From Russia with love

Sailing in from Shanghai in 1925, Ivan Repin, his wife and children disembarked the Tango Maru in Sydney to start a new life. Like many Russians in early 20th Century Australia, Repin and his family were refugees who had left as a result of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and civil war.

Repin had studied engineering in St Petersburg, but as the economic crises of the 1920’s loomed and a foreign tongue showed, it was tough for Russians to find work in their field.

After trying his hand at a few different occupations, including running his own single bus line, Repin the entrepreneur opened his first ‘coffee inn’ in 1930, shortly after he was naturalised. By 1934, he had two shops open, first on Sydney’s King Street then on Pitt.

His geographical inclination can be largely attributed to his success. As there were close to 2,000 Russians in Sydney, most of them were located within close proximity to his coffee inns, including the ethnically established club, the Russian House.

Repin employed many Russian speakers including Estonians and Ukrainians in his shops as they became a haven for misplaced office workers who could no longer afford to rent premises because of the Depression.

Opening mail, company meetings and networking were all frequent business within Repin’s inns which also included proper coffee and rich breakfast like sweet cranberry waffles and eggs on toast.

‘Repin’s coffee inns were also to some extent a home away from home for Russian speakers in Sydney, including those of the visiting Ballets Russes dancers whose first language was Russian,’ historian Michelle Potter from ANU remarks on the hospitality Repin’s business showed travelling Russian Ballerinas.

It was a completely different concept to the way coffee was viewed in the predominately tea drinking society in Sydney. Although coffee or tea was inclusive with a breakfast order at the inns, a lone cup of coffee or iced coffee was charged, an idea which spread like wildfire when Italian immigrants entered the scene in the fifties.

 But you weren’t so much paying for the fast service it was more an admittance fee for a type of European sophistication not present in the pub on the corner.

As his inns sprouted up around Sydney, Repin travelled to the United States to source out better coffee and learn from the industry abroad. Much like coffee roasters do now, when they fly to Guatemala, Kenya or Indonesia to find produce for their roasters, Repin wanted the best for his customers.

In 1948, Repin purchased a coffee roaster and sold fresh take home beans over the counter. He had become a coffee enthusiast by this point and wanted to share his passion for superior product with Australia.

Repin didn’t just give Sydney a palate workout, he introduced a venue that housed culture, like-mindedness, great coffee and a place for migrants, refugees and Australians to go to escape a tough economy and get back on their feet.

Post coffee

It’s been six months. Six months since I’ve felt a jug of milk heat up in my palm, watched the espresso drip out of a porta-filter and felt sweat glide down the front of my forehead trying to get ahead of the order.

It’s been six whole months since I made coffee and I miss it dearly.

I’ve had dreams of making coffee, thought about doing a trial and daily consider asking my local barista to shove across so I could take over. Ever since I joined the race I’ve been a little down frequenting the café as a consumer, not a producer.

After I finished my post-grad I went into full time work, 9-5 at a desk. It has taken me months to get over the guilt associated with sitting down all day, something unheard of in the field of hospitality.

But throughout this whole transition from working student to clockwatcher, coffee has been constantly in my thoughts. I am obsessed with it and given the lines I see on Saturday morning throughout Melbourne, so is everybody else.

So I am changing the direction of this blog – since I now stand in a very different place in the café. As a paying customer I’m curious as to why the coffee shop is probably the most frequented place next to the office and home.

I’m embarking on a social history of coffee in Australia, following the trends, the people, the influences, growth and how a love of beans became what it is today.

Although I’m pretty sure dreaming about coffee isn’t normal, I bet those that did in the past are the ones that transformed a popular foreign plant into a staple in society.

Specialty instant coffee

I have to admit something, I like instant coffee. Why? It’s all in the name.

Instant coffee was my first. I had an assignment due in Year 12 and the procrastinator in me was forced to take the International Roast out of my kitchen pantry and up to my room for an all nighter I will never forget.

What got me hooked was the fact I could make my own tasty cup of coffee – after weeks of experimenting with how much milk, sugar and hot water was needed – cheaply. It was also convenient to have that cup as fast as it took the kettle to boil.

It wasn’t until I became a barista that I realized I could do the same thing with better tasting coffee.

But not all of us are baristas and since instant coffee is still a strong force on the market, it’s good to see some places offer a better instant product as an alternative to the four dollar latte.

Robusta beans are commonly used to make the freeze-dried granules soluble in water. The inexpensive coffee beans with over double the amount of caffeine content are inferior in taste to Arabica beans, what you will find in a proper café.

However, lately Arabica beans have been used to make instant coffee, a move that could make your kitchen pantry just a little bit more sophisticated.

Jasper produces 100% Arabica from Colombia instant coffee in bulk cans and 2g portion sticks. Although they market the product towards workplaces, they also emphasize its ethical pricing and rainforest growing conditions.

Oxfam targets the same audience selling de-caffeinated and caffeinated instant blends, both appeasing the fair trader in us all.

