June 1, 2021

How is Australian specialty coffee culture evolving?


Australia is one of the world’s foremost destinations for specialty coffee; it has a reputation for innovation, its award-winning baristas and roasters, and a thriving coffee shop culture. 

In recent years, it has enjoyed a reputation for having some of the world’s most well-known roasters, baristas, and cafes, as well as a number of successful champions on world competition stages. 

This has been recognised by the global coffee industry, too. Around the world, “Australian-style” coffee and food service has started to become more prominent, with brunch, specialty coffee, and healthy food just some of the key traits that characterise the trend.

But what’s happening in Australian coffee today? And how are things changing? To learn more, I spoke to several Australian coffee professionals to find out how specialty coffee culture is developing throughout the country, and why the country is so renowned for it. Read on to find out what they said.

You might also like our coffee shop tour of Melbourne.

little melbourne coffee

Specialty coffee: An industry standard 

Despite the fact that the country is renowned today for its coffee culture, coffee didn’t really become prominent in Australia until the mid-20th century. The country’s coffee sector largely developed thanks to the influence of Italian and Greek immigrants, many of whom moved there after the Second World War. 

The Greeks and Italians brought their love of espresso and traditional coffee brewing methods with them, and the rest was history. Their influence was particularly strong in larger Australian cities, including Melbourne, which has a reputation as one of the country’s “coffee capitals” to this day. 

It’s important to note that the modern Australian coffee sector is characteristically different to most other consuming markets. In most major coffee consuming countries around the world, independent specialty and third wave coffee businesses have something of a minor presence, and are often overshadowed by larger franchise operators.

However, in Australia, global chains such as Starbucks have famously failed to succeed in the Australian market. As such, the industry is dominated by smaller independents and boutique coffee shops. But even for these businesses, coffee is changing.

Hany Ezzat is a barista and competitor who has worked in the Australian specialty coffee sector for more than a decade. He has seen first-hand how Australian coffee culture has changed and developed in recent years.

“Machine automation has allowed baristas to take more time to focus on post-extraction variables and education for consumers,” he explains. “Experiences like tasting cards with farm information and coffees being served in different vessels to highlight different ‘elements’ are becoming more common.”

Hany adds that many roasters are now roasting coffees with specific uses in mind (i.e. milk-based drinks, espresso, and filter), and taking care to include brewing guides and traceability information. He also notes that many cafes are also abandoning traditional coffee “menus” in favour of giving customers more information about what they can expect to taste.

“Customers are becoming more used to ordering different blends and origins based on what style of coffee they like, instead of deciding whether they want a flat white or cappuccino,” he explains. 

“With these menus, the focus is much more on the origin, roast, and flavour profile of the coffee, rather than the amount of milk or the cup it is served in.”

Moving beyond specialty?

There’s no doubt that terminology like “specialty” and “third wave” are increasingly being used by coffee businesses around the world to differentiate themselves from larger chains in a saturated market. But in Australia, where chains are arguably less prominent, does this mean they’re starting to lose their significance?

Tom Beaumont is the General Manager of ONA Coffee, and has worked in the Australian coffee industry for several decades in roasting, equipment, and retail. 

He tells me that the number of businesses identifying as “specialty” is causing the term to lose its importance, and that many who use these terms are starting to splinter into different factions. 

“The concept of specialty is almost just like a standard [in Australia],” he says. “In a way, it has almost kind of lost its meaning, because everything is specialty.”

As such, Tom says that many prominent coffee businesses in Australia are now seeking to take a step beyond concepts like “third wave” and “specialty”, to take the preparation and service of coffee to new heights.

“I feel now in recent years, there has almost been a kind of specialty coffee ‘split’, as more businesses try to carve out what the next experience is,” he adds. “There are more roasters and baristas thinking ‘what is the next level of taste?’ and ‘can I be a bit more daring?’

“There’s a lot of experimentation [and] innovation. There’s a lot of suggestive ways of drinking and different ways to drink. It’s a smaller space [to work in], but I think that from a consumer end, that’s starting to get a little stronger now.”

