One of the cultural hubs of Melbourne, the inner-city neighbourhood of Brunswick is a quirky, fascinating place to spend your time. I find myself there regularly for a variety of reasons, and stumble across somewhere new and interesting every time I visit.
From the Victorian shopfronts of Sydney Road to the great little restaurants run by the immigrant families that have moved there over the years, the sunny pub beer gardens to the busy community spaces, Brunswick locals are rightly proud of their suburb.
And then, of course, there’s the coffee.
Some of the best coffee roasters in the country got their start in Brunswick, and a number of them are still based there now. Small, independent outlets thrive in this part of town, the ability to experiment and try something different helped by rents that, at least traditionally, are a little cheaper than nearby Fitzroy and Collingwood.
It’s a reasonably large suburb, even if you don’t include East or West Brunswick, and it feels like a new specialty coffee place opens up every month. Which, of course, is the perfect excuse for feeding my caffeine addiction!
Narrowing down the long list of places I’ve tried to the absolute best of the best isn’t easy, and the list changes regularly. That said, these are the places I’ve recently visited and am currently recommending, ranging from tiny shopfronts to big industrial spaces and everything in between.
Most of these places are very much dedicated coffee outlets, usually with just some simple sandwich or pastry options if you’re hungry. A couple have branched out into more of a fully-featured brunch menu, but even then, the focus is still on the coffee front and centre. They all sell beans by the bag and can grind them for you as needed.
Some of the best coffee shops in Brunswick are large, industrial kinds of places, often doubling as a roastery and with space to fit several tables and chairs for thirsty customers to linger. Dojo Espresso is not one of those places.
This hole in the wall on Victoria Street has space for exactly one small table inside (there are a few more outside when the weather’s nice), and I’d describe the vibe as closer to organised chaos than industrial chic. That’s not a bad thing, by the way: not everywhere has to have the perfect Instagram aesthetic.
Run by a friendly husband and wife team, the place has a real community feel. They clearly know many of their customers, a number of which dropped in for a chat in the time it took me to order and drink my coffee.
Speaking of that coffee, it was extremely good. I wasn’t necessarily expecting a lot, but from extraction to milk texture, it was right up there with some of the best I’ve had.
This isn’t really a place where you’d go for a fancy pourover or to agonise over the tasting notes of the latest dry-fermented beans from a smallholding in Nicaragua, but it very much is somewhere you’d go for a delicious flat white or tasty long black…and then come back again the next day.
You can buy beans (in metal tins) in a range of sizes from 200g to 1.6kg, with a discount when you bring the tin back for a refill: a nice touch. It’d also be remiss of me not to mention the toasted sandwiches at Dojo Espresso: the reuben, in particular, is more than likely to change your life.
When it comes to places that take their coffee seriously in Melbourne, I’d long thought that Aunty Peg’s in Collingwood was at the very top of the list. That may or may not be true, but either way, Disciple Roasters definitely gives it a run for its money.
Tucked away down a side street near Sydney Road, they refer to their small, industrial-style space as a coffee cellar door. You may have some opinions about that name, but I can see where they get it from: it does feel like the kind of place you’d stop into to try something interesting and unusual that you’d never come across before.
It’s also the kind of place (just like Aunty Pegs) where the taste of the coffee takes centre stage, which means it’s served black. You’ve got a choice of three batch brews that change all the time, or a large menu of pourover and espresso-based options, but no matter what you order, it won’t have milk in it.
The staff were super friendly and helpful, clearly passionate about what they do and full of advice about the various coffees on offer. With prices ranging from $5 to nearly $50 per cup, that advice was sorely needed!
I went for an Ethiopian batch brew, and I’m not sure what I was more impressed by: the bright citrus flavours, or the delightful little mug it was served in. In any case, it was very hard to limit myself to just a single cup; there were several others on the menu that day that I really wanted to try.
Which, of course, just provides the perfect excuse to head back there every time I’m in the neighbourhood. If you like what you discover, chances are you can take some home with you: there’s a wide range of beans available for sale in store, and even more online.
Note that if black coffee really isn’t your jam, there’s also a small range of high-end tea available: Lauren really enjoyed hers.
Code Black Coffee Roasters
No discussion of quality coffee in Brunswick would be complete without a mention of Code Black. I’m often underwhelmed by places that get the amount of press these guys do, but that simply wasn’t the case here. It really did live up to the hype.
Code Black started out in Brunswick a bit over a decade ago, and while they’ve outgrown their original premises and expanded into several other locations around the city as well, the heart of the business remains here in the inner north.
The large, industrial space on Weston Street is the company’s flagship store, housing not only the roastery out the back, but a barista training school and a bunch of tables both inside and out. Those tables are for more than just lingering over a coffee: unlike the other locations, there’s brunch on offer as well.
I can’t speak for the quality of the food, however: I was there for the coffee, and it absolutely did not disappoint. Even in a city as obsessed by pulling the perfect shot as Melbourne is, it’s rare to get a flat white quite this good.
The oat milk was perfectly steamed, with microfoam among the best I’ve come across anywhere. The house blend was delicious and perfectly extracted, the temperature was perfect, even the latte art was damn near flawless, no mean feat with any alternative milk. Sipping away in the sunshine out the front was ten minutes of pure happiness.
As you’d probably expect, standard milk drinks are just the tip of the iceberg. You can pay an extra 50c for the current single origin roast, and there’s a range of specialty batch brew and pourover options as well. Bags of beans are available in-store and online.
If you’re not sure what you’ll like, there’s a couple of flight options as well, with different combinations of espresso, latte, and batch brew. Finally, there’s a decent range of cold coffee options, along with teas, hot chocolate, chai, and more. Basically, there’s something for everyone.
