It was never so much an outright statement or conversation when I worked at various coffee shops, it was more an understanding: Australians do coffee well. Or, at the very least, they do coffee distinctively. I remember Australian tourists praising one of my coffee shop’s brews with flabbergasted voices; they’d yet to find anything in America that matched their standards. I also remember when the “Flat White” trend began trending, an Australian-original from what I heard that we had to have customers try to explain to us because it wasn’t in our repertoire; there were several different versions that all tasted like a latte to me and I wondered what was so special about this supposed Australian invention that was making people seek it with risk and confusion.
I’ve since learned that both Australia and New Zealand claim invention of the beverage and that, technically, it’s supposed to be a smaller amount of steamed milk poured over espresso, like a cappuccino but with microfoam instead of microfoam. [Insert indifferent shrug here].
I remember one customer saying when I asked why he preferred us to try to make a flat white when we apparently didn’t know how, that he just thought it tasted better, sweeter almost. I swear, it always just tasted like a latte to me, though perhaps a little more watery? That being said, I am not downplaying the influence of Australian coffee in the least; nor am I denying that Australian coffee culture has inspired American coffee culture in distinct ways recently. The flat white, as a phenomenon, is just my reference for Australian coffee; but, I knew that couldn’t be the great Australian influence. I obviously haven’t had a legitimate flat white because its influence has gotten far enough to now be on the official menu at Starbucks; that tangible signal of Australia’s coffee influence.
It turns out that influence may be less about the content of their coffee shops and beverages and a whole lot about their coffee vibe. Whatever it is, Australians definitively love their coffee. As of 2015, they were recorded to consume more beans per capita than any other in the world. Coffee makers worldwide draw some type of inspiration from Australia; Singapore shop owners note that they trained in all things coffee shop down under, calling it the land of coffee gurus. In 2014, an Australian coffee shop won the World Barista Championship in Seattle.
Reportedly Australians have been in the espresso cafe game since much earlier, putting its flood of Italian and Greek immigrants to use after the second world war, and benefiting from the development and perfection of Italian espresso makers. Perhaps because of this early start, Australia has been ahead of the trends when it comes to single-origin, organic, fair and direct trade, and specially trained baristas. It’s not just that there’s a lot of coffee there, it’s that every coffee drinker has high standards because every coffee shop has high standards. Apparently, you have to really try hard to find a bad cup of coffee in the island nation.
One of the most unusual characteristics of Australia’s coffee scene is that it is not, as in the US (especially in the metropolitan areas) linked to work and productivity. Many Australian coffee entrepreneurs have expressed surprise at the coffee culture here that involves laptops, headphones and seemingly never-ending espresso refills.
In Australia, coffee is a part of leisure, well-being, mental and physical health, and even going surfing on the weekends. While I’ve seen the more leisurely, social vibe in coffee shops in my small, southern hometown (where coffee for work is made at work or at home before work) and in some more eclectic shops off the grid in New York, the overall coffee culture here has become linked with our need to be constantly going and producing and squeezing every minute for all the juice it’s got.
Coffee is more experiential in Australia, meaning that they’ve internalized a classic Italian mindset about it; Starbucks took that away from espresso bars a bit in America, turning them into assembly lines of caffeination. With the advent of latte art, pour-overs and specialty brews in the third/specialty wave, we are definitely starting to embrace that more. It is likely that the Australian influence has had a hand in that as well.
Australia was also said to be influenced by the British Empire’s presence there for so long; the British are known for long, almost luxurious breakfasts (though stereotypically they enjoy tea over coffee) and it seems that this luxuriousness extended to the cafe scene. Coffee shops in Australia are where friends gather for extended hours, or even where one makes friends while sipping any of the typical but superb coffee options. You can see this influence in the rising number of independent cafes that encourage no electronic devices, have no public WiFi, and even have cheeky, condescending signs like “Just Talk To People.” It makes sense that as our society swings toward over-productivity and over-caffeinated, they’ll be a matching swing toward slowing down and finding luxury. It’s a welcome change not only to the emphasis on industriousness and capital-earning but also to the frenzied political and social dynamics that feel on the verge of simultaneously imploding and exploding every single day.
So, be Australian; whether you order a Flat White or a Long Black (an Americano), try sitting at a coffee shop with friends and forgetting about Twitter, politics, global warming and student loans. Use that caffeination to form genuine bonds; after all, those are the ones that are more likely to survive when the grid inevitably goes down or when you need a team to help you survive the zombie apocalypse.