A light drizzle hits its stride as we finally get the power working. We’ve shipped our entire mobile drip coffee bar 8,000 miles, tinkered with logistics for weeks, juggled multiple time zones, and practically took up residency on an airplane to get to this spot: an open courtyard in the central business district (apparently calling it downtown is far too American) in Melbourne, all with the attempts to further introduce the people of Australia to filter coffee.
But now it’s raining and no one’s around, so we listen to hip hop over outdoor speakers and eat avocado toast beneath a building’s ledge— storm clouds storming about above.
If you’re into coffee, you’ve probably heard of MICE, the humungo international coffee conference/trade-show and attached barista competition, held in what looks like a giant circus tent. It’s Australia’s biggest coffee show, and like most things happening in Melbourne, it’s nearly impeccable. The eyes of many in the industry have recently been focused towards Melbourne as a source of inspiration, innovation, and petty jealousy. It’s a place where a two word coffee menu isn’t out of bounds (espresso or espresso with milk), baristas get paid an actual living wage, and seemingly any business professional off the street could articulate for you the floral notes of her morning shot of Yirgacheffe, even if it is cut with a bit of steamed milk. The cafes are beautiful, details are obsessed over, and the coffee shop brekkies (read: breakfasts) are the stuff of legend. It’s a special, magic sort of place. It’s the kind of place that makes you want to work harder, be better.
We’re a manufacturer of machines that assist in making filter coffee, so it goes without saying that we would like to be apart of the growing non-espresso trend in Australia. Espresso is great. I like espresso, sometimes even with milk. But what most excites me most about coffee is the complexity, that kaleidoscopic wave of flavor that forever surprises you with its reach. For that sort of complexity to truly shine through for me, it needs clarity. Espresso can be wildly aromatic and, often times, very very loud, but to me it never has what expertly made filter can have, that clear singing resonance, like the sound of a crystal glass when you spin your finger gently on its rim.
After our rainy day pop-up, we head over to the fair-grounds to set up our booth. Like most trade-show set ups, it’s a day of mitigating disasters— lots of swearing and taking off of hats for dramatic emphasis, arguing/begging with electricians, and elation when you see everything fall, however chaotically, into place. Our booth here is a collaboration between Cafe Imports, the American based green buyers, and our local hosts and friends, the revered Code Black Coffee Roasters. The idea was to have a place where coffee farmers, green buyers and importers, roasters, baristas, and manufacturers could all be found under one little roof, slinging coffee side by side by side. Once we have a working booth, and with our bright yellow safety vests securely fastened (Ausies are just crazy about safety), we take a lap around the show grounds.
Walking the floor of a show like MICE makes you immeasurably grateful for the day you decided to care about coffee. Seeing specialty coffee done on that large a scale, with so much pomp and reverence, would assure even the most outspoken of skeptics that this “trend” isn’t going anywhere, that this is a brand new world we’re living in and specialty coffee has a beloved place within it.
The weekend is filled with learning, teaching, talking, and most importantly, exposing a lot of people to drip coffee. Whenever I’m not teaching a class or brewing for the throngs of curious Australians wanting to try this “filter” thing off our “sexy” (their words) new Seraphim, I do laps around the conference with purpose. I jump into cuppings, sip and spit as much espresso as I can, get confused when Matt Perger winks at me, debate whether or not I need a copper kettle in my life, buying said kettle, meeting new and old friends, and trip all over myself when I find James Hoffman playing around with the Seraphim at our booth (I don’t care if this is lame: I get slightly nervous when I’m around James Hoffman.)
But the greatest thing we get to do is what specialty professionals do every day— show people what truly great coffee can be. As far as specialty coffee has come, there’s still so much good news to be shared. My favorite people that came up to the booth that weekend were the ones who accidentally showed up because there was a cake expo next door (arguably, the better expo). Most would walk up, stomachs full, and ask if we had any cream or sugar to go with the sample cups of high-altitude-raised-bed-natural-processed Colombian geisha we were serving. Everyone at our booth— the farmers, importers, roasters, baristas, and us— got the chance to warmly smile and say, “Give this one a try. I think you’ll really like it.”
Melbourne is a magical place, one we hope to keep coming back to for years to come. There are more and more shops opening every day that are doing unbelievable things with filter coffee, and people are taking note. It may always be a predominately espresso based culture, not unlike Cuba or Italy (In a class I taught the hands down favorite filter we brewed had a TDS of 2.3%, making my point about over extraction irrelevant— people like what they like). But us filter evangelists can’t help but try and get as many converts as we can in a city we so deeply respect, admire, and are insanely jealous of.
The morning after the show, I wake up early to get to the airport, ordering a “regular cup of coffee” at the corner cafe on my way out. When I hop in a cab and take off the lid to let it cool I don’t see the familiar black slick of my usual order, but rather the silky milk heart of a flat-white staring back at me. It’s early and I’m tired, so I take this as an ironic sort of love letter sent from the city itself. We pass the circus tent as the sun comes up, my cab driver and I fully engaged in a conversation about Ethiopian fly crops as I sip my expertly made coffee flavored milk.
Melbourne, we love you too.