Couple travel across the world to find out whether the scenes in New Zealand, Australia and Singapore really do outshine that in Sheffield.
Speciality coffee started in the nineties on the other side of the world as good quality independents started to emerge in places like Seattle. But where it really blossomed was down under. The coffee culture in both New Zealand and Australia is very much part of their culture and that’s why they do it better than anyone .
It was a surprise to see a green boat chug by - it was a coffee cruise!
These were places other coffee fanatics would talk about with such reverence, but were they really that so much better than us? We were desperate to find out, so when a wedding invite for New Zealand came our way and indicated the reception was at Prefab, one of the best coffee shops in Wellington, if not New Zealand, our plane tickets were very quickly booked.
My wife Clare - who owns Marmaduke’s speciality coffee shop on Norfolk Row, Sheffield - realised one of our former baristas, Dexter, was working in Singapore, so suggested we could incorporate a little South East Asian element and The Grind Tour was born.
Our first port of call was Sydney. Famous for its Harbour Bridge and Opera House yes, but would Sydney cut it as far as its coffee scene was concerned?
On the first morning I spotted a gaggle of construction workers stood outside a shop, drinking something. I headed over to discover my first little gem, The Caffeine Project.
I sat outside with my flat white and Clare joined me with a filter - we were up and running with two places found within 200 yards.
Later that morning we found a third, Concrete Jungle, where the coffee, service and food was great. Like most tourists, we headed for the harbour with a detour to Paramount Coffee Project in Surry Hills, another super cool place, with the only minor negative being a heavily botoxed lady with a snappy ornamental poodle.
After four coffees we were sufficiently energised to walk to the harbour - but a lack of sunscreen meant the blistering I left Sydney with would not subside for two weeks.
We arrived in Wellington tired, but excited.
Our fabulous hosts were already proud users of their coffee scene and couldn’t wait to show us Cafe L’Affare coffee roasters, Havanna Roastery and of course, Prefab.
In truth none disappointed. L’Affare Coffee was maybe a little past its best, but the other three were a joy. As was Poneke, a little place I found on my solo travels, where we caught up with the lovely Petra, a former Marmadukes employee, who was also studying architecture in Sheffield. Our city is truly blessed by its international students and universities.
Prefab, our wedding reception venue, is a truly remarkable place. And here’s where I need to wear two hats, of a customer and coffee shop owner.
As far as the customer experience I would say we might be able to give them a run for their money. Our coffee and food is probably as good, if not better.
But the business itself is the creation of one of the third wave speciality coffee shop pioneers, Jeff Kennedy. He came from the US in the 90s and built up the cafe L’Affare roastery empire, which he sold several years ago. He decided then to go into making and distributing coffee cups.
Eventually, he couldn’t resist using all his years of knowledge and experience created Prefab, a space that from a coffee shop owner’s perspective is outstanding.
Certainly I haven’t seen anything in the independent sector to match it.
Flight Hangar, one of our must visit spots, is a coffee shop for the purist.
This is a place for people who love great coffee, who get giddy at the interesting flavours to be found in a new espresso or filter from Africa or South America. The way they present a choice of three coffees is a wonderful way of introducing someone to speciality coffee.
After the wedding we jetted off to Nelson and it was no surprise the beaches were simply breathtaking. It was a bit of a surprise to see a small green boat chug by with signs on the side pronouncing itself to be a coffee cruise! It’s inescapable.
Favourite places sometimes creep up on you and on our last outing in New Zealand we were taken to a wonderful little place called Paekakariki. Its nearby deserted beach was one of Clare’s personal highlights, but in this tiny little place we had coffee and cakes at The Perching Parrot. What a treat - rustic, laid back, a bit ragged, but a lovely friendly vibe and one of the best flat whites of the the entire tour.
The atmosphere of any place is that elusive magical X factor, which big companies would just love to own. But they can’t and hopefully never will. Such places are the preserve of the small independents.
We headed back to Australia with mixed feelings - leaving Wellington was a wrench, but we were both so looking forward to Melbourne.
If you speak to anyone about speciality coffee this is the place they talk about as the Mecca.
Our first day out saw us visit Prahan Market, a place full of interesting stalls and items. On the edge is the aptly named Market Lane Coffee. This is probably our joint favourite coffee shop of the tour. It had great coffee and food, but it also felt good, really good, relaxed, clean.
Sensory Lab was one of the places we were keen to try as was our host Mandy, who was getting a real feel for this coffee thing. She ordered herself a filter and we taught her the cupping / slurping technique. It helps release the flavours and aromas.
Visits to Brother Baba Budan followed, a small but very busy place churning out takeouts at an incredible rate. Then onto Duke Street Roastery, another small but popular place, big on cakes
Our eventual visit to St Ali’s saw us team up with a former member of the Marmadukes staff, Zak. In the end it was more of a relief that St Ali was so good. Built up as it was it could so easily have been a disappointment. It was nothing of the sort, it instantly had that speciality coffee shop vibe, busy, buzzy, a mixed demographic, a bit edgy.
Melbourne was everything and more we hoped it would be and, once again, we were very sad to leave it.
After cramming even more bags of premium coffee into our already packed suitcases we headed off to Singapore, where our host would be another former Marmaduke’s member of staff, Dexter.
He is from Malaysia and we first met him when he was doing his Masters in Sheffield. He worked for us as a barista and became a very good friend. He shares our love of coffee and we couldn’t have wished for a better host in this new and very oddly English place. Our expectations were limited as Asia doesn’t really have much of a speciality coffee culture, but knowing this made what we discovered even better.
What people visiting places like Singapore don’t have is someone like Dexter, who over the past couple of years had managed to sniff out a few first rate coffee shops. Firstly, we were taken to a little shopping mall (ideal places to avoid the humidity) for The Community Coffee Bar. Aslan, the owner, made us a fruity little hand brew.
After recovering from a night taking in the spectacular view at the Marina Bay Sands - one of the most expensive, lavish hotels in the world - we needed to get grounded again.
Our visit to Nylon Roasters was a surprise treat and is right up there on our list of favourites.. The coffee was delicious and we all agreed the kayo, an Ethiopian single origin, was the best. The next batch was being roasted on the other side of some glass doors and the warmth of the beans could still be felt in the bag we bought.
The final place we visited was a bustling coffee bar and roastery called CSHH, turned from a hardware store into a coffee bar by a son who felt he had a different calling from his dad.
We had the most enjoyable, informative and exhilarating experiences. Many of the things we did I I haven’t included, because there isn’t the space, and I wanted my story to be like that little green boat - first and foremost about the coffee.
So, are they better than us in New Zealand and Australia? I would have to concede they are, but there is no doubt we are catching them up.