As the Bushfires Rage On, Australia’s Coffee Community Rallies


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New South Wales firefighters congregate at The Lott café in Cooma, Australia. Photo courtesy of The Lott

It’s been a tough few months in Australia. Since September, the bushfire crisis has continued to spread throughout the nation, resulting in destroyed land, lost homes, and deaths.

[I]t has been devastating, terrifying, and upsetting. According to reports at the time of this piece, 23 people have died, nearly 11 million hectares of bushland have withered, more than 2,000 houses have been destroyed, and an estimated 1 billion-plus animals are dead. Many have been left feeling helpless. 

But the hardship has also brought with it a cohesive force. Communities, industries, and individuals are coming together to offer help—ultimately, filling the nation with hope. 

“I’ve never seen such a united front on a cause within the coffee industry,” says Mark Free, co-owner of Melbourne-based Everyday Coffee. “This is perhaps because of the scale of the disaster or because it is more relatable and accessible than foreign wars, famine, or disasters. We can all see ourselves falling victim to the effects of climate change in the not-too-distant future.” 

The Groundswell Towards Revolution

Australia’s café culture is mostly concentrated in urban areas, so many have been unaffected by the fires in a practical sense. But with deterring air quality, high temperatures, and extensive volunteering efforts, no one has been left unmoved. 

“As far as response goes, it’s not just coffee businesses but nearly every group or individual with a platform that’s doing something,” says Free. “Whether it is to raise funds or awareness, encourage volunteers, donation of goods even knitting and crocheting blankets and clothing for injured wildlife. 

“We’ve seen not only coffee shops chipping in from sales on particular items, but tattoo flash days, skate markets, gigs, zines, and comedy shows,” he continues. “So far-reaching is the crisis that foreign businesses and individuals are reaching out too. I saw just the other day that our friends at Switch Coffee in Tokyo are contributing.”

Everyday Coffee has created a Bushfire Relief Blend as a way to raise money for relief funds. The staff is also donating their tips to fire relief. 

“As small independent businesses, there is only so much we can do,” he says. “But our platforms can be wide-reaching, and every voice in the groundswell toward revolution counts.”

When it comes to preparing for the future, every individual must take climate change seriously, advocate, and agitate for sustainable policy. Free explains that Australia is grossly disproportionate in its contribution to global carbon emissions. 

“Our political parties and economy are propped up by the thermal coal industry,” he stresses. “We ignore the practices of indigenous land management honed for millennia before European colonization.” 

A Community Effort

Sydney-based Single O has also ramped up its efforts to help. In November last year, Single O donated total profits across its three venues (Surry Hills, York St CBD, and Carriageworks Farmers Market) to the Red Cross Disaster Relief and Recovery Fund. They also gave 100% of sales and donations from its Surry Hills café (other cafés were yet open for the new year) to Red Cross and the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.

In addition to this, Single O was also involved with Nomad’s Cook for the Bush event by running the coffee at the bake sale happening next door at Sydney’s dining institution, Chin Chin, with all funds and everyone’s time being donated to Red Cross.

One of Single O’s partners, The Lott Cafe, located in Cooma, south of New South Wales, underwent significant challenges as the town was surrounded by bushfire emergencies. They share with Fresh Cup:

“We are pretty much in the middle of a heap of fires. The Lott Cafe has become the hub for many of the service workers to take some time out before getting back to the frontline. The RFS has set up a tab for all their workers with the Lott, and so we have had heaps of them enjoying Single O coffee. 

“On Sunday morning, there must have been more than 100 firefighters, ambulances, and police workers in for breakfast…they were so grateful to get awesome coffee. When service workers who weren’t on the RFS tab came to pay, all our staff just told them, ‘All good, we appreciate you’. 

“The vibe on Sunday was pretty amazing. The firefighters were so grateful they decided to pull their trucks up out the front of the café and wash down our windows and walls, which were filthy from the ash that fell during the night…we all felt humbled to serve these men and women.”

Called to Action

Specialty roaster ONA Sydney recently organized garage sales of coffee equipment, while other companies have donated coffee or their time to alleviate pressure from the fire-affected communities. Still more coffee organizations, roasters, green bean traders, and cafés are donating profits from coffees sold, online sales, bags of roasted beans, retail purchases, and tip jars.

Melbourne’s ST. ALi is donating A$1.00 from every coffee sold to Red Cross, Three Blue Ducks is also giving A$1.00 per coffee from every venue for the next week, and The Bread Social are donating A$1 for every Portuguese tart sold; collectively, their goal is to raise A$20,000 for Red Cross, the RFS, and WIRES.

