Archive for the 'History' Category

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.

Australian Made

The single origin that was being pushed at my local coffee shop last week was impossible to pronounce. Too many consonants and a fair trade sticker made the exotic import out to be a bit smug, even though it was fine in taste.

We consume 50,000 tonnes of coffee per annum and only 500 of that comes from our own backyard. I think Dick Smith would agree that it’s time the Australian Made logo became more of a focus.

The first big coffee boom was in the mid 1800’s when a couple of farmers in Queensland took advantage of the perfect growing climate. The taste was also above par because, according to Australia’s nationwide coffee consultant, Gary Trye, the ‘low acidity in Australian soil, gives Australian coffee its mild body and caramel flavour‘.

Australian coffee won awards throughout Europe in the late 1880’s. It was ‘roasted and ground on the premises’ in most food stores nationwide and a staple in the Australian diet. Unfortunately, the lack of cheap labour and a tsunami wiped out our coffee market in the early 1900’s; it has only become popular to grow in the past three decades.

Even though our resources are plentiful, cafés still look towards Ethiopia, Indonesia and Kenya to kick start their customers. It’s kind of like wine a couple decades back. Who would have thought our vineyards would gain worldwide notoriety? Now it’s our coffee’s turn to become a force on the international market, once again.

A couple of home brands are beginning to make a name for themselves, using history as a selling point. Red Earth Coffee, ‘Sydney’s first coffee shop serving Australian Grown coffee’, is a year old, although the owners, Patrick and Lisa have been selling Aussie beans for over five years in other establishments.  

Nat Jaques of Jaques Australian Coffee is accredited for inventing the first mechanical harvester. Coffee before 1980 was only picked by hand. This has enabled him to enjoy much success with his multi-award winning beans. His plantation is set up like a vineyard in Queensland, complete with tours, tastings and maybe even a ride on his patented machinery.

In Melbourne, there is Eureka Coffee in Fitzroy North. It is a family operation as the owners use their parents’ farm to pack their porta-filters full of home grown espresso. They also house Grower’s Espresso which supplies specialty coffee and tea from around the world. It’s a more balanced mix than feeling tongue tied over the one coffee on offer at most Melbourne cafés.

Buying Australian products will of course boost the economy and create more jobs. But more importantly, Australian coffee is glorious and should be easier to obtain than something from halfway around the world.

I may not sound cool asking for a ‘Byron’ blend but I know the taste is worth it and that’s a fair trade.

Dancing Goats and Impotence

 

“Dear Kaldi, yes, he herds the goat

Tiresome walks without an antidote

Til one day a bush he found

With bright red cherries all around

The goats they ate and chomped the fruit

Then pranced and danced without a flute.”

 

The dancing goat legend is the most well-known part of coffee’s 1000 year-old history. Roasts are named after it and the Ethiopians get credit for figuring out that if you roast beans then add water, you’ve got one hell of a picker upper.

However, coffee’s original impression on the world was more scientific. It was recently discovered that coffee can help those that suffer from liver disease, meaning that not much has changed throughout the beans journey.  

The first textual mention of coffee was found within a medical book written by the Arabian Astronomer “Rhazes” in the 10th century. He describes Bunchum (coffee) as “hot and dry and very good for the stomach.”

Similar to tea, coffee blossomed through the medical community where it gained ground as a cure for indigestion. The blessed bean was also listed as a cure for the bubonic plague.

When coffee finally made its way out of Africa and the Middle East to Europe in the 17th century, doctors were fast to praise the drug.

Physician Gideon Harvey wrote in his book Advice Against the Plague (1665), that coffee is:

A very whoesom and Physical drink, having many excellent vertues, closes the Orifice of the Stomack, fortifies the heat within, helpeth Digestion, quickneth the Spirits, maketh the Heart lightsom, is good against Eye-sores, Coughs, or Colds, Rhumes, Consumptions, Head-ach, Dropsy, Gout, Scurvy, Kings Evil, and many others.

Yet benefits and health warnings go hand in hand. Since coffee made people feel good, there had to be a catch.

In 1674, a group of women drew up a petition against coffee explaining that “this pitiful drink is enough to bewitch Men … and tie up the Codpiece-points without a Charm.” They also claimed it made men too thin and that it caused headaches.

Well the headache part has been embraced as anyone who has gone without caffeine has felt the afternoon pound. Thankfully our advancements have de-bunked the impotency idea.

Coffee has moved far beyond the legendary herder. It has been poked and prodded and found to be more than just an enjoyable beverage that causes hyperactivity in goats.

As the medical community continues to find more antioxidants, cures for liver disease and possibly cancer, coffee remains an ancient drink providing the same benefits as it did hundreds and hundreds of years ago.


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