Today’s coffee is a world away from the red-eye dark-ages of swampy overheated ‘cuppashinos’.
Coffee beans are making and breaking the banks of many an ardent grower. Bean counters are more than just over-protective accountants; they’re the growers, the roasters and blenders behind the bright young cafe owners that every day face caffeine addicts like me and maybe you. I admit that while others were stashing food away for the Mayan end of days, I was stoking an oversized commercial espresso machine I kept running in my garage for an exceptional morning macchiato. All the brouhaha was short lived as my electricity bill came and I wished it were the ‘end of days’.
I hark back to a time when coffee was predominantly served from tins and when, ironically, the big corporate coffee companies were buying the best Arabica beans the world could provide for coffee powder. The only thing that remains the same today is that these companies still have dibs on the best beans the world can grow.
Sheer buying power I suppose. Though, if you’ve passed a Nescafé pod shop, they’re especially ‘trying’. Stiff white shirts, dark wooden cabinets and walls decorated with recyclable pods that scream ‘classy’ as you run out the door to escape the zealots fronting these nouveau podderies.
So, in these somber times when a boutique coffee roaster is flogging their wares to a handsome boutique cafe, they’re generally very staunch and serious about their trade indeed.
A weak excuse
In the 80s such care and consideration for the fabulous brown nectar was all but non-existent.
I operated my first cafe during this time. It was situated in Balmain – Café de la Rue was my baby. This was a well-patronised cafe of the day. Overlooking Sydney Harbour and the Harbour Bridge, it had a distinct French feel created mainly through its large outdoor balcony, gingham napery and the ever-yapping population of small dogs sitting between large plump legs under tables.
Flanking the interior wall was a mural depicting a 1900s French cartoon with dogs pooing, cockroaches walking up walls, bow-tied and moustached waiters smashing plates. This was a ‘trendy’ place in the 80s; and what about the coffee, I hear you ask. At the time, we served the stuff in tankards with two litres of milk, high-rise froth and a fleck or two of unintended coffee grounds to garnish.
I had to leave the cafe urgently one day and, as I was stuck for a replacement, my teenage niece was in town and ensured me she knew her way around an espresso machine. She replaced me that day, and when I returned to thank her, I noticed she was making a coffee and hadn’t put the coffee in the filter. I quizzed her on this, she replied ‘Oh, really? I thought it added the coffee automatically.’
Not one of my cafe regulars noticed; neither had any other innocent customer complained during the hours that coffees had been served all fluffy with just a strain of coffee in them. If a cafe did the same these days, it would be tantamount to committing assault and probably just as serious a response would be levelled at the proprietor.
The shameful bad old days
Nowadays, through a steady diet of reality TV and gourmet snobbery of the sort that educated taste buds expound, our coffee is some of the finest to be found anywhere in the world.
One of the few lucky ones that had someone looking out for me upstairs, I was accidentally trained in the fine art of coffee by one of the world-weary Bar Italia brothers of the East Sydney cafe district. He dragged his deep black underlined eyes into me one bright Sunday morning and, like a gangster lifting his sunglasses a few centimetres, he said, ‘Maaate! I love this place, but you don’t know the first f—ing thing about making coffee… I need to show you how it’s done so I can keep coming here – okay?’.
I rose to the challenge and the rest is history. The resultant evolution can be seen in cafe society here in the northern rivers and anywhere where cafes group together. The folk being served daily are either blissfully unaware that they’re spoilt for choice or, like me, are trying to forget the shameful bad old days of the Aussie coffee house.