Exploring the cafe-lined lanes and alleys of central Melbourne is a pleasant way to spend a morning, but doing it in the company of a coffee historian is even better. And that’s exactly what we did last week when we took part in Context Travel’s Flat Whites and Short Blacks Melbourne coffee tour led by Context docent Jillian Adams.
Wait, what’s a short black?
As New Zealanders, we were already familiar with these coffee terms — they’re the same here in Australia as back home. In fact, my order in the first cafe I visited in the UK was exactly that: one short black, one flat white. The waitress’s incomprehension made me change my order: a short black is an espresso, so that was fine, but flat whites (one third espresso, two thirds steamed milk) hadn’t made it to Europe yet. I sighed and ordered a cappuccino.
Flat whites are sadly off the menu for me now, as my body has recently decided that it’s not too keen on lactose, so I switched to short blacks for the tour and tried to convince myself that I’d get a better appreciation of the flavours of the coffee. At least it meant that we could spend less time at each stop — and as the only guests on the tour (Context limits its tours to six people) there was no waiting around for other people to finish their drinks.
Our Melbourne coffee tour begins…
We started at a small cafe with a queue stretching down the street. Luckily the line was for takeaway coffee and there were seats available upstairs, where Jillian gently but firmly disabused us of our fondly-held understanding of the coffee history of Australia and New Zealand. Apparently it wasn’t the Italian immigrants arriving after World War Two that brought coffee beans and espresso machines to our shores.
Instead, the million American servicemen who passed through brought their love of coffee with them. Australian housewives were instructed in the art of coffee preparation by way of magazine articles, and the Americans’ love of the bean seeped into Aussie culture.
Our tour took us to a couple of hotels that were once coffee palaces, built during the temperance movement of the 1800s. As we walked to our next destination, Jillian mentioned a fromagerie nearby — when she saw our eyes brighten, she added it to the itinerary and we spent a couple of minutes underground, admiring cheese.
Italian coffee in Melbourne
Melbourne’s Italian coffee story started at Pellegrini’s, where Jillian told us a generation of Melburnians had watched themselves grow older in the mirrors behind the bar. On her recommendation, we had our second short black at a nearby cafe. “For the coffee tourist experience, I’d go to Pellegrini’s, it’s so iconic. But you’ll probably get a better coffee here,” she said as our drinks arrived.
History and architecture
A stroll along the main street of Chinatown and through some of Melbourne’s gorgeous arcades (built during the gold boom) took us to our final cafe, where we tried three coffees prepared by different methods, and ate the cakes the head barista recommended as good accompaniments to them.
Coffee was definitely the central focus of our morning, but we said goodbye to Jillian with a wider understanding of more than just cafes and coffee history. We’d also learned a bit about the gold-fueled building boom of the 1850s, seen the domestic treasures of an archaeological dig, and discussed everything from earthquakes to the study of homesickness with our excellent guide. She mentioned that she’s putting together a new addition to Context’s Melbourne walking tours: a food tour of the city. We’re in — maybe we’ll see you there!
Our tour was provided by Context but (of course) all opinions in this post are our own.