Newcastle is a city filled with men of many names – plenty of Matts, Seans, Lukes and Bens – but after years of steel city mingling, this reporter has found that the real pioneers, the Novocastrian glue holding the cultural scene together, all share a name with the humble Saint Nicholas. Our city is bursting at the seams with Nicks, each doing their part to make it a better place. After noticing the common bond of passion and ambition attached to the name, it was only a matter of time before The Monthly Nick came into fruition, as there are likely several Nicks near you, keeping the dream alive in their own way, regardless of recognition or celebration. These are their stories. I first met Nick Tarren two years ago on a Tuesday, during the nightmarish situation of entertaining a female in Hunter Street Mall who did not like the taste of coffee. We were eventually pulled into a small, nameless café by a scruffy-looking but charming young man, determined for us to try his espresso, as our first cup would be free. My date was not very assertive and ended up with a free latte, and was extremely surprised to find she enjoyed it very much, (to this day she is convinced it’s the only coffee she’s ever liked) and as I was in the same boat, I made a return visit the next day. When I showed up to an empty café, I was surprised to find my new barista friend taking a seat next to me as he served me my flat white, immediately spinning me a yarn about himself and his life, and was legitimately interested in me and what I did. When I told him I was a freelance graphic designer, he informed me that this pop-up espresso space needed a logo, but first it needed a name. This was the very beginning of Conroy Bradley Pistol Club.
Two years later, occasional visits have become daily visits, and every morning I observe Nick holding down the fort at his new space, Churchkey Espresso. A far cry from Conroy Bradley’s humble beginnings, the new café is an extremely well laid-out, large site with a spacious atmosphere and a dedicated exhibition area. Though every day new customers are thrilled to discover the site at 488 Hunter Street, wowed by the quality of Nick’s espresso and salted caramel bombolonis, they aren’t feeling the same kind of excitement as I am – they don’t understand how long and extensive a journey it’s been for Nick to get to this point. And, to be honest, before our forty-minute chat for The Monthly Nick, amidst the late afternoon exhaustion of trying to close up shop, I don’t think I properly understood either.
Nick’s first experience as a barista was being taught by his oldest brother, in a gruelling two-week stint of training at a small café in Sydney. It got to the point where he couldn’t really advance without immersing himself in a full time job, putting out 50 kilos of espresso a week, learning more as he went. A chance encounter making coffees at Newcastle University introduced him to a crew of roasters and baristas from the Melbourne coffee scene, and exposure to a community based around speciality coffee - quality over quantity - really struck a nerve. With no intention of working or living in Victoria, a spontaneous car trip over quickly transformed into a deferred university degree, and 13 months spent immersed in a very different kind of scene, making countless friends, connections and contacts. Nick’s eventual return to Newcastle saw him commuting to Sydney to get a decent job as a barista, running insane hours and sharing red-eye trains every morning with armies of homeless men, reading more books than he’d ever read in his life. It wasn’t long until he was home again, at local espresso bar Glee, but all he could think about was opening his own spot.
“I was itching to do my own thing,” he told me, “When you’re that close to opening your own, you know, ninety-five per cent of the way. You need that five per cent, but it’s a big five per cent, which is the site. I found the opportunity, and I got into it.”
Nick was, of course, referring to the shopfront of the Newcastle Bakehouse, which he occupied in 2011 as Conroy Bradley Pistol Club for close to a year. Named after his uncle, who reportedly had no connection to coffee nor to competitive gunplay, running the Pistol Club as a one-man-show had a steep learning curve, as did sharing a building with an entire family of Slovakian bakers. The café, which was essentially Newcastle’s best kept secret for great coffee, ended up attracting a crowd which Nick likened to a throwback to an eighteenth century Penny University ambience, as the law and sociology students who would regular at Conroy Bradley repeatedly ended up in three-hour discussions, essentially on how to mend the world. After hours, Nick would give free barista lessons to keen students, and his genuine, honest love for coffee was what kept the place alive. Even with all its charm, the Pistol Club was only ever intended as a pop-up espresso bar, the main goal being opening up Churchkey Espresso for real.
Over a year had passed between Conroy Bradley Pistol Club closing and Churchkey Espresso finally opening, and I was beginning to go insane without Nick’s daily conversational acrobatics, or the signature Proud Mary blend he used to prepare loyally. With all his equipment ready, beans one call away and a large space already sorted, it was a long and painful process of solving a million small problems before Churchkey could open. The building, smack-bang in the middle of a collection of bridal stores near Auckland Street, was designed in the 70’s for FAI insurance, and bought by the Tarren family some thirty years later. Owned by his mother, the site was used as the student-run gallery space Rocket Art for several years, and after a brief stint as another bridal store, remained unoccupied for a long while, waiting for Churchkey to be born. The lighting, high ceiling and white walls in the building make the previous gallery presence obvious, and it’s not surprising that Churchkey is being used as both a café and exhibition space.
Nick made it very clear that there would be outdoor seating and a dedicated dining area in the front, but no seats in the building’s gallery space, so as to not de-value the art or the gallery aesthetic. People don’t go to a gallery to drink coffee, and they don’t go to a café to look at art! The walls currently contain an exhibition from local artist Von Rox, and have already been booked in advanced by several other artists, such as printmaker Michael Phelps and my loveable gang of misfits at The Roost Creative. Nick is excited to have more installations and sculptures in the exhibition area, because there is so much space to do so, and I couldn’t be more enthusiastic to get involved. As a curator of art events in the past, I can confirm that it’s a great space for shows, and will likely be getting a lot of attention in that scene very soon!
Though Churchkey, and the Pistol Club before it, have always been deeply rooted in other areas of culture, (made evident in the gallery space) what set them apart from other cafes I’ve been involved with is a genuine, down-to-earth passion and interest in everything to do with coffee – an irremovable side effect of Nick’s exposure to the Melbourne scene. Churchkey’s signage makes it clear that they use Pony Blend beans, a special product of Melbourne roastery Clement Coffee, pioneered by Chris Wood, a close friend of Nick’s who he met on his travels. Chris was also involved in Proud Mary, the blend used at the Pistol Club, which was the sole reason for me being the borderline coffee snob I am today. Nick has plans to extend his coffee-nerdery from specialty blends to industry talks held in the space regularly, beginning in a few months with Matt Perger, two-year Australian barista champion. From what he’s described to me about upcoming events and uses for the space to spread knowledge and enthusiasm to the Newcastle coffee community, I think Churchkey’s future fits very well with the for-us-by-us ethic started with Nick’s free barista lessons at Conroy Bradley.
Every morning I see new customers discovering Churchkey from across the street, shocked to see it up and running after the shopfront remained unoccupied for so long. Three weeks after a quiet opening, word is spreading and people are starting to notice how delicious everything there is, and how hilarious and interesting a person Nick Tarren is. He’s told me before that he finds it natural to want to turn every new person he meets into a friend, and if you end up anywhere near 488 Hunter Street any time soon, it won’t be difficult to see why.