We chat with the Australian coffee legend about changing the café landscape in Melbourne with Proud Mary Coffee and moving stateside.
BY SARAH ALLEN
Photos courtesy of Nolan and Shari Hirte
I met Nolan Hirte on my first trip to Melbourne, Australia, in 2013. I was there for the World Barista Championship, sure, but I also made plenty of time to take in the city’s famous coffee and breakfast service. I had long heard about the consistently high level of service of both extraordinary coffee and quality brekkie fare in Melbourne, and none of the coffee spots I visited disappointed. On my first visit (there would be more on that trip) to Proud Mary Coffee, owned by Nolan and his wife, Shari, and one of the city’s most lauded cafés, Nolan was a study in constant movement as he flitted from table to table saying hello to friends, hopping behind the espresso machine to sling drinks, chatting with the baristas, and entertaining visiting coffee producers. Busy as he was, he would completely focus on the task at hand or the person with whom he was speaking. When he came by my table, he brought a glass of his current favorite coffee—it was an Ethiopia but I can’t remember which one. What I do remember was that it was served in a wine glass and Nolan was obviously in love with it.
A year or so later, I was at Stumptown Coffee back home in Portland, Ore., for a cold-brew throwdown that one of the staffers had dreamed up. It was a steamy summer day perfect for iced coffee. And in walked a tall, lean, bearded man wearing cut-offs and looking as Portland as anyone … but it was Nolan. I waved to him and he came over. He told me he was in Portland on holiday with his family and he heard about the event and decided to swing by. He also said that he and his wife liked the city so much they were thinking of moving here.
I didn’t think much of it—why would this successful business owner leave his home country, and a city as cool as Melbourne at that? Several years later, though, there was Nolan, setting up shop in a large, airy storefront on uber-artsy Northeast Alberta Street in Portland. The going was tough at first—even in a coffee-savvy city like Portland, we’re not accustomed to high-end breakfasts in a high-end coffee bar. Usually we get our good coffee from one place, then go have breakfast someplace else, which more often than not has terrible coffee. Once Portlanders got the hang of Nolan’s style of service, however, they were hooked. A few months in, Proud Mary USA was jam-packed every day of the week.
When COVID-19 hit, Proud Mary pivoted brilliantly by boxing up ingredients for their beloved breakfasts and sending them home with customers to assemble on their own. They increased wholesale and retail coffee. They cut a window into the front of the shop from which to serve and built the prettiest parklet I’ve ever seen. Still, I breathed a sigh of relief when they were finally able to reopen because the service is always—and I mean always—fantastic, and those breakfasts taste so good on Proud Mary’s custom stoneware dishes. Oh, and I’ve gotten used to drinking my coffee in flights from wine glasses.
Nolan and his team also stayed busy during COVID-19 by expanding: They’re putting the finishing touches on a new café and restaurant in Austin, Texas, and they’ve moved their roasting operation to a large location near the existing shop in Portland. Between his frequent shuttling between Austin and Portland, Nolan chatted with me about the role he played in transforming foodservice and coffee in both Melbourne and Portland, his producer relationships, his commitment to Cup of Excellence, and much, much more—so much, in fact, that this is part one of three in our interview series with Nolan.
Sarah Allen: Where were you born and raised, what brought you to Melbourne, and when did you start Proud Mary?
Nolan Hirte: Born in a small remote mining town called Paraburdoo located in a region known as the Pilbara in Western Australia. Paraburdoo has to be one of the hottest and most remote towns there is. The Pilbara dates back 3.6 billion years—some of the oldest land on the planet. It was a really cool place to grow up, we had a lot of fun exploring that land and hunting for thunder eggs and other unique gemstones.
Back in 2006, I won the Western Australia Barista Champs and was so excited to be involved in the coffee industry. I had loads of ideas and really wanted to start a business of my own. Deep down I knew I was on to something big and exciting; whilst I could have made something successful happen in Perth, I also knew that’s as far as it would ever go. If I did something in Melbourne it had unlimited potential. Melbourne is a cutting-edge international city, and if you can make it big there, chances are you can make it anywhere. Also my girlfriend at the time moved back to Melbourne and I knew that if I was serious about her I would follow. I was serious … that girlfriend back then was Shari, who has been my wife now for 13 years, and is the mother to our two kids, Felix and Rosie.
What role did you play in bringing exceptional specialty coffee to Melbourne?
We were a pivotal part in pioneering the movement of specialty coffee in Melbourne. It was 2007 that I moved there and I had just been on my first trip to the United States. I attended [the Specialty Coffee Association of America, now the SCA, Expo] in Long Beach, Calif., and then embarked on an epic road trip from San Diego up to Vancouver, B.C., and back, meeting all the best baristas, drinking loads of coffee, and buying records for six weeks. It was on that trip that we saw some things happening in the states that were not yet happening in Australia—namely seeing a Clover machine for the first time and drinking Esmeralda Gesha on it. But what really stood out for me was seeing a coffee menu that looked just like a wine list. It totally made sense to me, yet I had never seen one before. This was a light bulb moment. I realized this is what we need to bring back to Australia.
When I told some coffee friends that year that we were going to open a café in the Hawthorne neighborhood of Melbourne and we’d be buying a Clover machine, they laughed at me. “Why would you spend $14K on a machine that only brews coffee when no one drinks filter coffee in Australia?” My response was: “Exactly.“ [Until then], no one [was drinking] filter coffee in Australia, [and we set out] to change that.
It did not take Melbourne long to catch on—it’s a city that lives off word of mouth. When something interesting is happening in hospitality, the news spreads like wildfire. Melbourne was always the coffee city of Australia; this helped Melbourne really take it to the next level, and we all set our sights on making it one of the best coffee cities in the world.
And what role did you play in elevating breakfast/brunch service in the city?
We made it our mission to make breakfast the hero. Any well-known established chef back then was all about dinner with the occasional lunch available. No one really seemed to take breakfast that seriously—it was just the same old items on the menu: toast, pancakes, and eggs Benedict. Surely there could be more? We really wanted to get the hospitality scene to stop and pay attention to where coffee comes from, how special it can be, and here is the same level of detail in the food to match, something that was equally considered. Not to mention the real secret was the chefs in Melbourne had nowhere to go on their days off. We definitely knew we needed to make a place that the hospitality kids would come and spend their time in on their precious mornings off.
Stay tuned for parts two and three of our interview with the rule breaker and game changer that is Nolan Hirte of Proud Mary Coffee, here at Barista Magazine Online.