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A (brief) history of Melbourne’s cafe culture

Melbourne is Australia’s unofficial coffee capital, home to a rich cafe culture and prominent foodie scene. Cafe culture is quintessentially Australian, and began in the 1830s in the form of coffee houses and palaces.

Coffee was originally brought to Australia in the late 1700s with the First Fleet. Coffee beans and plants were collected during the fleet’s stopover in Rio de Janeiro, and were later planted outside Government House; however, these failed to thrive. It wasn’t until the temperance movement in the 1830s that coffee became a popular beverage in Australia.

The temperance movement, which sought to curb the drinking of alcohol, took root in the United States and United Kingdom in the 1820s. Temperance societies sought to educate the public on the dangers of alcohol consumption, and their members campaigned for the enforcement of ‘dry’ suburbs and six o’clock closing for pubs. 

One of the effects of the temperance movement was the introduction of coffee and tea palaces, which aimed to compete with pubs and hotels, providing a social and community atmosphere without alcohol. By 1888s, Melbourne had more than 50 coffee palaces. Despite this, coffee palaces never made much profit, and many were forced to close or were sold to publicans once the 1890s depression hit. Some anti-alcohol establishments even sought out liquor licenses in order to stay afloat.

Federal Coffee Palace, Melbourne, circa 1897

It wasn’t until the 1930s that coffee and cafe culture really began to take off in Melbourne, as an influx of European migrants over the next 50-odd years shaped the city’s thriving cultural, food and arts scene. After World War II, the arrival of Italian immigrants shaped the coffee culture of inner-city suburbs like Carlton, Brunswick, Collingwood, Fitzroy, Richmond and North Melbourne. By the 1990s, Melbourne was the coffee capital of Australia.

Today, cafe culture is celebrated Australia-wide, and particularly in Melbourne. Like the grand coffee palaces of the 19th century, today’s Melbourne cafes are still social and community hubs, where people of all walks of life unite with one common purpose – a good cup of coffee!

Cover image: Interior view of the Fern Room, Cafe Australia, Melbourne, 1916

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