Caffeine culture

Crema the crop: (from left) Auction Rooms' Devin Loong; A Little Bird Told Me's Celeb Heany and Common Galaxia's Jackson ...
Crema the crop: (from left) Auction Rooms' Devin Loong; A Little Bird Told Me's Celeb Heany and Common Galaxia's Jackson Duxbury. Photo: Simon Schluter

Not so long ago, you could spot a Melbourne barista by the piercings, tattoos and skinny jeans, but there's something fresher brewing. As specialty coffee digs its heels into the city centre and inner suburbs, Melbourne's coffee drinkers are witnessing the rise of a much wider variety of barista beyond the ubiquitous ''hipster''. As St Ali's Matt Perger says: ''Three years ago you could almost guarantee what a barista would be wearing, but it's attracting quite a large group now.'' So what kind of barista is out there now?

Malaysian-born Devin Loong can be found behind the dedicated filter bar at North Melbourne's Auction Rooms, which was named best cafe in the 2013 The Age Good Cafe Guide awards. ''I'm not a hipster barista, I'm an Asian barista,'' he says, smiling. ''And there are not many specialty Asian baristas.''

Loong calls this his dream job, although it's not his first. ''I'm 33 this year, and I'm an electrical engineer by profession. I turned to coffee four years ago,'' he says. It's a passion he loves to share. ''I believe a lot in education, sharing what I know. I started off as a home barista, so if customers come up to the filter bar I like to give people tips and tricks about how to brew their coffee at home.''

Duchess of Spotswood's Bobby Green: 'I think it's more about the demographic of who is making coffee, and who is ...
Duchess of Spotswood's Bobby Green: 'I think it's more about the demographic of who is making coffee, and who is interested in coffee.' Photo: Simon Schluter

Loong can also take his spot in the ''we're here to make you happy'' barista category. He shares it with Bobby Green, the bright and friendly owner and barista at Duchess of Spotswood, in Spotswood. ''It's really important to try to inject a bit of sunshine into people's day,'' she says. ''It's an opportunity to engage people at the start of the day, which is the time people are coming in for takeaway coffee. I think it's really important to engage them in a positive way so they walk away thinking, 'What a good day!'''

Yet the ''hipster barista'' tag can't be filed away just yet. At Carlton's Seven Seeds, the baristas and staff sport more than their fair share of tattoos, curly moustaches and quirky attitudes. A couple wear grungy beanies with pompoms. Surely that's tick-the-box hipster fashion? Surely it's proof that the hipster barista still exists?

Owner Mark Dundon is not so sure. ''I think it's just cold,'' he says, smiling, of the beanies. For him, it's more about the age of the baristas who make our coffee, rather than a certain, identifiable type. ''It's just current young fashion. A lot of young people are pretty much tatted up. I have none!''

Dundon, now in his late 40s, started a small cafe in Brunswick called Ray more than a decade ago. Next was a startup in a South Melbourne warehouse called St Ali. Here, there was room to roast. He sold this to make way for Seven Seeds, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a specialty coffee house that doesn't have something from Seeds on its menu.

At age 23, Perger is a young face in the industry. Last month he came second in the World Barista Championship, but these days spends most of his time on quality control, research and development, and overseeing St Ali's barista teams. Fashion-wise, he says baristas are a casual lot. ''No one suits up, ever. Some baristas like to dress formal; they might have suspenders and a shirt, but most baristas in Melbourne seem to wear jeans and a T-shirt,'' he says.

Green believes there's a certain fashion linked with the barista. ''It seems to be making an appearance everywhere I go,'' she says. ''A lot of beards, a lot of moustaches, a lot of chequered shirts. When I started back making coffee after a little bit of maternity leave, I thought, 'Maybe I should get some facial piercings, I'm not quite fitting in with the trend.' But I think it's more about the demographic of who is making coffee, and who is interested in coffee. Incidentally, they're young.''

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Emily Ch'ng is 26 and has been working in specialty coffee for four years. She's based at Little Chloe in Malvern East, an area new to specialty coffee that is not exactly the haunt of anyone in skinny jeans, spacers (rings used to stretch the earlobe) and tattoos, let alone baristas.

''We don't really have it in the south-eastern suburbs; it's a lot more in the northern suburbs and the city,'' Ch'ng says. She's on the formal side of casual. ''Everyone is surprised when I turn up in jeans. Normally I have a nice office dress on. I only recently got glasses, and apparently they're not big enough.''

Most baristas simply wear what's comfortable, as Jackson Duxbury of Seddon's Common Galaxia says. ''It's about practicality; you need to be wearing comfortable shoes and nothing baggy. I hate wearing excess clothes, I hate wearing shirts or anything, I like wearing jeans or shorts and a T-shirt to work and that's the extent of it,'' he says.

He does have some tattoos: ''… little, tiny baby ones; I'm not as committed as some.'' There is some beanie action going on, too. ''Yeah, I've got a shaved head so I'm pretty into my beanie, it's cold, so cold! I'm guilty of that one. Is it a thing? I like to think it's pretty practical, but maybe we're just copying each other. Maybe not.''

Fashion aside, Duxbury is finding a change in the way people think about coffee. ''I'm from Perth, and in Melbourne there's a real cafe culture and in specialty coffee in particular; people are really into it. They want to try new things and it's nice to deal with that every day. We've had some really exciting coffee coming through and it's easier to sell, because people actually want it.''

Bringing specialty coffee to the leafy 'burbs has its challenges for pioneering Ch'ng, who started out at Balaclava's Monk Bodhi Dharma. ''We're trying to be careful not to overdo it,'' she says. ''It can be quite shocking for someone who hasn't had coffee that's really fruity before. Someone asked me if I'd been cleaning the coffee machine because it tasted like cleaning detergent but, no, it was just a really fruity Ethiopian coffee. It was funny, but also a little horrifying.''

