Sydney. An extraordinary city—vast, complex, and eclectic. The community in and around specialty coffee here is very much the same. The history of Sydney and of coffee here may be short, but it is rich and beautifully interwoven—borne of the constant and diverse waves of immigration that have helped to shape it over the 230 years or so since the British soldiers and criminals first stepped ashore.
Coffee has been with Sydney since the colonial settlers landed in 1788.
Coffee has been with Sydney since the colonial settlers landed in 1788. On the original convict voyage between Britain and Sydney, the convoy stopped in Brazil to pick up supplies including coffee trees and seeds, intent on planting them when they arrived. While those plants didn’t survive, they laid the groundwork for Australia’s vibrant coffee culture.
Sydney was initially set up as a penal colony, but by the early 19th century, free settlers began to arrive as well, primarily under a programme of assisted migration that included land grants for setting up farms and businesses. There is little on record about coffee in the first 50 or so years, as historians have primarily focused on the expansion into and attempted exploration of the vast landscape, contact and conflict with indigenous populations, and the near failure of the new inhabitants to set up successful farming to support themselves.
Tea consumption was dominant due to British and Irish influence, but records show that coffee was a constant import during the 1800s along with other staples that continued to be shipped in to supplement inconsistent local production. By the 1850s, convict transportation had officially ceased and gold had been discovered only 250km west of the township. With the precious metal came a swift and radical change in population, social fabric, and national identity.
Gold fever, temperance, and the coffee palace
Within a decade of European discovery, Australia was responsible for up to one third of global gold production. The newly found wealth combined with the shift from penal colony to free state fuelled an enormous spike in immigration; from about 1851 to 1861—the decade after gold was discovered there—up to 500,000 new settlers arrived to try their luck at striking it rich.
Around this time, people arrived from England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Germany, China, and the USA. With them came diversity in food and drink culture and political ideology—the beginnings of the Australian focus on egalitarianism. As gold continued to be discovered in enormous deposits, money began to flow freely in the colony. Awash with prosperity, Australians looked to Europe for fashion and trends to replicate locally. Parisian-style salons serving café au lait and café noir began to spring up, becoming the places to be seen.
Even before the outbreak of World War One, population pressures and political unrest in Europe saw continued trickles of migration from a range of countries that had not necessarily been represented in Australia before. In the context of coffee, the most notable were Greece, Russia, and Italy, whose people brought with them the foundations of coffee consumption in smaller, less ornate environments. As early as 1904, quaint chocolate and coffee shops, manned mostly by entrepreneurial new immigrant families, began to appear around the city. Drinking coffee as a form of socializing had become an established practice, and even those Sydneysiders of British descent, traditionally raised on tea, ventured out to try the new goods on offer from these smaller and more specialized businesses.
War, espresso, and the milk bar
The Greek-born, Sydney-raised brothers John and Emmanuel Andronicus were the first to identify the love that the Greek- and Italian-Australian population had for coffee, as well as a majority of the wider Sydney population. By the mid 1930s they were importing green beans from around the world and roasting locally. The brothers are also largely credited with importing and installing Australia’s first modern espresso equipment in the late 1940s (although it has also been argued by the Massoni Family of Cafe Florentino that the first steam-driven espresso machines had already been installed in Melbourne by 1928).
Another entrepreneurial immigrant, Russian-born Ivan Repin, set up his first coffee shop in King Street in 1930. Over the next decade, he opened many more shops which became makeshift offices during the Great Depression for employers and staff who could not afford to rent premises of their own. His cafés became hubs for daily catch-ups and business meetings, in a similar fashion to the way cafés are used today.
In early 1942, the US became involved in World War Two and tens of thousands of American servicemen ended up stationed in Sydney as part of the Pacific defence. Many Australians felt abandoned by their British allies (who were, to be fair, quite stretched in Europe) and, as as a result, the local population generally embraced the Americans and their habits—furthering the continued shift from tea to coffee. This, combined with the enormous post-war immigration of predominantly Italian, Greek, and German populations, coffee as a cultural expression was cemented as a permanent part of Sydney’s way of life.
