Hybrid coffee & retail stores are enjoying a moment in 2014, be they espresso bar openings tied to bicycle workshops, elegant cafes in shared business lobbies, art galleries that double as coffee shops, eclectic book stores with serious coffee programs, and many, many more. But out in Brisbane–Australia's third largest city and home to a thriving cafe scene–this trend has found focus in a cafe model that combines professional coffee service with beautiful, carefully sourced wines and beers. Think of them as hybrid bars, with coffee as one of several beverage offerings being done at a very high level. Brisbane is home to two of Australia's best: Strauss FD and John Mills Himself.
Located at the end of an unassuming laneway off Elizabeth Street in Brisbane’s CBD (in what was once originally a storage room for 7-11), Strauss FD is a lovely, simply fit-out space with a focus on quality produce and beverages, opened in collaboration between Josh Russell (of Cup Roastworks), Oliver Strauss, and Simon Pyle. During the day, the Strauss house blend roasted by Cup is brewed through a three-group Kees Van Der Westen Spirit espresso machine. They've also got a range of filter coffees, served alongside a produce-driven fresh and light food menu. Then after 3pm on Wednesdays through to Fridays, the venue changes pace into a relaxed wine & cocktail bar, serving charcuterie, tapas, and everything else that goes splendidly with delicious alcoholic beverages.
I had a chance to chat to co-owner Oliver Strauss, and he explained their goals for the space, “We set out to create a space that reflects what we love about specialty coffee, quality food, and drink,” he told me. “We wanted to take the same approach to wine as we take to coffee: seeking out people who are as passionate as we are, and sharing our interest in what is local, seasonal, and natural.”
The wine list at Strauss is almost entirely comprised of small production wines from some of Australia's top cult producers. Here you can sit down and enjoy a cloudy orange glass of Britannia Creek from prolific non-intervention Australian winemaker Patrick Sullivan, or a deep red glass of Tommy Ruff Syrah Mourvedre from another leading Australian wine producer, Tom Shobbrook, to name just a few. On the beer front, Strauss are bringing in a selection form California craft beer forefathers Sierra Nevada, and Rogue, an enormously influential Oregon brewery in craft beer circles, alongside exemplary Melbourne micro Two Birds.
The natural wine movement–long since established in Europe, currently buzzing along the United States West Coast–is slowly gaining momentum across Australia, with world-class natural wine makers clustered together in growing regions like Adelaide Hills and the Yarra Valley. If you're looking for a natural wine list in Melbourne, well, you've got options–I like Clever Polly's and Builders Arms, among many others– but in Brisbane the selection is still a step or two behind. That's something the folks behind Strauss are aiming to change.
It seems that so far, the approach at Strauss FD has been a success, “The wine scene in Brisbane is growing at a very rapid pace as more people appreciate the value behind the effort and skill put into great local wine,” Strauss told me. “Natural and biodynamic wines give a true representation of the terroir of the area, and the winemakers refuse to utilize the modern artillery of modifiers to tweak their product. Wines made following these methods are inherently honest, passionately and skillfully made…and the response we have had to our wine list has been incredible.”
Here they’re fascinated by delicious things, and often run classes and events with the makers and brewers, such as information nights with wine producers themselves, and gin master classes with world class bartenders. At Strauss, the excitement about quality products is palpable, and this enthusiasm means there’s always something new and delicious to try.
Further along Elizabeth Street, up towards the Brisbane River and located down another sneaky little laneway, sits John Mills Himself. Half-owned by Marcus Allison of Bunker Coffee in Milton, and the other half by Helen Bird and Billerwell Daye of Street Food Australia & Pearler Studio, John Mills Himself’s café service operates 6:30am-3:30pm Monday to Friday, with the bar open from 4pm until late Tuesdays to Saturdays. The space is long, narrow, and cosy, with exposed brick walls, a piano at the entrance, and bar stools with high tables along the walls to settle in to.
The name of the cafe comes from the building itself, a heritage listed structure with a longstanding history in Brisbane. The title came about when the architect of the building, John Mills, separated from his business partnership, Mills & Green. The building next door is called “John Reid and Nephews” and Mills, with no shortage of cheek, decided to step out on a limb and name his building “John Mills Himself”.
Espresso coffee here is served through a La Marzocco GB5 alongside filter brewed through either Aeropress or V60, with coffee options rotated regularly to include offerings from Cup Coffee, The Single Guys, Marvell Street, and Uncle Joe’s Coffee House. There’s also a range of delicious hot chocolates, alongside freshly bottled iced coffee and chocolate from Bunker Coffee.
The bar drinks list is quality focused, with a locavore slant. All of the beverages (besides one, a tequila from Mexico) are sourced from within 1500km of John Mills Himself, with the distance that each beverage has travelled being laid out for patrons in the menu. With a large variety of quality producers coming to the forefront in Australia in recent years, it’s an approach that's never been more feasible.
Speaking to Helen Bird, she elaborated on the meticulous process used by John Mills Himself to source suppliers. “We support winemakers who are organic, in conversion, or use ecological practices in the South-East Queensland area, mostly from either of the two main growing areas of Granite Belt or South Burnett. Our beer is sourced from less than 180km by road, the wine less than 250km by road, and our spirits are Australian made and owned.” A tippling locavore's dream, basically.
Australian coffee culture gets lionized for offering all things to all people–the brekkie palace with incredible food and integrated coffee service, most especially. But quite frequently, if you want to get a good coffee, a nice meal, and a delicious glass of wine, you'll need to make at least two stops. Maybe that's starting to change. Perhaps the next step is for the emergence of new cafes that are capable of doing multiple things, and doing them well–-not just coffee, not just wine, but both, and at the highest level. In this, John Mills Himself & Strauss FD are leading the pack, and doing great things for Brisbane in the process.
Eileen P. Kenny is a Sprudge.com staff writer based in Melbourne. Read more Eileen P. Kenny on Sprudge.