I’ve stopped in half a dozen times now, usually opting for a flat white because, well, it’s hard to argue with perfection. On my most recent visit, though, I decided to mix things up and check out the batch brew. I had high hopes.
Served in a stylishly simple black mug, the tasting notes told me the coffee had hints of blackberry, cooked fruit, and brown spice, and was from a ten-acre Kenyan smallholding run by several members of the same family. I definitely picked up the cooked fruit and blackberry, resulting in a delicious cup that, as it turned out, was exactly what my taste buds had been craving on that sunny afternoon.
Tucked away on a side street off Sydney Road, with everything from an artisan bakery to a panelbeater as neighbours, ONA Coffee is the kind of place that you’re somewhat unlikely to stumble upon, but you’ll be very glad about if you do.
If the sun is shining, definitely try to grab a table outside: it’s a delightful spot to sit and soak up a bit of vitamin D. If the weather’s being all Melbourne about things, it’s not the end of the world: there’s a large, inviting indoor space as well.
There were five of the company’s own roasts listed on the menu when I last visited, complete with tasting notes to help figure out what might appeal. I went for the Maple and its caramel and malt flavours, and was glad that I did: it was one of the tastier coffees I’ve had in recent weeks.
With flawless microfoam and some of the best latte art I’ve seen created from oat milk, I had absolutely no complaints about my drink beyond perhaps the price: $6:50 is on the high side for the area, and Melbourne more generally. ONA is big on quality and sustainability, and its coffee is arguably worth the money, but just know you’ll be paying a bit extra for it.
A regularly-rotating batch brew is also available, along with cold brew, mocha, and my perennial summer favourite, espresso tonic. As you’d expect, you can buy bags of anything you like instore or online, and there’s a range of coffee equipment on offer as well.
Alongside the usual range of pastries, there’s also a small but tasty brunch-style menu, and a few toasted sandwich options to round things out. ONA currently has five locations around Australia, mostly in the ACT. This is the only one in Melbourne, so if it sounds appealing, you know where to find it!
Project 281 Coffee Roasters
The interior of Project 281 Coffee Roasters had always looked appealing whenever I’d walked past it, the high ceilings and leafy plants a bit of a siren song, but I’d always been sufficiently caffeinated at the time so it took a while before I actually made it inside.
I’m happy to admit that this was a definite oversight. I can confirm that it definitely is a lovely indoor space, but it’s also a great place for a coffee, and big enough that you’ll likely be able to get a seat easily enough, at least outside peak periods. If not, never fear: they do a roaring trade in takeaways as well.
However it’s served, expect a big, flavourful roast: I tried both the regular blend and Lauren’s decaf, and they both packed a punch. The oat milk in my flat white was steamed well, the temperature was perfect, and I was sorely tempted to go for a second as soon as I’d drained the cup.
If you’d like something a bit different, you’re in luck. As you’d expect from the name, Project 281 roasts all its own coffee, and there’s an ever-changing pourover option and some interesting variations like a tasting flight (espresso, piccolo, and cold brew) or Vietnamese cold brew, complete with condensed milk.
There’s a good range of beans for sale beside the door as you walk in, along with coffee equipment, alternative milks, and more. Anything that excites you can be ordered from the online store as well.
Now this isn’t a review of the best brunch places in Brunswick (we’ll have one of those up soon!), but I do have to give a shoutout to the food at Project 281 as well. Last time we were there, Lauren had an unusual but extremely good version of a prawn okonomiyaki, while I had a delicious mango-based twist on avocado toast. I do love an inventive brunch menu, especially when it’s done as well as this.
The long and the short of it is that whether you’re there for a meal or just the coffee, I seriously doubt you’ll leave disappointed. Something else worth noting: there’s a 10% discount if you pay with cash when spending $15 or more. A nice little extra for the card-averse!
Market Lane Coffee
The latest and largest of the eight locations dotted around inner Melbourne, stepping into Market Lane’s Sydney Road store feels like you’ve wandered off the street in downtown Copenhagen. All warm wood and minimalist décor, it’s a calm space that’s a bit of a respite from the busy road outside.
That minimalism is perhaps taken a little too far when it comes to seating: given the size of the space, you’d expect a few more tables and chairs for customers who want to linger. It’s not a big problem at quieter times of day, but expect to be ordering takeaway during peak periods.
Whatever sort of cup it ends up in, though, you can expect your coffee to be delicious. I chose one of the two espresso blends from the menu (they change regularly), and really enjoyed the oat flat white that arrived a few minutes later. It probably wasn’t quite as good as the one I’d had from Code Black earlier that day, but it was very close. You absolutely won’t be upset with either.
Pourover equipment is prominently displayed on the counter at Market Lane, and you can tell it’s a big part of what they do. Several options are available on any given day, with detailed notes about both the taste of the coffee and the people who grew it. If you’d like to brew them at home, bags of both espresso and filter roasted beans are available instore and online.
The people behind Market Lane clearly have some strong opinions about coffee. To start with, there’s one size available: none of this large flat white business. I don’t get too upset about the “right” size of a particular type of coffee these days, but I understand why some people do.
Likewise, there’s no decaf on the menu, because the processing supposedly “greatly affects the taste” and makes the beans age faster. I’m not so onboard with this, since there are plenty of good reasons why people choose decaf, and altering the taste doesn’t inherently mean making it worse. Still, it is what it is: if you want decaf, you’ll need to go elsewhere.
Found a new place for coffee in Brunswick that you absolutely love and think we should check out? Let us know about it in the comments!
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