Archive for April, 2011

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.

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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.


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