It’s a chilly 13 degrees on a grey Saturday morning in Melbourne, as I make my way to the south side of town to join a walking tour with Walk Melbourne. I’m a little bleary eyed, having stayed up slightly later than I should have the night before. Two of our group have just flown in on the red-eye from Perth and even our guide Monique has that look in her eye. We all need a coffee – and we’ve come to the right place.
The Coffee Lovers Walk is one of five guided walking tours offered by Walk Melbourne, a tour company that’s all about helping visitors discover the treasures of this city. Not always easy unless you know where to look – or you have someone to show you. Monique Bayer is the owner of the company – and a published food writer and former barista. She secretly admits to me that the Coffee Lovers Walk is her favourite itinerary. And that’s no surprise given Melbourne’s obsession with the black gold, second only perhaps to AFL. Or oxygen. And even they’re debatable.
But it wasn’t always this way. Up until the wave of Italian and Greek migration to Melbourne in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, we’d survived largely on a diet of ground coffee shipped in from England. The first espresso machine arrived in Melbourne in the mid 50s, but for years they were regarded somewhat with suspicion by most of us as we quietly drank our morning cup of International Roast or Nescafe Blend 43.
Today of course the city is awash with purveyors of espresso coffee, all vying for the affections of the voracious latte-loving public. One café can be packed, with a queue down the street, while the one next door sits virtually empty. Why? A complex equation of barista credentials, great beans, an aspirational décor and a healthy dash of street cred. Some have it, some don’t.
Trendy South Melbourne has plenty of it, and we visit four awesome cafes on this tour. We begin at the South Melbourne Market on Cecil Street and a visit to Clement - a wood-paneled hole in the wall that’s renowned for its lightly roasted beans, allowing the flavours to come through more intensely. Monique encourages us to drink our coffees black on this tour as milk dulls the taste. To get the ball rolling I try a heart-starting short black of Clement’s Pony blend, with its zesty apple and lemon undertones. Special mention to the donuts on offer from one of the city’s finest artisanal bakers – Cobb over in Yarraville. Sweet bliss indeed.
From there we make our way into the heart of the market to Padre. This place is pumping, with wall-to-wall customers and a team of baristas calmly riding the wave of adoring popularity. Over another short black – this time an Indian blend with distinct berry undertones – Monique tells us more about the pros of drinking filtered coffee. And before you turn your nose up at this, remember that filtering is the way it’s done on the international coffee bean competition circuit, as this process produces a smoother, more rounded drinking experience.
Leaving the maelstrom of the market behind, we head across Clarendon Street (with quick stops at the fabulous new Bibelot pastry shop and the Madame Truffles pop-up store) and on to one of Melbourne’s biggest and best-known specialty coffee roasters – St ALi in Yarra Place. The place is remodeling – I think. There are wires and naked light globes festooned around the cavernous interior packed with patrons, but that could well be just the look. Here Monique convinces everyone to try a couple of filtered options, with varying degrees of success. For me, the pre-bottled cold-filtered option is the preferred style. It even comes in six-packs and slabs.
Our final destination is one of Melbourne’s original breed of innovative coffee houses that’s managed to keep up the pace for several years now. Dead Man Espresso takes its name from the macabre history of this neck of the woods. The area was once the site of ‘Canvas Town’ – a notorious and dangerous slum for migrant workers established during the gold rush of 1851. Here I throw in the coffee-soaked towel and order a hot chocolate by Mork – a blend of 70% cocoa and 30% sugar. It’s a product of Melbourne and absolutely delicious.
To say we walk away from this tour and continue our respective weekends with a caffeine-induced spring in our step would be an understatement. And the Coffee Lovers Walk is a great way for any visitor to Melbourne to get a true taste of the city’s vibrant café culture – they’d be unlikely to discover it on their own.
Adam Ford is a travel presenter, writer, blogger, commentator and editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide – www.thebigbus.com.au.
Adam travelled as a guest of Walk Melbourne – www.walkmelbourne.com.au.