New styles of service 

In line with what Tom notes, many coffee shops in Australia are now offering new and unusual approaches to serving coffee. These include extended menus of frozen, limited edition, and “reserve” coffees. 

Freezing whole coffee beans has become especially popular, as it allows baristas to slow down the ageing process of the coffee, keeping it ideal for use for longer periods of time.

In particular, businesses like ONA Coffee Sydney have become well-known for their extensive menus of frozen coffee beans, while Sydney roaster Toby’s Estate followed this trend with the release of their “Freezus” domestic coffee freezing pack in 2020.

These trends are supporting Australian roasters to bring more high-quality, experimental, and unique flavour profiles to consumers. Rather offering different styles of coffee (such as a flat white or latte) some coffee shop menus in Australia today read more like a wine menu, with harvest year, processing information, and tasting notes all commonly included.

Oliver James is a coffee competition judge and the owner of Tattooed Sailor Coffee Roasters in Cairns. He says that the emergence of these new service styles has been influenced in no small part by barista competitions.

He says: “I’ve noticed a direct correlation between the flavour profile of coffee served at barista competitions, particularly in finals rounds, and the flavour profiles or trends emerging in specialty coffee shops.

“I think the science of making espresso is broadly known and understood [now], and I can see firsthand that competitions are really driving many of these changes.”

Coffee prices and consumption

Along with these innovations and new methods of serving coffee, the Australian coffee market has seen widespread price increases, particularly for the consumer. 

In 2017, reports showed that the average price of a cup of coffee in Australia had increased from A$3.50 in 2014 to A$4.10 – a 17% spike in just three years. 

However, in the past four or five years, some changes have been even more dramatic. When ONA Coffee Sydney first launched their “reserve” menu of frozen coffees in 2018, many people were shocked at the presence of a A$16 filter coffee on the board. 

Just three years later, a Melbourne coffee shop has made headlines for serving a A$200 cup of coffee.

However, Hany says that the increases and greater variation in pricing has by no means been negatively received. 

“Consumers have become more willing to spend more on higher-end coffees and coffee experiences, like frozen and ‘reserve coffee’ menus,” he explains.

“I believe the industry is headed in the right direction, [and] I hope to see the average price of coffee rise in Australia in the future, to benefit all parts of the supply chain.”

Oliver notes that this hasn’t just been down to increased quality, however; it can also be attributed to a more educated average consumer.

“Customers are much more educated [than before],” he says. “They are curious about origins, and generally know if they prefer fruity, nutty or chocolaty flavour profiles, for instance.

“Many also know about origins and their flavour profiles, and are willing to pay higher prices for better quality espresso or beans to take home.”

Embracing new ideas

Despite the fact that Australian coffee culture was born just a few decades ago from existing habits brought over by European migrants, it is now at the forefront of specialty coffee consumption. Today, Australian coffee shops and roasters continue to push boundaries and innovate. 

However, Oliver explains that this relative youth and a lack of any traditional coffee culture is precisely why innovation is so warmly welcomed.

He says: “I think Australian coffee culture is generally more open and excited for new ideas, and happy to trial equipment, methods or ideologies.

“Australian [coffee] culture is less dictated by our maintaining historical ideas or ways of doing things in the wider industry.”

Hany mirrors this, reflecting on the receptive nature of the Australian coffee consumer.

“I see our community as very open-minded people,” he says. “[They are] pushing boundaries and [have a] willingness to adapt in search of a better cup.”

Thanks to its ever-evolving coffee culture and a range of emerging, innovative ways to serve coffee, Australia seems set to maintain its reputation as a leading force in specialty coffee.

However, with the rise of other consuming markets in Asia and the Middle East, and a wider growing obsession with experimental and high-scoring coffees, it could well face strong competition in the not-so-distant future.

Enjoyed this? Then you might like our article on the flat white and how it’s different to a latte.

Perfect Daily Grind

Photo credits: Rowan Marsh-Croft, Jordan Montgomery, Samuel Yap

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