In the face of post-war rations, coffee had become important enough to become government-assisted. In Melbourne, officials appointed second-generation local green coffee importer Horace Bennett, the Tea and Coffee Controller from 1942–1955, to ensure ‘that Australians could continue to enjoy their favourite cuppa despite the problems of supply’. The company, now known as Bennett’s, still operates as a green importer today. During this period, the government lifted previously stifling restrictions on the importation of green coffee, beginning a revolution in local roasting, wholesaling, and retailing.
Many will say from here on in, the rest is history. Greek and Italian immigrants continued to lead the espresso drinking revolution, establishing businesses that shared their favourite coffee drinking experiences from home with enthusiastic Sydneysiders. The warm climate mimicked the Mediterranean and so did their business practices. In every corner of every suburb they opened milk bars that later morphed into cafés and espresso bars serving ‘exotic’ food and coffee, and featured vibrant decor and a warm sense of customer service and community. As immigrants, business operators gained respect from locals by offering something they couldn’t get anywhere else. At their peak popularity, more than 5,000 of these venues existed up and down the east coast, and with the mass production and installation of the modern espresso machines in the 1960s, everyday espresso was now well and truly woven into the social fabric of Sydney.
Mod-oz, Starbucks, McCafe, and the third wave
For many telling this story, that would likely be the ending, but it’s important we also tip a hat to the additional waves of new migrants in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s who continued to influence not only the drinks but also the food served in just about every specialty café operating today.
Unlike similar venues abroad that serve specialty coffee alongside a limited menu of pastries and toast, a comprehensive food menu always accompanies coffee offerings in Sydney. Vietnamese, Indonesian, Lebanese, Thai, Chinese, and Japanese are all now mature food cultures in Sydney and all have impacted the unique fusion cuisine staple generally referred to as ‘Modern Australian’.
During the late 1990s and into the 2000s, many of the best known third wave Sydney roaster-retailers were established, and in a testament to how supportive consumers are of quality service and product, all are still operating today. Toby’s Estate, Single O, Campos Coffee, Coffee Alchemy, and Mecca Espresso all began between 1996 and 2005. They did so—as is often the case in Australia due to the enormous geographical separation—largely disconnected from similar movements in other parts of the world. With the emergent ‘Sydney style’ third wave food and coffee, we were no longer looking to other parts of the world for direction or advice, as through the decades of unique local history, we’d found our very own way.
As a result of this and off the back of the earlier milk bar legacy, Sydney remains to this day almost exclusively an espresso drinking market, 80 per cent of which is consumed as a variation of a milk based beverage. Alternative brewing methods can be found and enjoyed in a handful of third wave venues but it’s certainly not what the everyday coffee customer generally seeks to drink.
Such a strong base of independent cafés throughout the history of Sydney heightened Sydneysiders’ understanding of coffee, and this above-average awareness of coffee and espresso culture has been earmarked as one of the primary reasons Starbucks never managed to take off in the Australian market. Launching their brand in 2000 and then withdrawing 70 per cent of stores by 2008, they arrived far too late to capture any interest from local audiences. In contrast, as a nod to the recognition of how ahead our espresso drinking nation was compared to other similar markets globally, McCafe was conceptualized and launched in Australia in 1993—nearly a decade earlier. At last count, there were approximately 950 espresso bars inside McDonald’s restaurants in Australia.
Today, Sydney is spoiled for choice. Hundreds of quality roasters and retailers happily coexist, each offering unique experiences while gaining market share as per capita consumption continues to grow. The city remains a vibrant, busy, and diverse place, as it has been since its early colonial days, and specialty coffee has certainly kept up with the pace of change and consumer expectations. In all corners of Sydney and her diverse suburbs one thing is universal: really good coffee paired with really good food is never hard to find. It’s fair to say our unique style of coffee has matured, as many Australians have taken the distinctive offering of espresso and food abroad, planting versions of it across the world. In a sense, it has certainly come full circle: a unique food and drink concept constructed from two centuries of immigrant influences has taken its contemporaries back to many of the places from which it originally drew inspiration.
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