The Theatre of Coffee Michelle Sullivan on Australia’s love for coffee

Cover Image - The Theatre of Coffee
WordsMichelle Sullivan

It’s the drink that fuels creatives around the world, but in Australia they take coffee culture seriously. Michelle Sullivan looks into how and why her homeland fell in love...

Illustrations by Pau Gasol Valls.

Wanna grab a coffee? As a born and raised Australian, I understand the beauty of these words. They are colloquial, but they communicate how to connect with Australian coffee culture. Four little words, and yet an Aussie masterpiece. The translation? Let’s spend time together.

Coffee culture is a dialogue around the approach that purveyors and baristas take with the sourcing, making and serving of coffee-based drinks, both in and out of the traditional café setting. It describes the atmosphere around coffee as the beating heart of the social construct.

For the past decade, coffee has been enjoying what is described as its “third wave.”   The early signs began in the 1990s, when Australia started to see a coffee boom that delivered new ideas of what it means to directly source coffee and produce a better tasting experience for all, beyond the cities and into the suburbs. In 2018, the consumption of coffee drinks has progressed into a culinary experience.

As the cafetière is to France and the espresso is to Italy, the flat white is the anchor of Australian coffee culture. It consists of a double shot of espresso combined with micro-foamed milk  .

Australians are serious about coffee, so much so that they rejected the Starbucks-ification of their land.

The chain opened its first store Down Under in 2000; within two years there were 100 locations. But by 2008, Starbucks had declared losses of $143 million on its Australian operations and was forced to sack 700 staff and close 66 branches.

Starbucks made its own coffee culture promises, and Australia shrugged. In comparison, there are an estimated 6,500 independent cafes across Australia, generating about $4 billion annually, primarily from coffee sales.

When we look at the commonalities, there are five core principles, whether you’re sipping a piccolo latte on Gertrude Street in Prahran   or measuring out your new blend from The Little Marionette in Sydney’s Annandale   and preparing your pour over at home:

1 - Enjoy your coffee.

2 - Be educated on your coffee. Understand what the taste is telling you.

3 - Lousy coffee is not ok. The coffee roaster is an essential part of what you experience.

4 - It’s an indie spirit. The vast majority of independent cafes in Australia inform the culture, with great pride being taken in the interior design of the space.

5 - Humanity. Australian coffee culture is anchored in our love for our local barista. They bring this theater to life.

The Little Marionette is a coffee roaster, barista training center and boutique coffee brand based in Sydney. Its founder and beating heart is Edward Cutcliffe, a profoundly passionate bloke, who made his first cup of coffee aged 12. This deep love served as soul food, and at 16 he began to dream of a cafe he might call his own.

Born and raised in the Sydney suburb of Balmain, Edward graduated high school in 1997 with low academic grades and excellent skills as a competitive rower. He dropped out of university after a year and started a nomadic experience bouncing between Sydney, London and Singapore.

He began to see the stark difference in how coffee was served and enjoyed as a daily ritual, and saw how Australia’s coffee culture was expanding. He had no formal training, but he could taste the difference between coffee in London and at home, and he saw how poorly maintained the dirty, leaking espresso machines were in the UK.

In 2004 Ed returned to Sydney, where his brother-in-law Simon was opening up a café, and Ed wanted to help. This new chapter gave power to his curiosity – he had come to understand the symbiotic relationships between the coffee farmer, roaster, barista and customer. Growing up in Balmain meant Ed understood the locals, their needs and that of the neighborhood. The next step was to open a café of his own.

In 2010, The Little Marionette opened its doors and became part of the fabric of the local daily life. At 14 square meters, they were the little bar that could.

Ed is tall. He usually wears a plain crew neck t-shirt, jeans, and brown leather RM Williams boots. He is self-deprecating with whip-smart commentary and a twinkle in his eyes. He is a man who has faced many choices in his life – about values, money, friendship, grief, and the beauty that can be born from sorrow. Those stories are told in the soft lines around his eyes and the tattooed swallows under his arms.

Since those early days, The Little Marionette has blossomed, yet retains its beginner spirit. It has 14 employees in Sydney, with café partnerships in London, Hong Kong and New York City.

The brand is deeply connected with their locals, no matter where they might pop up in the world. The roasting facility is located in Sydney’s inner western suburb of St Peters, and from the warehouses to the takeaway bags, everything feels like an extension of Ed – reflecting his empathy, intelligence and sense of humor.

“Everyone here treats The Little Marionette like it’s their own business,” he says. “I can teach them the skill set, but the beauty they bring is their personality. You can’t teach people how to smile, they’ve gotta have a level of consideration for others that is innate. It comes from the soul.

“When you come in our doors on a Monday morning, and maybe your kid has kept you up half the night, you want to get your coffee just how you like it, from the barista who gives you a wink and a smile. That’s us.”

The Little Marionette is a global family that has grown from an organic flow of friends into a staff. “We often find new recruits through our private coffee and barista lessons; people come in and they’re passionate about coffee,” Ed says. “We help them learn more so they can build those skills.”

We grow, we change, we get older, we struggle. And yet the simplicity of a smile, something to drink and human connection is innate.

The flavor profile of The Little Marionette coffee varies depending on the blend, but as a guiding principle, they anchor the coffee for a balance between chocolate, caramel and fruit acidity, with a buttery-mouth finish. The cup is full in flavor without being intense. Ed says, “Your eyes do a lot of the tasting for you before you have touched the cup. It’s the beauty of the social interaction.”

Perfecting coffee in Australia is much more than taste though. Everything plays its part – the staff, the furniture, the music playing in the cafe. “Every single aspect of it enhances the experience, and that’s the performance of who we are,” he says. “We are offering the theater of coffee each morning when we open our doors.”

“Theater” describes an area in which something happens; a space in which dramatic performances are given. There is an offer and acceptance. The characters are offered to us, and we are invited to respond.

And so it is, through the lens of The Little Marionette, we consider the theater of coffee and this Aussie culture.

The enchantment of this theater is open to all of us. Our favorite things tend to come from what we have invested a little time into. The characters in our theater are those we have gotten to know.

In the petri dish of little luxuries that I hold dear, my homeland Aussie coffee culture isn’t really that different to my love for British pub culture, Japanese craft culture, or my favorite of the Brooklyn subcultures – the nail salon – specifically my local nail salon in Clinton Hill. It's all about the hang you know? Wanna grab a coffee?