A soy flat white served at the QT Sydney hotel // (c) 2014 Mindy Poder
Our vacation to New Zealand and Australia had barely started, and my parents were already complaining. It wasn’t because of the long flight — they were prepared — or because of the lackluster view at our first hotel — that was fixable.
The problem was far worse.
“This coffee is undrinkable,” said my dad, recoiling and pushing his cup to the far end of the table.
My mom agreed. Alternatively, when I had dinner with a Sydneysider on her whirlwind visit to New York and Los Angeles, she had managed to come up with one definitive complaint about the States: “Your coffee sucks.”
All the distress and distaste between coffee drinkers in the U.S. and down under led me to wonder: Does one country make better coffee than the other? Can one population handle its caffeine better?
Bent on resolving this mystery during my trip, I discovered a few key facts. While preferences are a matter of taste and rely heavily on what one is used to, Australia and New Zealand do have a much more widespread, sophisticated coffee culture. High-quality, specialty coffee is available nearly anywhere in Australia and New Zealand, even in the airports.
In the U.S., specialty coffee is not the mainstream, and boutique cafes and artisanal roasters are mainly found in the cities. And while the U.S.’s serious cafes are quite good, it should be noted that some of New York’s celebrated coffee shops are actually owned by Australian expats, who are bringing their sleek, modern cafes and state-of-the-art espresso machines to the States.
What’s the defining difference? Australia and New Zealand’s coffee culture runs on espresso. All their drinks are espresso-based, influenced by Australia’s large Italian immigrant population.
The drip-coffee that my parents have been drinking for decades is hard to find, and, on the other end of the spectrum, my expensive preference (single-cup, pour-over coffee) is also an enigma.
For people who drink a “cuppa”coffee daily, this difference in taste can be quite the unexpected culture shock. Setting expectations is key. I also advise that the sense of adventure that imbues the rest of the travel experience be extended to the discovery of new beverages.
In addition to serving espresso hotshots such as cappuccinos, lattes and macchiatos, Australian and New Zealand cafes craft some drinks that might seem exotic to most Americans: flat whites and long blacks.
Though baristas might differ on the exact definition, a flat white is typically made of two shots of espresso and microfoam and topped with latte art. Served in a smaller cup than a latte, the flat white has less milk than a latte, and is distinct for its velvety texture and rich, smooth coffee flavor accented by a mellow sweetness. They reminded me of the cortados and gibraltars I’ve had at some of Los Angeles’ best coffee shops, though any serious barista would be able to identify differences in the milk texture and ratios used for each beverage.
Flat whites also happen to go great with Tim Tams, pavlova and lamingtons, Australian treats that are also essential for visitors to sample.
As for America’s namesake espresso beverage, the Americano? Well, it gets tricky here too. Espresso poured into hot water, the “long black” is the reverse of the Americano (hot water poured into espresso). Taste-wise, it seems to exist simply for the sake of not giving a drip-coffee–loving nation its own espresso drink. Servers will often suggest long blacks to bleary-eyed, drip-seeking Americans, but be forewarned — long blacks are much stronger and more full-bodied than a Starbucks’ roast.
For a stronger cup with less water, order a short black, which is a fun name for a basic espresso, topped with a thick, luxurious crema. When my dad was served this after dinner in exchange for his order of black coffee, it looked like he had just been attacked by aliens. Defeated, he sent the foreign object back, and I felt that it was a good time to simultaneously belittle his unsophisticated preference in coffee as well as suggest that this trip was a good opportunity for him to scale down on his coffee habit.
Also due to my dad’s coffee preferences, I learned that real sugar is the dominate sweetener. Sweet ‘N Low is not readily available. Occasionally, cafe staff was able to dig up some Equal packets, which my parents ended up pocketing for future use. And if you want a low-fat milk option, be sure to order your beverage skinny, or with trim milk.
While my poor parents couldn’t get accustomed to the full-bodied espresso beverages — finding sweet relief in the instant coffee packets in our hotels — they had no problem polishing off their affogatos (espresso topped with ice cream). Call me a traitor, but I seamlessly made the transition to flat whites and long blacks.