Toby’s Estate has donated A$10,000 directly to their café partners impacted by the fires, along with A$5,000 to NSW Rural Fire Services to support the firefighters battling on the frontline.

Our call to action is for people to go out and support their local businesses and communities by spending money.

“Our call to action is for people to go out and support their local businesses and communities by spending money. Whether it’s as simple as a cup of coffee, to help them get back on their feet,” says Toby’s Estate marketing manager Gillian O’Brien. “This is a way to put money directly in the pockets of the people and communities impacted by the fires.”

Sydney’s Sample Coffee donated a whole year’s worth of Brew Crew subscription for auction at the “Fighting Fire with Fire” fundraising event held by Porteño Events on Monday, January 13. The business is also organizing The Great Roaster’s Charity Ball, a roasters competition using its vintage Barth Ball roaster. All the coffee roasted by local competitors will be put in bags and sold, donating 100% of the proceeds to organizations helping with the fires. 

“In our opinion, this is the first time the coffee industry has taken on board different ways of raising funds towards organizations that are fighting fires or supporting affected communities and wildlife,” says Sample Coffee’s Ainhoa Martínez. 

Empathy as the Common Thread

Champion barista Nicole Battefeld has recently moved to Australia from Germany to be with her partner and to experience the nation’s specialty coffee scene. She says it has been a surreal experience to see how the public and various industries have reacted to the devastation of the bushfires that have been ravaging Australia.

“I have not had much exposure in my life to natural disasters,” says Battefeld, who now works at Highroad by ONA Coffee. “The experience of the recent bushfires has been both terrifying and enlightening.”

Battefeld is based in Canberra, the capital of Australia. She says although they are yet to be directly affected by the fires, the smoke from surrounding fires has become trapped in the valleys of the Canberra region. 

View this post on Instagram

This is 2020. We are the witnesses of a changing planet. Yesterday the hottest temperature on the planet was measured in Sydney with 48.9 degrees. Climate change affects us now. Extreme weather with extreme consequences. This is the result of human consumption. And I want to tell you that the only way we can change this is by our own decisions. We got raised in a society of accessibility. But it’s time to realise that the easy and comfortable way isn’t gonna cut it. I am so worried about my own future that I decided to change the way I consume about 3 years ago. I mainly buy second hand. I avoid plastic as much as possible. I am vegetarian since 6 years, was 2 years vegan and this year Jordan and I have decided to go back vegan. I don’t own a car. All these decisions are so extremely easy and I know I’m not going to change the world, but it helped me realise how simple sustainability is. We can all change. Because if we don’t do it now, when should we? The planet is already burning. We also donated to the fire fighters and it would be amazing if you could help to. The biggest fundraiser in the moment is @celestebarber so check out the link in her bio. Donations can be made internationally. I seriously thank all of those who took the time to read this. Thank you ? #canberra #bushfiresaustralia #change #sustainableliving #sustainability #againstconsumerism #beaware #youarethechange

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“It has produced some extremely hazardous air quality,” she adds. “This has resulted in the closing of businesses, many public services to cease or operate sporadically, and has caused health concerns for many people….As someone working in the coffee industry, I’ve had a pretty interesting perspective on everything that has happened. 

“Not only has my workplace had to close on several occasions due to the poor air quality, but we’ve had to change the way we operate the cafe,” she continues. “We’ve had to close the outdoor areas and closely monitor the coffee quality to make sure the smoke isn’t affecting the coffee or milk.”

The response from the public has been one of frustration and stress, Battefeld says. The political climate is tenser than ever, but beyond that, the weather and the devastation witnessed has taken its toll on people, she says. Half the major cities in Australia have been shrouded in smoke in the past month, forcing many to wear face masks daily. 

“The average Australian customer is usually chatty, friendly, and overtly polite,” says Battefeld. “Now, they are tired, feel ill, and are simply seeking refuge from the smoke.” 

She also notes the response from the coffee industry in Australia has been nothing short of miraculous; among the baristas and roasters she knows, nearly all have donated money from their savings to help those in need during this time. 

“The common thread among people is empathy,” she says.

One of the most pressing topics Battefeld witnessed from the bushfires, and one many Australians are frustrated about due to the inaction, is climate change. 

“In the coffee community, sustainability is one of the foremost issues in our progression and development. Among the baristas and roasters I have spoken to, it’s clear that unless we find more sustainable ways in which to operate, events such as these bushfires will continue to occur with more frequency and severity,” she says. “As someone relatively new to the country, I have observed that Australians are kind, helpful, and very resilient. I can only hope that the coffee community continues to work together to help those in need. And that we find a way to prevent such devastation from ever occurring again.” 

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Anastasia Prikhodko

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