Words Maura Mancini


The aroma of espresso was a familiar comfort back in my home country Italy, but it wasn’t until I set foot in Australia’s Port Douglas that my coffee journey truly began. It’s where I crossed paths with Neo, a barista with a passion that spills into every cup. That sip of coffee held more than just flavour; it held a piece of Neo’s heart and the essence of what is also known in the coffee world as the “Gift From God”.

In the picturesque town of Port Douglas, where the tropical breeze carries the aroma of freshly brewed coffee, a unique coffee culture thrives. From the bustling main street to the tranquil waterfront, cafes and coffee shops dot the landscape, each offering a unique experience for coffee enthusiasts. Among them, Café Origin Espresso stands out not only for its exceptional coffee but also for the passionate barista behind the scene - Neo.

The coffee journey that spans continents to reach Port Douglas

At first a means of livelihood back in Korea more than a decade ago, little did Neo know that his humble start in the coffee world would lead him to become one of Port Douglas’s most dedicated baristas. After Neo and his wife Lucy visited several places across Australia, Port Douglas captured their hearts like no other. The serenity of the place, the rustling coconut palms, and the sun-kissed beaches cast an irresistible spell, drawing them to settle here. It was in Port Douglas that Neo encountered Glenn, the previous coffee master of Origin Cafe, who introduced him to the Australian way of crafting coffee. At the onset of his barista journey in Port Douglas, Neo encountered scepticism from many who doubted a young Korean like him could master the art of creating the perfect flat white - a quintessential Australian invention (sometimes credited to New Zealand). Amidst the hesitation, Neo’s dedication shone.


The origin of espresso from crafting coffee excellence to the “gift of god”

Neo learnt the Aussie way of crafting coffee, excelling in perfecting the medium roast flat white, the most sought-after drink he serves. Unlike the darker Italian roasts, Australia sets itself apart on the global stage by preferring a medium-roasted coffee, achieving a harmonious blend of robustness without overwhelming bitterness.

Neo delved into the intricate process of coffee roasting, transforming beans into the perfect flavour, a fusion of scientific precision and artistic finesse - akin to cooking with heat to achieve precise taste. Neo came to realise that achieving the ideal roast demanded meticulous care, ensuring beans are heated thoroughly while avoiding the risk of turning them bitter through over-roasting.

The art lies in selecting beans, blending and controlling temperature during heating and cooling, and exploring a wide range of flavours hidden in beans from Arabica and Robusta plants’ cherries. Caffeine in these plants acts as a natural bug repellent. Nitrogen creates the creamy top of espresso and affects its taste. The way beans are processed matters too, using methods like sun drying or water processing, with the latter allowing precision in bean selection for roasting and blending. Neo embraces the nuance of coffee- making like an artist captivated by light on a canvas. The journey from bean to cup is indeed a fascinating evolution!

But the story of coffee’s allure extends beyond Neo’s artistry recipes. It stretches back through time from the heights of Ethiopian mountains where a goat herder named Kaldi observed his goats energetically munching on red berries from a tree with shiny green leaves. Intrigued, Kaldi tried the berries himself and felt a surge of vitality. Intrigued, he took some berries to a nearby monastery. The monks were shocked by the berries’ effects and impulsively threw the ‘Devil’s Fruit’ into the fire, unintentionally roasting the berries and filling the air with an enticing aroma. The monks discovered that the roasted beans could be turned into a fragrant ebony juice, which they used to stay awake during prayers. And thus, from the ‘Devil’s Fruit,’ emerged the divine ‘Gift from God.’ This unassuming berry quickly swiftly grew in worth, becoming a highly traded global commodity. Coffee now ranks second position in global trade, only behind crude oil.

“Neo’s dedication extends beyond crafting the perfect cup; it encompasses the well-being of those involved in the coffee journey.”

Aiming for perfection, one cup at a time

In the heart of Port Douglas, Neo engages in a captivating weekly ritual - coffee roasting. With meticulous precision he transforms raw beans into aromatic wonders, filling the air with a symphony of flavours. The rhythmic crackling of beans echoes the journey from raw to rich, creating a brew that awakens mornings and sharpens senses.

