Melbourne: Top of the sip parade

The Barista World Championships are coming to Melbourne, says Chris Lawrence, and in this coffee-obsessed city, it's easy to see why

'The beans are from Colombia. There's a taste of apple and pear, with a savoury after-flavour." For someone accustomed to caffeine the Starbucks-way (a white Americano in a cardboard cup; my name scrawled on the side in black marker) it's a little unnerving to make a coffee order and be spoken to as if I were a participant on a wine-slurping tour.

However, I am not in Starbucks. I'm in Port Phillip Arcade in the heart of Melbourne, in a small café called Alice Nivens just across the road from Flinders Street station. Residents of the city who love their coffee (which is almost all of them, and in a very serious way) wouldn't be seen anywhere near an identikit coffee house, and this is anything but that.

This is an Alice in Wonderland-themed café-cum-bakery with an espresso bar at the front and an open kitchen at the rear. There is a 5ft-high Alice mural on the wall and the light bulbs are inverted cups hanging from the ceiling: it's Starbucks through the looking glass. It's fronted by owner/ barista Janet Wong, a 26-year-old from Hong Kong, who is giving me a taste of how Melbourne takes its coffee.

"Can you taste it?" she asks. My palette – perhaps dulled by familiarity with the Starbucks cup – isn't sharp enough to pick out what she's looking for. Always the polite tourist, though, I murmur my compliments before downing the drink. I've some way to go before I can match the locals' love of the coffee bean.

This is a city where the appreciation of coffee has been raised to a new level. It has gone beyond the morning pick-me-up and has entered the realm of bespoke artistry, to the extent that coffee – how to serve it and where to get it – has become one of the city's most heated topics of debate. The city claims to produce better coffee than anything New York, London, or even the Italian espresso capitals, have to offer. Later this month, it will host the Barista World Championships: the ultimate demonstration of coffee creation.

Everyone I met in Melbourne had a favourite coffee house to recommend; it's said there are enough independent cafés in the city centre for you to get a cup in a different establishment every day of the year.

It can be a daunting proposition for the uninitiated, so I recruited the help of Monique Bayer, a trained barista from the suburb of St Kilda, who for the last six months has been taking intrigued tourists and locals on walking tours of the Central Business District grid, hunting out the most fashionable cafés and her favourite baristas.

"You can't go an hour without someone offering you a coffee," Monique says. "People no longer say 'let's have a meeting', they say 'let's have coffee'."

We met at the corner of Bourke Street and Spring Street and walked the short distance to Pellegrini's, one of the oldest coffee houses in the city. With its chessboard tiled floor and leather stools it has the feel of a 1950s diner, an authentic artefact of the city's earliest espresso outlets.

Pellegrini's opened in 1954 in the wave of excitement that accompanied Melbourne's first espresso machines. Italian immigrants had flooded the city's post-war heavy industries and had brought with them an ingrained affection for caffeine but, thousands of miles from home and the wrong side of an embargo on Italian products (a legacy of the war) they'd had to make do with inferior coffee.

Only with the arrival of these gleaming, hissing and steaming machines, creating dark, bitter coffee topped with the signature golden crema, could they savour the true taste of the bel paese. When the first Gaggia espresso machine was imported to Melbourne in the 1950s and installed at a café in St Kilda, it created such a storm of interest that the police were on hand to manage the queues. It transformed Melbourne's café culture and, today, that enthusiasm is barely diminished.

Monique and I walk on and stop for a quick espresso shot in the tiny confines of Switchboard. There she explains how Melbourne's caffeine addiction is evolving.

"Up until the late Nineties, it was all Italian espressos, which would be dark and bitter and you'd have sugar to offset it. It's still popular with Italians but now people are more interested in speciality coffee. People are becoming obsessed with the origin of the beans; the region, altitude and variety of the bean. It's made some coffee drinkers the equivalent of coffee foodies, the sort of people who would never use milk as it clouds the flavour."

This has become known as the "third wave" of coffee drinking, a trend – borderline pretentious – that is particularly popular among Melbourne's hipster generation and was perfectly encapsulated by Patricia, the next café on our tour. Planted in the heart of the city's financial district, you won't find any tourists here. It is standing-room only and rammed wall-to-wall with Melbourne's brightest and wealthiest in their smartest suits.

Monique recommends I get a "pour-over", a Japanese-style coffee that has become popular among the city's third-wavers. The barista slowly pours water in a thin stream over a filter and watches it drip in to my cup below. It is a process that takes about four minutes and is designed to give the barista more control over the brewing process. I'm given a glass of sparkling water to cleanse my tongue and told to wait until the water is lukewarm, so I can better appreciate the flavour.

The final stop on our tour takes artisan coffee to a new level. At the chic and minimalist café, League of Honest Coffee, I was introduced to siphon coffee: a technique that looks closer to a chemistry experiment.

The barista emerges with a bizarre-looking contraption. There is a glass flask, connected by a tube to a glass orb beneath it. The equipment is placed above a heat source and, by some design that I couldn't understand, the vapour pressure of the water contained into the orb is altered, forcing into the flask where the coffee grounds are lying. It's baffling to the untrained eye, though it is a technique that's been around since the 19th century, and the result is a light and crisp coffee.

I don't know if I'd prefer it to a typical espresso, but for the caffeine addicts of Melbourne, it's yet another way of achieving their goal: coffee society at its most refined.

TRAVEL ESSENTIALS

Getting there

Qantas (0845 774 7767; qantas.co.uk) flies direct to Melbourne from Heathrow.

Drinking there

Three-hour coffee tours take place on Tuesdays and Saturdays from 10am (00 61 411 182 911; walkmelbourne.com.au) for $59 (£39).

The Barista World Championships runs from 22-26 May (worldbarista championship.com).

Alice Nivens Café, Shop 13, 228 Flinders Street (alicenivenscafe.com).

Pellegrini's Espresso Bar, 66 Bourke Street (00 61 3 9662 1885).

Switchboard Café, Unity Arcade, 220 Collins Street.

Patricia Coffee, 493-495 Little Bourke Street (00 61 3 9642 2237; patricia coffee.com.au).

The League of Honest Coffee, 8 Exploration Lane (00 61 3 9654 0169; padrecoffee.com.au).

More information

visitmelbourne.com

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