Starbucks released VIA in 2009 another attempt to find their footing after a long re-structuring process. Also using Arabica beans, it’s apparently so good Howard Schultz has been serving it to his dinner guests without them knowing.

Robusta plants account for 40% of global coffee sales a lot considering the negative impact it has on the environment and the fact that it just doesn’t taste as good compared to specialty coffee.

Although it’s popularity is mostly based on convenience, it’s nice that some coffee distributors have decided to make better tasting instant for the barista in us all.

Coffee cocktails

Coconut LatteLast weekend, I got sick of coffee. Staring at the menu board I realized there really wasn’t that much on offer.

Lattes, flat whites and cappuccinos are all milk and espresso with varying levels of froth. Black coffee wasn’t calling out to me and neither were the syrups gathering dust beside the espresso machine.

So I went home, channelled Tom Cruise and Bryan Brown and made some cocktails.

Vietnamese coffee is black filtered coffee poured on top of condensed milk. It is delicious and became the inspiration for my little barista bartending adventure.

I decided to go completely against the norm and not use milk; instead I bought some coconut and thickened cream. Furthering my outside the box experience was some rum essence and dark and milk chocolate.

I came up with two recipes that are very do-able at home.

The Espresso Lover’s Hot Chocolate

1 cup thickened cream

1 tablespoon icing sugar

2 square of dark chocolate (I used Lindt)

1 square of milk chocolate (Lindt again)

1 shot of espresso

Using a hand blender I whipped together the cream and sugar and made… whipped cream.

I picked up some Five Senses beans from my local and packed a shot and let it run on top of the chocolate. Alternatively you can use a stove top, once it’s finished brewing pour it on top of the chocolate and let it sit for a minute without stirring.

Then I put the whipped cream on top. It was fantastic. So good I tinkered with the recipe again and added a little rum essence, it was rich but it was phenomenal.

Coconut Cream Latte and Mocha

1 cup of coconut cream

1 shot of espresso

2 square dark chocolate (Lindt)

Very loudly, because of the consistency of the coconut cream, I steamed the cream. To steam at home check out this little post, this will get you close to the same results of that in a coffee shop.

I poured a shot then filled up the glass with the coconut cream. It was really nutty, which complimented the coffee I was using, yet it was delicious and incredibly filling. I also added chocolate the second time round, a bit sweet for my taste but tasty nonetheless.

Punching holes

I always cut off the check-out clerks from Coles before they ask the fly buys question. Between my metcards, license and debit cards there just isn’t any room for a piece of plastic that will eventually get me an ice-cream maker.

But I will always bank on a coffee card, even though I tend to feel like a cheap bastard reaping the reward.

Loyalty cards are a valuable part of marketing and ensuring customer return, but they are also about giving something back.

Our little establishment does the whole stamp card thing. Five purchases will give you five well rounded holes and then a free coffee; they are one of the most asked for items in the shop apart from coffee of course.

However, our little card has perpetuated some rather outlandish antics that have givenn rise to some new pet peeves, but also make me feel less cheap.

Here are a couple of situations I find rather intriguing when it comes to holes:

Is it this pocket? No, I’ll check the other, oops must be in my wallet, no not there, hmmm, I’ll check my pockets again. STOP. Please place you card neatly in an accessible place so I don’t have to watch you feel yourself up trying to find the damn thing!

Customers shoving themselves in the front of line after the transaction and waving their purple card like a lunatic for a hole, is annoying for all. Ok, you forgot, that’s fine but cutting is never cool, didn’t you learn anything in second grade?

Customers asking me to punch their card because they had forgotten the other day is downright wrong. Even though I always punch it, it’s really rude. It happened yesterday, the window of punch opportunity has left, let it go. Why should reward absent mindedness?

Dodgy cards are the worst because I accept them anyway. As if I’m going to say, did you punch this yourself? We have had to replaced three hole punchers since I’ve dealt with these ‘loyality’ cards, if you’re really struggling for cash, go busking, it’s far more creative than taking a pencil and shoving it through a card.

I’m not going to ask if you have your caffeine card at the end of each transaction like they do at the supermarket, so if you have one, remember it, otherwise it’s your fault not mine.

4 things you may not know about coffee

1: There are ways around high prices

I’ve seen people get rather inventive when it comes to saving money. A single shot of espresso is cheaper to buy than a latte. Usually, coffee places have a little condiments bar consisting of sugar and milk to put in tea and long blacks.

Last summer, I noticed a customer ordering a shot over ice, a common drink yet it took me a while to figure out why the complimentary milk jug was empty when he left. Then it hit, he made his own iced coffee.

We charge $3.50 for an iced coffee which is espresso shots and milk over ice; he paid $2.40 for black coffee over ice and got the milk for free. Dodgy, yes sir! But he did save over a dollar per drink.

I once pulled up a stingy student for ordering a large latte and an extra cup. If he hadn’t poured half of his latte into the requested cup then handed it to his friend in front of me, he may still be getting away with it today.

