June 8, 2012

Coffee in the Capital

The ACT has put themselves on the coffee map after the Ona Coffee sponsored ACT team shook up the Da Vinci State of Origin, beating all states in last year’s heats and coming a nail-biting second to Victoria in the grand final.

The coffee industry commonly speaks of the way coffee appreciation has hit in waves; well … it seems as if the city of Canberra has been hit with a big one.I’m sure somewhere in the cobwebs of your mind you can remember a time when coffee was just that muddy water that you reluctantly skulled as it scorched the back of your throat, just to get that kick through the day. Even for some of you who are not so old, this concept could just be folklore.

Well, not so long ago, this was reality in Canberra. You could walk the streets of the not so vibrant city and see the people running our country bursting in the doors of tacky cafés, where the coffee machine virtually sits on top of the bain marie – and is probably as oily. On the other end, you watch them walk out with coffees bigger than the buildings they work in. To the average coffee appreciator, this was such an assault to the senses, that most would flee south to the sanctuary of Melbourne – or just turn their back on coffee all together.

Thankfully, nowadays we can start to paint a different picture of Canberra’s coffee culture. It seems to have become less of an oxymoron, as you see the internet littered with coffee forums and blogs searching for the best coffee spot and burning the old ‘production-line’ cafés at the stake. You walk around the city and see people eagerly analyzing the weekly single-origin, as a cold drip tower slowly drips in the background. The cups are still as big (one step at a time), but at least they aren’t full of sugar and bad coffee…

So how did this shift start, and where is it now?

Like all cultural movements, there is always one person or organisation that swims against the current to create change. In Melbourne, Mark Dundon (former owner or St Ali and current owner of Seven Seeds) was integral in pushing the limits and boundaries of coffee. In Canberra, it was most definitely ONA Coffee (owned by Danes Australasian Grand Barista Champion, Sasa Sestic) who stopped the production line and started to look at how coffee can be enjoyed and appreciated.

Five years ago, ONA Coffee started their own roasting operation and instilled processes at the barista’s station to create greater quality.

“We started roasting simply to feed our own passion for coffee,” says Sasa.

But, as more and more people lined out the door of their understated café, anyone could see that something special was happening. ONA has grown like wildfire, to become Canberra’s largest specialty roaster. Their baristas are now part of the furniture on the national stage, winning multiple medals across a variety of competitions. They are also on the front line of direct trade specialty green bean sourcing and roasting.

ONA successfully opened the door to specialty coffee in Canberra. You now can happily walk through the city and find a number of great little in house roasters, all with their own unique style.

“Only a year ago we had to look abroad to find roasters and organisations to bounce off and inspire us. More and more we can look in our own city to find inspiration,” says Sasa. “ Canberrans consume the most coffee in Australia, so it is good to see they are doing it with more style and consideration.”

The passionate people of Canberra are now deciding to stay and create their own culture, rather than flee as they used to.

“We looked at what’s happening elsewhere and said, ‘why can’t we do it here?’” says Tim from Red Brick Espresso.

The coffee bubble in Canberra has burst. Skilled coffee roasters and baristas can confidently open up shop, knowing that if they do a good product, people will come. It is clear the Canberra coffee consumer has become more discerning. However, this was no accident. “It has taken us 5 years to slowly and arduously introduce Canberra to specialty coffee and its appreciation. But with persistence, change has been created,” says Sasa.

Canberra is now a young but vibrant specialty coffee destination, with several great coffee spots. If you are ever in Canberra, here are our favourite spots to go in the capital:

• ONA Coffee Manuka  • ONA Coffee House • Two Before Ten  • Farmers Daughter • Red Brick Espresso

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