Appearing in Bean Scene Magazine, Winter Issue, 2006
by DAVID GEE AND MATTHEW GEE
Half a Century of Australian Espresso
It may be a long way from anywhere but Australia boasts one of the world’s most vibrant coffee cultures. The specialty coffee industry has grown in the last 50 years not from coffee chains but through top quality independent cafés born out of the early Greek and Italian immigrants, write Matthew Gee and David Gee.
From the 1930’s to 1960’s Greek and Italian cafés dominated the Sydney and Melbourne street landscape. They became a focal point for eating, drinking and perhaps more importantly – socialising. Not only were the Greeks and Italians setting up exotic eating houses, they were also involved in establishing the Australian coffee industry through local roasting and the importation of espresso machines. Both of these activities would lay the foundations for the coffee culture that is so firmly entrenched in Australia today.
Locally Roasted Coffee
Freshly roasted coffee was probably introduced into Australia by three Andronicus brothers who had packed up and left their home in Greece in the late 1800s to build a new life in Australia. Drawing on their wealth of European coffee-making experience the trio established one of Australia's first coffee roasting businesses in 1910, roasting 90kg of coffee every day from a store in George St, Sydney.
Roasting took a little longer to get established in Melbourne. Although coffee was probably being roasted as early as 1938 by a small company called Quists, the first real movement towards commercial coffee roasting began in 1954. In that year, three young Italian immigrants by the names of Monaci, Coperchini and Panettieri formed the company Mocopan to deal in smallgoods, spices and coffee. A few years later their company was transformed by the Dimattina family. They began to roast imported beans locally – thus carving out a huge competitive advantage over companies that imported roasted beans. The Dimattina family continue to be a huge name in coffee in Melbourne and beyond.
Australia’s First Espresso Machine
There have been claims and counter-claims recently on talkback radio and in the newspaper as to who was the first person to bring an espresso machine into Australia. Luigi ‘Gino’ di Santo is often credited with being the first to import a true espresso machine into Australia. di Santo came to Australia from Milan in Italy in 1952 as an assisted passage immigrant. After realising the huge potential for espresso in Australia, he took a sea journey back to his homeland in 1953 to see whether he could become an agent for Gaggia. Gaggia had invented the modern espresso machine in 1946 (pre-1946 machines were not capable of pumping water at the right pressure and the right temperature to produce the rich, beautiful oil that we now know as the ‘crema’ on top of a well-extracted espresso). Upon arriving in Milan, di Santo was shocked to find out that a friend of his had beat him to the Gaggia headquarters (he had taken a plane). di Santo settled for the la Cimbali agency and scurried back to install his first one into the Lexington Café in Exhibition Street in Melbourne in 1954. He has claimed on the public record that his friend who became the Gaggia agent was actually the first to install an espresso machine in Australia. He says, "I was second. A friend of mine got in ahead of me." This friend’s name was Peter Bancroft and his first espresso machine was installed in the Universita Cafe in Lygon Street, Carlton only weeks earlier than di Santo’s. It still sits in the restaurant window bearing a sign saying, "Natural cream coffee – It works without steam."
There is evidence of a two-group Faema machine operating out of Nando Varrenti’s Elgin Street Café in Melbourne in 1954 (his mother reputedly flew to Italy in 1952 and packed the machine in her luggage only to have it held up in customs for a long time on her return to Australia). There is also evidence of another two-group Faema operating in Mario Brunelli’s grocery in Lygon Street, Melbourne. Pictures dated from 1955 also show an espresso machine in at Don Camillo Restaurant near Victoria market.
Gino di Santo was instrumental in the establishment of Melbourne’s espresso culture but he was also active in Sydney. As well as the la Cimbali agency, he also became the agent for Universal Coffee Machines and installed his first one in Sydney at David Jones. According to The Hotel and Café News (somewhat of a bible in its day for the thriving hospitality industry) this occurred in early 1955. A Sydney Morning Herald article dated June 1955 also names an espresso machine in department store Mark Foys in Sydney.
However the first espresso machine in Sydney (and quite probably Australia), seems to have been installed in 1952 in the Andronicus brothers’ café on George Street, Sydney (the site that later became The Regent Hotel and is now the Four Seasons Hotel). This Italian espresso machine was imported directly by the family. (Now three generations on, Grant Andronicus is still heavily involved in the coffee scene in Australia, owning several espresso bars in Sydney).
Unfortunately a lot of these early espresso machine have not survived as they were sold for scrap metal in the 1970’s. Those that do exist are valuable collectors’ items.
The Establishment of the Espresso Bar
As soon as espresso machines started entering Australia, a plethora of fine Italian coffee houses began to emerge, most markedly in Melbourne. Pelligrini’s Espresso Bar and Legend Café often lay claim to being Melbourne’s first ‘real’ espresso bars opening their doors in 1954 and 1956 respectively. Mario’s, Mirka’s Café and Sidewalk Café were also landmark, post-war cafés where espresso flourished.
In Sydney, the Andronicus brothers’ coffee house became the benchmark for other establishments. Hundreds of people would stream into their café at lunchtime and drink espressos whilst standing up. Cappuccinos were rare. Caffe lattes and flat whites were non existent. Other landmark espresso bars included Bar Coluzzi set up in William Street in 1957 by Luigi Coluzzi Snr (who only retired in 1999 leaving his daughter Paola at the helm), Lincoln Coffee Lounge and Café in Rowe Street and Repin’s in Pitt Street.
And so espresso was born in these traditional mosaic-exteriored cafes with stone floors, marble bars and drop lights. Suddenly Australians started enjoying espresso in the true European tradition.
Today there are over 16,000 restaurants and cafés employing over 190,000 people operating throughout Australia. It’s true to say that most are no longer designed in that European stand-up bar configuration but with comfortable yet functional seating and alfresco seating wherever possible.
It is amazing to see just how different the coffee culture is in Australia from Asia and the US. Probably more like the Italian coffee culture (but a far greater proportion of coffees sold being milk-based coffees), the industry boasts a huge number of independent cafés born from the Greek and Italian immigrants who loved and wanted to share espresso with the rest of the country. These days, they are owned and operated by Australians from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds. With the coffee boom in Australia still continuing we will be seeing more and more cafés and coffee chains setting up shop and for that matter, more coffee roasters as well. It’s full steam ahead for the coffee industry in the land down under.
Matthew Gee and David Gee currently run a wholesale coffee business in NSW and a barista training school called BARISTA BASICS Coffee Academy that operates in Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney and Newcastle. They have also owned four cafes in Brisbane, have been partners in a specialty coffee roaster, have written Australia’s first textbook on coffee, produced several training videos on commercial and domestic espresso machines and are currently producing a book focussing on domestic espresso machines.
Last year Matthew and David appeared on Bert Newton’s Good Morning Australia and Channel 9’s Fresh with Jeff Janstz. They have also worked as official espresso tasters for Choice Magazine’s 2004 and 2005 review of home espresso machines. They also periodically appear on Ella James’ Saturday night radio program on Sydney’s 2UE. In 2005 they appeared on Mornings with Kerrie-Anne Kennerley on Channel 9 and Today Extra with Nat Jeffrey on NBN3.
David and Matthew have recently acquired one of the oldest restored working espresso machines in Australia – a 1956 Faema Urania. It takes pride of place in their new CBD training centre and is visited by enthusiasts from far and wide.
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& Ô 2006 David Gee and Matthew Gee