2: Skinny milk froths better than full fat milk

Coffee connoisseurs insist that the more fat in milk, the better the coffee tastes. This may be true but if you like a frothy cappuccino, skinny is the way to go.

Because skinny milk has less fat content, it froths better and looks much better when it has been properly dealt with. The froth is glossier and much thicker than full fat foam. If you can get past the slightly watered down flavor of skinny milk, give it a go next time you order a milk based coffee.

3: Are you in on the secret?

A menu board will list the most basic items offered in a café and every now and then a special. However, there are a lot of ingredients behind the counter making options outside of the menu endless.

Syrups, chocolates, teas and assorted milks can all be mixed and matched to form whatever concoction you can conjure. Trust me, I get bored behind the machine, I’ve tried it all.

The most popular under the radar order at the moment is a chai latte with a shot of espresso. Tea and coffee seems like an odd flavour combo yet the sweet taste of chai does level out the bitterness of coffee. If you’re bored of your morning latte, get creative and don’t be afraid to ask a barista for a recommendation.

4: Friends with benefits

Smile, say hi, ask questions and above all, say thank you. Manners go a long way and if there is a particular café you frequent, getting to know your barista means special treatment.

Often I will see a customer walking towards the shop, the kind that never strays from their favourite beverage and without a thought I’ll start making their drink.  A coffee ready at the counter always goes down well especially when on the go.

The key is to build a little rapport with your coffee maker, spend a little more time getting to know your caffeine administrator and we’ll spend more time making sure your coffee is fabulous and prompt!

*This post originally contained information about the price of coffee which has been taken out after concerns were raised about the accuracy of research

Trainsurfing

This was originally published on upstart.

As crowds thicken over the weekend, cafés are finding it hard to accommodate the needs of their plugged-in customers. A laptop takes up much more space than a plate of eggs with a latte on the side.

The café Wi-Fi backlash began in the United States when coffee house owners started putting tape on electrical outlets, some even went so far as to revamp their shops, replacing seating with standing bars.

Melbourne is on the verge of the same game of outlet hide and seek. Fair enough, after all is the café really the most appropriate place to double up as an office?

Trevor Simmons opened his Melbourne café, Penny Farthing, with Wi-Fi in mind as he saw it to be a good fiscal draw. Yet eight months after opening he says he has ‘had to ask people to put away laptops on the weekend because there just isn’t any space, this isn’t a library.’

The stench of espresso in Penny Farthing reminded me that I wasn’t in the business of borrowing books, but the handful of customers scattered throughout the café staring at their laptops lent a kind of silence that suggested otherwise.

Cafés were one of the first to catapult free Wi-Fi into popularity when a friendly neighbour beamed a wireless signal into an adjoining coffee shop. Ten years later, it’s time for Wi-Fi to find a more suitable setting so it can put the noise back into coffee.

But where else can you be anti-social, kill time and not type in fear of spilling a hot drink over precious technology? Why, public transport of course!

Since 2006, talk of free Wi-Fi for commuters has led to broken promises and disappointed users. The only hope we have to take back the time wasted commuting are the trials that have been going on since the middle of last year.

In South Australia, there was a six-month trial of one metropolitan bus equipped with all things Wi-Fi, but nothing has evolved from there.

Close to a year on, in February 2010, the Tasmanian Greens decided to roll out an 18-month Wi-Fi bus trial in hopes that they can meet that of ‘Europe’s train system which offers free Wi-Fi for travellers, and is widely recognized as leading the way internationally with over 70,000 ‘hotspots’.

Commercial banking companies like ANZ have also decided to try their clever marketing hand at free Wi-Fi.

Overly adorned throughout Melbourne’s Southern Cross station are banners and kiosks advertising ‘a free Wi-Fi zone’ brought to you by ANZ. It looks like someone threw up blue.

When asked about the new addition, the Metro information centre simply pointed to ‘the yellow building where you can get the best coverage’. They didn’t seem to know that the promotion, which started in June, will only last until the end of this month.

This month, ANZ also launched free access until November for sea-bound commuters travelling the 30 minute journey from Manly to Circular Quay in Sydney. They are setting the foundations because, ANZ announced, ‘the daily commute to and from work is a very natural time for consumers to expect free Wi-Fi services’.

In Europe, free and pay-as-you-go Wi-Fi is available on Virgin trains, Thalys and other public transport providers. In the United States, New York City is moving to wire close to 300 subway stations with free Wi-Fi.

The NSW government is already backing the endeavour between ANZ and the Circular Quay fleet. A little subsidising goes a long way when it comes to getting home on time.

Maybe then you’d have enough time to sit in the café without your laptop. All those hours spent throughout the week waiting and travelling could be put towards productivity instead of stealing space from the founders of free Wi-Fi.

If you see a queue, put it away, but before you do, kindly write a letter to those at Metro and your local council to praise the free trials.


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