A coffee snob is an actual thing, much like connoisseurs of good wine. (Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan/Tourism Victoria)
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From Chennai Filters to Melbourne Cups: The Diary of a Coffee Snob

“Meet me under the Clocks.”

Melbourne’s Flinders Street Station isn’t just one of the city’s most famous landmarks – more Melbournians meet under the station’s now iconic clocks than anywhere else. It’s where I met my school mate from Chennai and descended under the Degraves Street Subway for my ‘Cup of Truth’.

People dining at St Ali Cafe, South Melbourne. (Photo Courtesy: Tourism Victoria)
People dining at St Ali Cafe, South Melbourne. (Photo Courtesy: Tourism Victoria)

He is one of many Melbournians who consider themselves the world’s most discerning coffee drinkers. There’s another phrase for that now – coffee snobs. It’s a phrase I can relate to; I grew up in Chennai where almost everybody has an opinion stronger than the coffee they drink.

The Coffee Snobs of Chennai

Chennai’s Mylapore probably has more coffee snobs than many neighbourhoods in Melbourne – but that’s not the only place in Chennai where you’re guaranteed to find outstanding coffee. There’s Saravana Bhavan at RK Salai where Chennai’s early risers (the city is full of them) grab their first tumbler of coffee even before sunrise. There’s also Karpagambal Mess and Mami Mess in the Mylapore area where regulars queue up for filter coffee and tiffin (snacks that bridge that never ending gap between lunch and dinner).

Filter coffee in Chennai. (Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)
Filter coffee in Chennai. (Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

The template almost across Tamil Nadu and Karnataka (where most of India’s coffee is grown and drunk) is almost the same. It’s a strong decoction brewed in ‘drip style’ – in coffee filters mixed with full fat milk (the kind that foams thanks to a unique ‘pulling technique’ with the tumbler and davara or bowl).

Roasting coffee beans at St Ali Cafe. (Photo Courtesy: Tourism Victoria)
Roasting coffee beans at St Ali Cafe. (Photo Courtesy: Tourism Victoria)

It’s not unusual for Chennai’s coffee snobs to dissect the coffee and discuss the ingredients longer than they drink the coffee. The big domestic and international café  chains coexist with Chennai’s traditional outlets for filter coffee but the city’s coffee fans have them clearly boxed – the cafes are for conversations but not good filter coffee.

Melbourne: A MasterChef Australia (& Personal) Coffee Favourite

That was the thought that crossed my mind at Cup of Truth – a tiny coffee shop that’s a favourite for ‘coffee on the go’ in Melbourne’s CBD.

Many of Melbourne’s alleys usually lead to good coffee. (Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)
Many of Melbourne’s alleys usually lead to good coffee. (Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

International chains have struggled to find a firm footing in a city dominated by local coffee brands, many with a quirky streak.

Melbourne is one of my favourite cities for food (and of course coffee) anywhere in the world – Masterchef Australia junkies will agree. It’s no coincidence that this is also one of the world’s most multi-ethnic cities with a large Greek, Italian and Vietnamese diaspora. (It’s the Italians who can take credit for the city’s first espresso machine in the 1920s.) Even today Lygon Street, the city’s traditional Italian quarter, is one of the best places to savour a fine espresso.

I dined with a gracious Italian host in one of Melbourne’s old neighbourhoods. Her family carried a Macchinetta (also known as a Moka Pot) when they moved here from Sicily in the 1940s. This stove top coffee maker that uses pressurised steam to push the coffee up (unlike Vietnamese or South Indian filter coffee where the coffee drips down). The after dinner espresso was enough for me to add a Macchinetta (a fine example of 1930s style Industrial design) to my coffee maker collection that includes a Vietnamese filter and my great grandmother’s 80-year old silver filter!

Ashwin’s collection of coffee makers/filters. (Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)
Ashwin’s collection of coffee makers/filters. (Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

I don’t think I’ve drunk better espresso anywhere else in the world.

My favourite Australian coffee – which has taken some international chains (like Starbuck’s) almost three decades to add to their menus, is the ‘Flat White’. New Zealand also stakes claim to this coffee but it was first added to a menu in 1985 in Sydney (at Moors Espresso Bar). Melbourne’s strong coffee culture has made this smooth yet strong coffee its own.

Usually crafted with a single espresso and microfoam (steamed milk with fine bubbles) – lesser milk and foam compared to a cappuccino or a latte, the Flat White almost finds that perfect balance between coffee and milk.

Sunrise at Mylapore. (Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)
Sunrise at Mylapore. (Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

How Chennai & Melbourne Differ

While Chennai’s coffee scene might be more about the brew, Melbourne’s coffee culture feeds off its cafés where locations, brews, unique experiences and superstar Baristas are all in the mix.

I stumbled upon some great cafes along my coffee trails in the city like Seven Seeds (on Berkley Street), a micro roaster set in an industrial style café.

This space pays tribute to Baba Budan who smuggled seven coffee seeds from Arabia all the way to Chikmagalur (in Karnataka), effectively sparking coffee cultivation the world over. Baba Budan might have been forgotten in India but he is immortalised in another café on Little Bourke Street that takes his name.
This space pays tribute to Baba Budan who smuggled seven coffee seeds from Arabia all the way to Chikmagalur (in Karnataka). (Photo Courtesy: Tourism Victoria)
This space pays tribute to Baba Budan who smuggled seven coffee seeds from Arabia all the way to Chikmagalur (in Karnataka). (Photo Courtesy: Tourism Victoria)

Cafes here have moved on from standard brews, effectively converting coffee into a gourmet beverage where roasts, flavour profiles and blends of the beans all count.

Coffee drinkers in Melbourne can even put French wine snobs to shame – ask me, I’m a coffee snob too!

Getting there and around: Melbourne is connected with frequent flights from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur (both easily accessible from Indian metros). The city has a great public transportation system including an efficient ‘bicycle sharing’ system.

Accommodation: The Crown Melbourne (www.crownmelbourne.com) is one of the city’s most luxurious and located in the heart of the CBD. Cullen is one of the city’s most funky boutique hotels (www.artserieshotels.com.au)

(Ashwin Rajagopalan enjoys communicating across boundaries in his three distinct roles as a widely published lifestyle writer, one of India’s only cross cultural trainers and a consultant for a global brand services firm. Ashwin writes extensively on travel, food, technology and trends)