At your service: Barista Chris Woodgers at Fort Whiskey Espresso’s window. Picture: Marina NeilFort Whiskey Espresso, Evatt Chambers Building, 380 Hunter St, Newcastle, Mon-Fri 7am-1pm.
As unusual as this might sound, the best way to gain an insight into how the coffee scene in Newcastle looks in the present is to step into a space steeped entirely in the past. At the foot of a staircase to a criminal law chambers, behind a wall of wooden framed mugshots of waist-coated gangsters, Fort Whiskey Espresso does not only dress up like a prohibition bootlegger, it serves drinks like one too.
Steaming up his milk inside the speakeasy bar the Coal & Cedar and handing out coffee and toasties through anopen window, barista Chris Woodgers is cosily hidden from pedestrian traffic -it may take you a second to spot him. When he appeared from behind the coffee machine on the morning of my visit, I felt like I had finally found the coffee brewing fugitive – that charming and elusive character that is hard to catch but easy to like. As if the mobsters on the wall, the advocate upstairs and the courthouse across the road weren’t enough, Chris even serves coffee to an adjacent barbershop named The Alibi Room.
Behind the Fort Whiskey window is an more interesting story about how an ex-Bacchus and Coal & Cedar barmancame to find himself here in the first place. His café is not a hole in the wall but a window in somebody else’s wall. He is all about opportunistic cheekiness and good timing. So much about what Chris has done in here embodies what is unique about the Novocastrian coffee culture. Chris is proof that abig budget and a brand new interior has never meant less to making a quality cup of coffee.
It is not often that a barista uses a blend from Sydney roasters Single Origin and then goes looking for something better, but that is exactly what Chris has recently done at Fort Whiskey. After enlisting the services of local roaster Nick Tarrant, Chris now grinds a Colombian and Brazilian blend with dark chocolatey, rum and molasses notes.
Fort Whiskey isabout in-and-out convenience. Order a banana bread ($4) or a toasted melt of salty prosciutto, tomato and cheese ($10 with a large coffee). Pungent short blacks ($3) go down a treat. Strong, reliable and difficult to fault -like all good alibis.