When did barista bars replace pubs as our social centre?
What year was it, that coffee shops and barista bars replaced the church, the pub, and the picture theatre as the centre of Australia’s social and cultural life?
Some of us remember when “coffee” was a powdered brown matter kept in a jar or tin that you would drag from the back of the cupboard for guests who didn’t drink tea or beer.
Largely-forgotten brands like Nescafe, International Roast, Pablo, Maxwell House, and Harris were the only coffee most Australians knew. Accompanying my mother on her weekly shopping expeditions as a pre-schooler, her special treat was first stop at the local milk bar where I would have a meringue and milkshake while she luxuriated over a “Vienna”; freshly-ground coffee topped with a generous dollop of fresh cream.
Even up to the time of the Sydney Olympics in the year 2000, American and European journalists would often appear in local media to loudly-complain about the paucity of decent coffee for sophisticated overseas visitors that would undoubtedly flood our shores for this august event. Now, every work-place tea-room has its own coffee-maker!
Regional city’s like Orange once proudly considered how they were served by a pub on every CBD corner with labourers and tradies spending their “smoko” (another lost tradition) discussing the merits, atmosphere, and quality of beer as well as the demeanour and honesty of the licensed publican of each establishment. Discussion is now likely to revolve around the attributes of various roasters, blends, and single-origin beans.
But the extent to which this phenomena has overtaken our culture in such a short period of time struck home the first time I took my sons to a first-grade football match since I was a teenager myself in the 1970s and 1980s. To my shock, the rough concrete-floored bars with men spilling beer all-over other fans as they unsteadily-manoeuvred their way up “the hill” of the Sydney Cricket Ground, had largely-been replaced with neat barista bars in each grandstand selling a range of fresh coffee concoctions in environmentally-friendly recyclable cups.
I remember commiserating with a long-time friend upon their informing me that that they had decided to give-up their publican’s licence. “There’s just not the demand anymore; Orange is full of coffee shops now, that’s where everyone goes!” Who doesn’t know the “coffee-snob” who regularly and obsessively rates the freshness of milk, temperature, serving crockery, quality of bean, strength, and amount of froth, of every coffee as if they were a wine judge carefully-assessing each vintage in a competition?
But what is the cost of this new-obsession to our bank balance? A take-away coffee a day runs out to $1500 per annum. An Australian investor and financial writer were both recently pilloried for suggesting that young Australians were not in a position to afford their own homes because of their expensive addiction to coffee shops. “When I was trying to buy my first home, I wasn’t buying smashed avocado for $19 and four coffees at $4 each,” one opined.
My barber (yes, barber!) regularly grumbles to me about the young hipsters who hover each morning around the street barista bars of Orange. But it was only the other day that I saw another boutique enterprise has moved into the petite shopfront next door; it is a trendy, tiny wine bar with candles stuck in old wine bottles. In the end, perhaps, everything comes full-circle.