Amidst this aroma filled-haven, Neo came to understand that coffee’s true essence goes beyond simple beans and recipes: it’s about the passion and care infused into each cup. Driven by this insight, Neo embarked on a mission to master the art of a barista. With dedication, he channels his heart and energy into crafting each cup, and patrons of Origin Espresso like me can undoubtedly taste the difference.

A unique harmony of love and coffee adds a distinct dimension to Neo’s life. While he immerses himself in the creative aspect of coffee making, his wife Lucy provides essential feedback on quality and helps manage the business side. Together, they have formed a harmonious partnership that has contributed to Origin Espresso’s success.

Behind the captivating story of Neo and Origin Espresso lies a profound commitment to ethical sourcing and sustainability. Neo’s dedication extends beyond crafting the perfect cup; it encompasses the well-being of those involved in the coffee journey. He ensures that the beans he sources are of the highest quality, favouring organic and fair trade options. By supporting ethical sourcing, Neo contributes to a chain that values environmentally sustainable practices and the livelihood of farmers across the globe and the challenge posed by global warming on coffee growing, a concern that threatens the incomes of countless farmers. Neo’s commitment to sourcing high-quality beans isn’t limited to global outreach; it also extends to the coffee growers right here in Australia, particularly in the nearby fertile lands of Tableland. Neo values the quality of locally cultivated beans, reflecting his commitment to ethical sourcing and his support for local farmers.

Origin espresso hub

Amidst the fierce competition in the coffee industry, Neo’s motivation remains rooted in his pursuit of top-quality coffee. He consistently seeks to refine his craft, catering to locals seeking familiarity and travellers yearning for new experiences.

In the heart of Port Douglas, locals and tourists gather for more than just a coffee fix. When locals step in, Neo and Lucy are greeted like old friends knowing that their skilful touch brings a comforting start to the day with coffee and a friendly smile.

The coffee culture here isn’t just about the beans: it’s about the bond that forms over those cups. Neo’s cafe acts like a special meeting spot, much like a town square, where conversations flow as easily as the steam from their mugs. It’s a place where news gets shared, stories are told and laughter fills the air like a special ingredient.

Neo’s cafe has become a bustling hub of connection and community, drawing in crowds that sometimes lead to a brief waiting time. However, this wait is always worthwhile as Neo pours his heart, passion, and love into crafting each coffee cup to perfection. Customers are rewarded not only with exceptional coffee but with dedication and care that makes each sip a great experience.

The dream that brews

When asked about his ultimate coffee dream, Neo’s answer isn’t fame or fortune. It’s to know everything there is to know about coffee. Neo’s insatiable thirst for knowledge and innovative spirit led him to a new adventure: the prestigious National Barista Championship in Melbourne last May. With boundless creativity and a passion to redefine the coffee experience, Neo introduced his remarkable batch brew Colombia Las Flores Pink Bourbon Natural. This blend brought out exquisite flavours like yellow peach, strawberry raspberry and honeyed pecan - an exploration akin to discerning intricate notes in wines.

The competition offers an exciting platform for baristas to showcase their culinary artistry. They’re evaluated not just for their coffee’s taste and quality, but also for their ability to create captivating and visually stunning presentations. This challenge encourages baristas to go beyond the usual flavours and experiment with extraordinary combinations of beans, crafting an exceptional sensory journey. While the competition can be intense, the atmosphere is one of sharing knowledge. Baristas from diverse backgrounds gather to exchange technique, insights and their mutual love for coffee. This unique environment fosters continuous learning, transforming the competition into a joyful celebration of the vibrant coffee community.

The next time you’re savouring a cup at Origin Espresso, think beyond the rich aroma and the velvety flavours. Consider Neo - the barista who turned a devil’s fruit into a gift from the gods all over again. If life’s a brew, Neo’s undoubtedly the secret ingredient that makes it more than just a routine - a blend of passion, caffeine, and a dash of love.