There’s an evangelical fervor to Cartel Coffee Roaster owner Nathan Johnston’s words as he talks about coffee. He’s a firm believer that drinking the stuff should involve understanding the connection to the people who make it.
“The coffee you support can make a huge impact on a farmer’s life,” Johnston says. “As well as influence the way that industry processes the coffee.”
Johnston started his online business, Coffee Cartel, 10 years ago, working directly with farmers overseas to supply coffee and tea products locally. He also runs courses in latte art, coffee appreciation, barista training and coffee roasting, and launched the first Cartel Coffee Roasters cafe in Geelong in 2014, followed by a Melbourne outpost earlier this year.
In the compact space formerly filled by Little Mule cafe, Johnston completed the re-fit himself, painting the brick walls white and opting for light-timber furniture, emulating the warm clean lines he’s seen in coffee bars in Japan. Bright pops of colour come from photos of coffee farms and the people who work on them.
Sit at a communal table or outside in the laneway and ask for a tea or coffee brewed in the Bkon Craft Brewer. Watching the flushing and swirling action of the machine as it brews your drink is a bit like looking at an art installation. It uses a vacuum system that removes air from the leaves or beans, extracting more flavour into the drink itself.
Elsewhere on the menu there’s espresso and batch brew, single origin iced lattes and cold brew, and espresso served over Strangelove tonic. Milk runs the entire alternative gamut: soy, oat, almond, coconut and macadamia.
With all the work that goes into sourcing ethically produced top-quality beans, coffee here starts at $5 for an espresso or batch, and runs to $20 for a filter from Gesha Village Coffee Estate in West Ethiopia, which has elements of peach, apricot and honey. Johnston’s been working with the small producer for five years and has 11 of its coffees available, with notes ranging from citrus to chocolate to stewed red apple.
Every drink is accompanied by tasting notes, and while the focus rests squarely on coffee and tea, there’s a short minimal-intervention wine list and a few aged Japanese whiskies too. A jaffle menu includes smoky bacon and egg; four-cheese (stilton, mozzarella, taleggio, manchego and fig jam); spicy buffalo chicken and mozzarella; and a cheeseburger version with beef, onions, Dijon, American cheese, mozzarella and pickles.
Cartel Coffee Roasters
19 Somerset Lane, Melbourne
Mon to Thu 7am–4pm