Of MICE and Melbourne

Far from a detailed travel diary or extensive review of the city’s coffee scene, after recently spending a week in Melbourne, I did have a few thoughts to share.

At its heart, the trip was all about visiting family to celebrate a milestone birthday, which coincidentally occurred over the same weekend as the Melbourne International Coffee Expo (MICE) for 2017. A brief visit to Pen City aside — as far as the usual themes of this blog are concerned — the trip was certainly more coffee than pens.

A couple of hundred photos, along with 45 Day One entries logged the journey, which was as much as I would have liked to record without feeling I was constantly fiddling with my phone.

A week-long extravaganza of family, coffee, exploration, and food — not too much to dislike about that really.

MICE 2017

Entering the expo in the Grand Pavilion at the Melbourne Showgrounds brings two words to mind: sensory overload. Add to that a fair amount of overwhelm for this first time attendee. It was certainly an experience, and took my wife and I an hour or so just to get our bearings and settle in to things.

Perhaps of greater risk at such an event is caffeine overload, given the samples on offer from the many, many booths of specialty coffee purveyors. My initial voluntary restraint (given my uncertainty as to how these things work) was ably assisted in the latter part of the morning by the throngs of show goers pouring in the door. Pro-tip for next time: get in early and be just a little more aggressive with the tasting, for there will be a natural slow-down as lines and crowds increase over the day.

Show purchase: Pullman Chisel

Espresso-based beverages, batch and manually brewed, chai and milk alternatives. It was all there for the palate to behold, and although I didn’t sample everything I’d have liked (Five Senses Geisha Flight anyone), I came away very happy. Combine that with the many producers, roasters, brewers, custom machines, and gadgets in general — not to mention the competition stage in full swing — it was certainly an experience to behold and a must-see at some point for any coffee enthusiast.

After picking up a couple of tools for home and a kilo and a half of coffee, the icing on the cake was catching up with some industry folk who have become friends over the years, and seeing some of them in their absolute element competing. To say it was inspirational only scratches the surface.

Both my wife and I loved every minute of it.

Coffee out and about

As you can imagine over the course of the week, more than a few cafés were visited both in the CBD and suburbs. For the purpose of this post, the specifics of particular establishments are not important, being largely determined simply by proximity, perhaps a glance at Beanhunter, and occasionally by reputation.

If we assume Melbourne is the coffee capital of Australia as many perhaps suggest, then we’d expect a few points around this statement to also ring true. Namely, that the coffee is great, there is plenty of it, and it is easily found and readily available. On these criteria I’d say the city certainly ticks all of the boxes.

Does it “blow-your-mind” (for want of a better phrase) any differently to a “blow-your-mind” coffee in any other city — here in Brisbane included? No it doesn’t — and of course I wouldn’t expect it to. Outstanding coffee from the world’s quality producers, roasted by very talented people, and served to you by equally talented baristas can generally be found in most cites around the country.

The usual “oh you’re going to Melbourne? You’ll find some great coffee down there” is certainly 100% true, however on a day-to-day basis I can find equally great coffee in Brisbane as well. That of course says more about Australia’s specialty coffee scene than that of Melbourne per se — and as consumers — we are certainly far better for it.

For reference, I logged many drinks with a Launch Center Pro template on my phone which added a formatted entry straight into Day One. My system is a simple one, and uses a four star rating. The coffee ratings from the trip ran the full gamut from one star right through to a full four. Again, the particular establishments themselves are not important, however for a couple I visited more than once, I’d say the usual challenge of consistency is certainly not tied to geographical location around the country.

Probably the more relevant question in all of this is whether, upon closer and more rigorous analysis, am I more likely to find a greater number of my arbitrary “four star” establishments in Melbourne? Am I more likely to stumble upon great coffee rather than have to specifically seek it out or know where to look?

I’d say the answer to both these questions is most likely yes, however shouldn’t we expect that for a significantly larger population than somewhere like Brisbane for example? Maybe, maybe not — however I think you get what I mean.

In summary, as for Melbourne’s coffee scene in terms of quality, availability and service? Absolutely loved it. It was fantastic to explore a little, see what’s on offer, and was in most cases a joy to experience. Being back home again in Brisbane, am I now yearning for more or lamenting the options available to me? Absolutely not, and that is a great position to be in, and for that I’m certainly thankful to the hard-working and passionate Brisbane coffee industry folk.

The decaf section

The trip also contained its fair share of activities unrelated to coffee, despite what the paragraphs above would have you believe.

As mentioned at the outset, there were family birthday celebrations involving lawn bowls, the usual tourist spots (National Gallery of Victoria, Shrine of Remembrance, and Eureka Skydeck to name a few), many trams and a good measure of dining. Add to that some general city meanderings and some obligatory shopping and we round out a fairly… well, rounded trip.

Despite being given the short shrift here by word count, of course the largest slice of the trip pie chart was made up of these activities. It wasn’t all about me and coffee — though when those opportunities arose they were taken with both hands.

Summing up

Sharing time with family will always be the highlight of any trip like this one. Of course time being the valuable resource — there will always be more coffee.

Beyond that it would be the visit to MICE, and walking amongst some very passionate, talented and hardworking coffee industry professionals. Absorbing as much as possible in an environment which only feeds into a cup already brimming with enthusiasm — and yes — perhaps a little obsession with all things coffee.

Finally, a dip into the Melbourne coffee scene is always something I welcome periodically, and on this occasion it was as enjoyable and enlightening as ever. Far from a lone beacon of specialty coffee — it is more accurately one tower in a series of stadium lights all around the country, collectively illuminating everything Australian specialty coffee has to offer.

Thinking of MICE 2018? Yep – you’ve gotta go.

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