She also believes in making the customer happy. ''It's important to be consistent, and have a method that you follow from cup to cup. It's also important to give the customer what they want, whether it be a hot coffee, or a skinny coffee, or a soy coffee. I know it's frowned upon by a lot of baristas; people are not happy to do it, but essentially you want people to walk out with a smile, you want them to have what they want.''

So what do we want? The growing choice on offer in Melbourne means many think nothing of skipping past a cafe if their favourite barista isn't behind the bar. Travel photographer and cappuccino drinker Ewen Bell says: ''If I walk past and it's a guy that I know is going to make my cappuccino too hot, I just walk by. Save my time. That way, they don't have to put up with me complaining that their coffee's too hot.''

Hayley Evans, a keen black-coffee drinker who is herself a barista at Brunswick's Lux Foundry, has her daily coffee schedule worked out. ''I know when I'm going to get a better coffee than usual, when I'm going to be able to say 'Hi' to my barista, when I'm going to be able to have a chat, or when I'm going to have to get in and get out straight away,'' she says.

While we may not be becoming better dressed, thanks to our baristas we are becoming more knowledgable about coffee and a little bit more connected to our community.

Bell, who spends much of the year travelling, states what coffee means to Melburnians: ''Usually when I get back to Melbourne and I post a picture of the coffee on Facebook, people know I'm home.''

You know your barista is a hipster when ...

■ The last thing they would call themselves is ''a hipster''.

■ They're sporting lush facial hair, large, boldly framed specs and a piercing or two.

■ The only art they own is permanently printed on their arms, necks and legs. And that's just what they want you to see.

■ The temperature they're talking about has nothing to do with outside, it's the milk.

■ They have nicknames for their coffees, like ''Flatty'', ''Shorty'' and ''Spro''.

■ They're talking about MICE, and you think they've got a problem in the kitchen (they're actually talking about the Melbourne International Coffee Expo).

■ You're only just over 30, but have a niggling feeling they think you're ready for a retirement village.

■ You feel compelled to apologise as you place your order of ''one latte, please''.

■ You find yourself asking for a filter brew just to impress them.

■ They begin moonlighting at newer, groovier establishments.

■ Their outfit is put together purely on the basis that the rest is in the washing basket.

Why the barista says no

It drives some Melburnians mad with rage. They vent on Twitter and Urbanspoon, and are especially prone to explosions in the comments fields of any best barista/cafe/coffee article. Man, are they angry. ''Why won't they make me a hot/soy/decaf/large coffee?'' they scream. ''Are they too hip to give me what I like?''

When it comes to specialty coffee, there are usually very good reasons why a barista refuses to honour your request. Here some of Melbourne's best coffee folk explain why you can't always get what you want.

I want my latte hot! hot! hot!

As Seven Seeds co-owner Mark Dundon says, super-hot milk is ruined milk. ''You denature the milk; the milk actually cooks. After 68 degrees it's custard!'' Little Chloe barista Emily Ch'ng says she can't do a ridiculously hot coffee. ''It will boil and spill all over your hands. Because I don't want to hurt myself I say, 'This is as hot as we can make it!'''

I want a large coffee

St Ali's Matt Perger says there's a reason St Ali's cup sizes are what they are. ''We don't have large [cups], we just have sizes that will work well with our single-shot espresso, or with milk. We're trying to celebrate the taste of the coffee rather than coffee as a medicinal thing. You're more than welcome to go get a 'large' coffee at 99.9 per cent of other cafes,'' he says. But Auction Rooms in North Melbourne isn't one of them.

Make mine a strong soy latte

For A Little Bird Told Me's Caleb Heaney, this is one of the most challenging requests. ''Specialty coffee is a bit lighter than some other commodity coffees; it's roasted a bit lighter, so the most challenging thing to make is a strong soy latte, or decaf soy latte, because the soy can react to the intensity of the coffee. It's more about the head. The texture goes funny. We can do it, it's just challenging. Sometimes we've got to do it twice.''

One ristretto, please

Perger says one of the annoying things customers ask for at St Ali is a ristretto. ''A ristretto technically is a stronger espresso. It's much more viscous and mouth-filling. But the coffees that we use aren't quite as soluble; they're not as roasted as Illy or Lavazza. To make a ristretto on most bars, unless you have a grinder dedicated to it, you just stop the shot earlier, and therefore it hasn't diluted as much. That makes our coffee really sour. We serve them a ristretto and then we serve them an espresso the way we like to make it, so we go, 'Here's what you ordered and, for free, this is what we'd love to serve you!' Nine times out of 10 they're like, 'The espresso is much, much better!'''

A good brew

St Ali; 12-18 Yarra Place, South Melbourne; stali.com.au; 9686 2990

Seven Seeds; 106-114 Berkeley Street, Carlton; sevenseeds.com.au; 9347 8664

Auction Rooms; 103-107 Errol Street, North Melbourne; auctionroomscafe.com.au; 9326 7749

Duchess of Spotswood; 87 Hudsons Road, Spotswood; duchessofspotswood.com.au; 9391 6016

Little Chloe; 1810 Malvern Road, Malvern East; littlechloe.com.au; 9699 4054

Common Galaxia; Shop 3, 130 Victoria Street, Seddon; commongalaxia.com.au; 9689 0309

A Little Bird Told Me; 29 Little LaTrobe Street, Melbourne alittlebirdtoldmecoffee.tumblr.com.