Coffee in Australia is changing, but one roaster warns hipsters

And they’re willing to pay: Latte on Market Lane is $6 a cup, regardless of additional shots or alternative dairy. Studd says the premium comes from paying growers a rate “far above” fair trade and commodity market prices, as well as inflation in fertilizer costs, which have risen by 300 percent.

A reliable branch

But Les Schirato, the founder of Vittoria Coffee and one of the forefathers of espresso-based coffee in Australia, beginning in the 1960s, cautions coffee drinkers looking for smaller brands.

“Where I always have to smile a little are all the hipsters and trendies who think they know so much – they don’t even know who’s behind the coffee brands,” he says.

Vittoria's coffee founder, Les Schirato, sees himself as one of the

Vittoria’s coffee founder, Les Schirato, sees himself as one of the “Last Men Standing” when it comes to Australian-owned coffee.Credit:Rhett Wyman

Some brands like Allpress, Toby’s and Campos have been bought out by multinational giants: Toby’s Estate, established in Sydney’s Chippendale in 1998, has been defunct since 2010 and is now owned by Japanese coffee giant UCC Holdings. Beverage giant Asahi acquired Melbourne-based coffee company Allpress in April 2021. Two months later, legendary Sydney roaster Campos was acquired by Dutch giant JDE Peet’s.

Schirato, former longtime president of the Australian Coffee Traders Association, disapproves of competition but says it’s a mistake to think his company is “big”. It’s not compared to the multinationals.

“I would like to [people] to support the local cafes supporting local brands [like Vittoria],” he says.

While COVID-19 has brought large swaths of the hospitality industry to its knees, particularly in business districts, Australians’ unwavering love of a cup of coffee has made the coffee sector arguably one of Australia’s most resilient industries.

According to figures from social researcher McCrindle, around nine in ten Australians (88 percent) like coffee in some form and generate more than $8 billion in sales a year. We consume 1.9 kilograms of this per person per year.

IBISWorld estimates that sales will grow by an average of 2.1 percent per year to USD 11.9 billion by 2026.


“Although spending on cafes and coffee shops is voluntary, many consumers see coffee as an affordable luxury,” said Suzy Oo, senior industry analyst at IBISWorld, in an April 2022 report. “Consumers often don’t want to give up their daily coffee.”

The relatively constant consumption of Australians, even during lockdown, was exactly what made coffee companies like Allpress so attractive to Asahi.

“This is an opportunity for these big companies [have] a presence in Australia. It’s also a great opportunity for the small coffee companies that were locally based to expand at huge levels… their operational efficiencies would increase, their reach would increase, and their initial cost would decrease,” says IBISWorld industry analyst Disha Jeswanth, who expects to further consolidate this going forward will.

Not only have lockdowns been a boon to suburban cafes, which have benefited from people working from home, retail bean sales have also skyrocketed, as have sales of coffee makers and pods. Even Schirato, who vowed his company would never make instant coffee, was forced into it by the pandemic.

“It was the supermarkets that saved us,” he says. “If I didn’t have supermarkets, we probably wouldn’t have made it through COVID.”

Changing tastes and high expectations

But as much as we love coffee, local options are few: 99 percent of the beans we consume are imported. What is grown in Australia comes from just 50 commercial growers, producing 600 tonnes of coffee beans per year.

However, research efforts are underway to increase these numbers. AgriFutures, a government-funded research organization working to strengthen rural industries, is conducting a five-year project to develop Australia’s local coffee bean industry.

according to dr Olivia Reynolds, senior manager of AgriFutures Emerging Industries, the biggest obstacle so far has been a factor no one can control: the weather.

Brazil is a popular region for coffee growing. 99 percent of the coffee consumed by Australians is imported.

Brazil is a popular region for coffee growing. 99 percent of the coffee consumed by Australians is imported.Credit:Bloomberg

“What’s really limiting the coffee industry is the lack of suitable strains for our growing conditions,” she says. “So what we need to do is identify varieties that grow really well and are adapted to Australian growing conditions, hence our investment in the variety trials.”

The regions best suited for growing the plant that produces coffee seeds are from far north NSW to tropical Queensland. Reynolds believes these regions, particularly far north Queensland, may have historically been too heavily focused on tourism – but the pandemic’s closed borders have been something of a wake-up call not to over-rely on one sector.

Market Lane coffee pouch

Market Lane coffee pouch

Reynolds has just completed the first year of the five year project which has yielded some early indications of about four cultivars doing well in the northern NSW region, although this must remain confidential.

It’s not that there isn’t a demand for coffee grown in Australia – quite the opposite. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm for Australian-grown coffee, but there just isn’t the supply available right now to expand it,” she says.

To support the growth of the local industry, Reynolds’ team is also using artificial intelligence to develop a coffee “flavor wheel” to better articulate the distinctive flavor profile and mouthfeel of beans grown in Australia.

“Coffee flavor can be affected by crop diversity, climate, soil, cultivation management and all of these variables, and they can really affect the taste, acidity and also the mouthfeel of the coffee. this is our terroir. And here we use machine learning, artificial intelligence, to quantify the distinctive characteristics of each of these coffee descriptors.

“We have such potential because we’re a coffee-obsessed culture, with one of the highest per capita coffee consumption rates in the world… [it’s] extraordinary.”

Australian beans or not, according to Spiteri, nobody in Collingwood, whether they’re “coffee snobs” or “judges from Java,” is a fan of “any kind of chain.” Terror Twilight, which opened about six years ago, imports beans from overseas and then hires local roasters.

As well as the classic latte, Spiteri says the most popular order is a magic – a double ristretto with milk that originated in Melbourne.

“People are definitely more adventurous with their coffee,” he says. “People are really open to trying something different if you have a specific on or a different mix… Coffee in Australia is changing, but one roaster warns hipsters

Brian Lowry

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