Melbourne's newest cafe is also perhaps its most challenging, upending certain longstanding Australian service conventions to create a new experience whose focus is in the very name of the cafe: Filter.
The product of a unique collaborative cafe incubator project put on by Broadsheet (Australia's version of Eater, basically) and the Bank Of Melbourne, Filter is the work of Andrew Kelly, owner of Small Batch Roasting Company, whose Auction Rooms is one of Melbourne's premiere coffee & brunch palaces. Where Auction Rooms prides itself on table service, an expansive food menu, and a charming brick wall retro atmosphere, Filter could not be more different in terms of style, interior, and approach to ordering coffee. Auction Rooms is a neighborhood hub for North Melbourne, a place to linger over lunch with a coffee or two; Filter is a downtown, big city coffee mover, focused on highlighting hand made and batch brewed coffee styles just now coming into their own in this city.
One enters into what looks like a former bank lobby off King Street, and the show begins, greeted at the doorway by a kind of “concierge” staff member, someone who can direct both seasoned coffee experts and office workers through Filter's steps of service. Service at Filter is split into two distinct quadrants, a kind of metaphorical fault line splitting the space down the middle.
To the right of entry sits Filter's batch brewed coffee service, dialed in on a hidden under-counter Fetco brewer served by a Mahlkönig EKK43 double hopper grinder. Batch brewed filter coffees are served out of distinctive matte white Eva Solo carafes, refilled regularly with coffees from Small Batch's roster of coffee offerings. This righthand quadrant of the shop is also home to Filter's smørrebrød (Scandinavian style open sandwich) selections, all prepped at Auction Rooms and drawing ingredients from local purveyors like Grown and Gathered. During our visits, they were offering smørrebrød fitted out with toppings like corned duck, uni butter, and pickled rhubarb, or pressed rabbit, peas and carrots, and mulberry pickles.
Food in this part of Filter is rounded out by a selection of pastries by Tivoli Road, a Flour Market veteran and one of Melbourne's best regarded bakeries. Just beyond the brød and pastry selections sits a bank of water taps, offering cold, still, and sparkling water options for guests. Behind that bank, hidden from sight, sits Filter's lone espresso machine, a La Marzocco Linea PB. Some degree of cognitive dissonance is to expected; you just walked into a lovely new cafe fit-out and there's nary an espresso machine to be seen. This place is called Filter, remember.
The right half of the space is where you'll head to snag a quick filter coffee to go, perhaps en route to your Very Important CBD Business Meeting. It's also where you can choose food, order an espresso drink, and find the only bit of milk served in the entire cafe: available in your espresso drink and supplied by the Juggler milk system. There's also a small paypoint in this area, which is where you'll settle the bill once the time has come.
The left side of the room is where things get different. Bathed in natural light from Filter's street facing windows, this entire half of the shop is given over to hand brewed coffee methods, including the cultishly revered Aerobie AeroPress, the Espro Press, and Hario's V60 pour over cone. Hot water needs are handled by the capable Marco Uber Boiler under-counter system, cleverly installed into a custom sink area. There are scales and iPads, wood blocks for coffee preparation, and bags of roasted whole bean available for take away sales.
This counter bank is also where Filter's seating is laid out, in the form of a dozen or so gorgeous ash wood stools built by John Beckwith, of The Gentleman Furniture Maker. They call this service their “teppanyaki” area, referring to the Japanese style of table-front grill preparation, with the barista providing by the cup filter coffee service in a communal brewing setting alongside their guests. A similar style of service is employed to great effect at Everyman Espresso SoHo in New York, albeit in a much smaller setting.
Which isn't to say that these stools are reserved for only those who want made-to-order coffee; you can plonk down a spot here with your espresso drink, a smørrebrød, or even a cup of that nice batch brew from across the aisle. But hand brewed coffee achieves a kind of democratization in this setting, with no division of any kind between coffee drinkers and coffee preparers. It makes for a lovely chat with the staff, but also for the ready colonization of downtown business types, roosting on the far end of the counter in suits and ties. It's this market that Filter wants to reach most, and will always be in close contact with, thanks to the cafe's high-traffic CBD location.
This is a cafe of dualities. Sparse, smart interior design (by Design Office) is juxtaposed with communal seating and open dialogue between guests and staff. Icily stylish logos and wall-mounted menus (by The Hungry Workshop) tell just part of the much larger story of Small Batch, whose sourcing and importing practices embody a direct trade ethos without explicitly saying as much. Above all, Filter speaks to a wider sense of progression in the Melbourne coffee scene.
Filter coffee (the preparation style) has undergone rapid stages of development here in the last decade, from nonexistent to novelty to totem of quality, the sort of thing any respectable cafe must offer to indeed be respectable. Filter coffee programs have been mystified, exalted, held up as an example of Melbourne's hard charging place as a leader in the coffee world. When we first visited this city, just a year ago, it seemed like every cup of filter coffee served came with a caveat, or even an outright preemptive apology. That's changed now. Good filter coffee is everywhere. And Filter in the CBD may be the next step in that progression: a cafe where batch brewed and filtered coffees are normalized, to the point of being built into the shop's DNA.
In America, we take filter coffee service for granted. Batch brewed coffee is the only real 20th century American brewing method, developed by pioneers like the Wilbur Curtis Coffee Company and long a part of our national ethos, embodied by the bottomless Denny's diner mug. Australia has a different history, with a coffee culture whose early expressions were dominated by the influence of waves of espresso-minded Italian immigrants, and is today typified by the flat white, Australia's most iconic coffee drink. But trends and modes of service are endlessly cyclical, and here in 2014, the availability of influences are global. Americans are opening provisionally “Melbourne-style” cafes by the boatload; Melbourne is opening new pantheons to filter. Everyone is reading everyone. There is no house style. The canvas is deliciously blank, and Filter is an exciting example of committed artisans approaching the formal elements of coffee service in experimental new ways.
Rangy and focused, cutting edge and plebeian, for the people and for the hardcore enthusiast alike, Filter is one of the most complex and thought-provoking new cafes to open anywhere in the world this year. It's for you, but not just for you; Filter is for everyone.
Words: Jordan Michelman.
Photos: Alex Bernson.
Editor: Zachary Carlsen.