee-bean industry.
The biggest barrier so far, according to AgriFutures emerging industries senior manager Dr Olivia Reynolds, has been a factor no one can control: the weather.
“What’s really limited the coffee industry is a lack of suitable varieties for our growing conditions,” she says. “So what we need to do is identify cultivars that grow really well and are adapted to Australian growing conditions, hence our investment in the variety trials.”
The regions best-suited to growing the plant that produces coffee seeds are far northern NSW to tropical Queensland. Reynolds believes that these regions, particularly far north Queensland, have perhaps historically focused too heavily on tourism – but the pandemic’s closed borders have been something of a wake-up call to not rely too heavily on any one sector.
Reynolds has just wrapped up the first year of the five-year project, which has yielded some early indications of about four varieties that perform well in the northern NSW region, though this will have to remain confidential.
It’s not that demand for Australian-grown coffee isn’t there – in fact, quite the opposite. “There’s a huge enthusiasm for Australian-grown coffee, but there’s just simply not the supply available at the moment for it to be expansive,” she says.
To encourage growth of the local industry, Reynolds’ team is also using artificial intelligence to develop a coffee “flavour wheel” to better articulate the particular flavour profile and mouth-feel of Australian-grown beans.
“Coffee taste can be affected by plant variety by climates, soils, crop management, all these variables, and they can really impact the flavour, the acidity and also the mouthfeel of coffee; this is what’s known as our terroir. And that’s where we’re using machine learning, artificial intelligence, to quantify the distinctive characteristics of each of those coffee descriptors.
“We’ve got such potential because we’re a coffee-obsessed culture, with one of the highest per capita coffee consumption rates in the world … [it’s] extraordinary.”
Australian beans or not, according to Spiteri, nobody in Collingwood, whether they are “coffee snobs” or “arbiters of java”, is a fan of “any sort of chain”. Terror Twilight, which opened about six years ago, imports beans from overseas and then contracts local roasters.
Beyond the classic latte, Spiteri says the most popular order is a magic – a double ristretto with milk that has its origins in Melbourne.
“People are definitely more adventurous with their coffees,” he says. “People are really open to trying something different if you have a special on or a different blend …
Source: Thanks smh.com