In 2008 Starbucks announced that it was closing over three-quarters of its Australian stores, pulling completely out of markets in South Australia, Tasmania, the Gold Coast and Canberra (government employees just moved up a couple of notches in my book). Starbucks management admitted that it had grossly underestimated Australia’s café culture in defining is business model for Ozzie coffee domination and, by financial year-end in 2008, had sustained a total operating loss of over 204 million dollars.
Australia has a plethora of good coffee shops, a cornucopia if-you-will. Ironically these coffee shops follow a philosophy that largely emulates the American notion of choice, but with a slight difference. Whereas in America you order a “venti skinny caramel mocha with an extra shot and whipped cream” and thereby define yourself as an individual and not at all like the other lemmings lined up with you, in Australia the choices come in a slightly more, well, socialist fashion. Upon entering an Australian café choice is prevalent, but it is restricted to time-tested beverages; the assumption being that perfection has already been obtained, if not in Ethiopia by some peasant farmer in a grass hut, then certainly by some oiled, suited Italian with a healthy disrespect for customers.
So if not a “grande mocha choka-lotta latte de-caffeinated half-caff” then what, exactly? Well, please allow me tell you. Australian cafés have a bewildering array of options when it comes to ordering a beverage, so much that visitors feel the need to experiment, conduct a coffee query – a infusion inquiry, beverage breakdown, drink dissection (sorry!) – to ascertain which cup ‘o java will become the truest reflection of their inner self.
The basis for all coffee in Australia is the espresso. An espresso is 25-30 ml of neck-tingling goodness, or hot water forced through coffee grounds. Served in a small cup – on a saucer of course, were not in New Zealand!! – you shoot it down and march out to face the day, caffeinated to the brim. If this isn’t enough of a kick in the pants there is always a ristretto. A “shorter” espresso, a ristretto draws less water through the same amount of coffee, increasing the twitchiness and arm flapping after digestion.
Apart from being the first “energy drink,” an espresso is a building block. By mixing it with very specific portions of other ingredients wonderful things can be made. People are serious about their coffee here, so much so that they often take courses to learn how to make these drinks. I’m not kidding… in the last three weeks I have spoken to (or heard about) no less than 12 people who have paid for and attended coffee courses. My sister’s next door neighbours make an honest living teaching such lessons.
The permutations are, well, seemingly limitless. In support of this hypothesis (and also the degree of Australia’s coffee snobbery) I submit the following examples:
- Latte – is a 2:1 ratio of steamed milk and espresso and steamed milk, with a little foam on top.
- Mocha – like a latte, but a portion of chocolate is added in the form of chocolate syrup or instant chocolate powder.
- Cappuccino – is prepared with one-third each of the following; espresso, hot milk, and steamed milk foam. A cappuccino is traditionally served in a porcelain cup, which has far better heat retention characteristics than glass or paper. The foam on top of the cappuccino acts as an insulator and helps retain the heat of the liquid, allowing it to stay hotter longer.
- A Flat White – is prepared by pouring steamed milk over a single shot of espresso. To create the “flat”, the steamed milk is poured from the bottom of the jug, holding back the lighter froth on the top, making the drink smooth and velvety.
- Macchiato – means ‘stained’, and is an espresso with just a dash of foamed milk. It looks like a small Cappuccino but has a much stronger and aromatic taste.
- Short black – espresso with a little hot water added
- Long black – espresso with more hot water added
- Affogato – a double shot of espresso poured over vanilla ice-cream with whipped cream on top.
- Piccolo – similar to a Macchiato but with a little more froth, one part espresso with a little steamed milk and a little froth on top.
- Americano – dripped coffee or a shot of espresso with hot water added to make a longer long black.
What you can’t get in Australia is a Caramel Machiatto, Frappuccino, Pumpkin Spice Latte or a White Chocolate Mocha. These limitations operate under the assumption that perfect coffee has already been achieved, and to tamper further is to anger the caffeine gods, committing the beverage equivalent of walking down the street wearing a T-Shirt that says, “Mr. Well Hung.” I understand what this means of course, this “I will not drink that shit, and neither should you” mentality. It sets Australia up as a bunch of coffee drinking elitists instead of Mao shirt-wearing socialists. I’m comfortable with this analogy, I’m happy being judged by the rest of the world (except Italy of course. There’s no pleasing those guys. But then again our county is, at least, solvent) as a coffee snob.
It’s hard to defend the opinion that Australians are, on the whole, beverage elitists. A quick trip down to any local café disproves it by presenting the affogato analyst, cappuccino categoriser… (again sorry) with all sectors of society gently supping their flat whites with equal intensity. Yummy mummys rub shoulders with working men in their short shorts and Blundstones (what is it with this outfit?), little fingers raised as they sip from cups on saucers. I’m here to state that you haven’t lived until you witness a 250 pound plumber order a latte with not a hint of embarrassment, and then quietly sips it out of a glass cup with a napkin artfully twisted around it.
Yes Australia truly is coffee paradise, and I’m happy to be home and immersed in it. Now, please excuse me, I’m off to the Rambling Rose for a flat white and a bit of slice!