Fittingly, Auction Rooms owner Andrew Kelly was unable to accept the award in person - because he was in Guatemala haggling with farmers over the price of coffee beans.
The Final Step (South Yarra), Little Bean Blue (city), Proud Mary (Collingwood) and Three Bags Full (Abbotsford) were named as runners-up, with another 25 cafes, including popular South Melbourne laneway haunt St Ali and surprise entrant Indulgent Cakes in Montmorency, commended.
The group of 150 readers, recruited by The Age's Melbourne Magazine and called the ''Coffee Army'', reviewed about 1000 cafes (including more than 120 in the CBD) before meeting to decide on a winner.
The awards - the coffee equivalent of The Age Good Food Guide - provide further evidence, if any was needed, that coffee appreciation is at fever pitch in Melbourne.
''I didn't realise how much went into making a coffee,'' said reviewer Caroline Gabriel, whose job as a sales rep allowed her to seek out a new cafe every day between July and December. ''The standard varies greatly,'' said Peter Lam, who rated more than 160 cafes. ''There are the fanatics making coffee with siphons and single-origin beans, people stuck in the old-school Italian style, and a lot of people who don't know what they're doing at all.''
With the rare exception, such as the traditional Italian-style cafe Sicilian Orange in Prahran, the finalists represent Melbourne's ''new wave'' of coffee houses - often identified by their tattooed baristas, racks of fixed-gear bikes and menus of single-origin coffee beans sourced directly from the farms.
Many pride themselves on their high-end espresso machines, with Slayers and La Marzoccos costing up to $30,000, and offering esoteric coffee-making: cold-drip devices (like chemistry equipment), stovetop (just like you could make at home) and pourovers, made with a simple filter. ''It's really low-tech, high-concept stuff,'' said Auction Rooms' manager Adam Del Mastro. ''We have regulars who used to have a couple of lattes and read a magazine who now have a siphon [from a complicated vacuum machine] or a pourover.''
The coffee boom has seen the birth of a new entrepreneur: St Ali's Salvatore Malatesta last year opened an outpost of his popular South Melbourne cafe in London's Clerkenwell; and in December, restaurateur Paul Mathis, dormant after selling his Federation Square businesses Chocolate Buddha and Taxi Dining Room, boarded the bandwagon to open Coffeehead in Camberwell, with plans to sell 100 different brands of coffee.
And if you thought at least the milk is just milk; well, no. Auction Rooms gets its from little-known dairy Ky Valley while East St Kilda roaster Monk Bodhi Dharma prefers the non-homogenised Schultz, from a single herd at Timboon.
The Coffee Army Handbook, featuring Melbourne's top 100 coffee spots, is free in The Age this Friday.
Source: The Age Domain