John and I enjoy coffee but we are not coffee snobs. We rarely go to coffee shops and when we lived at home, back before we sold our house and most of our worldly goods, we bought good coffee beans, ground them daily, and made a pot of regular ol’ brewed coffee. When we were in Europe, we consistently ordered an Americano, which is an espresso with some hot water added, and we usually got good results. In Southeast Asia, the norm was instant coffee, leading me to switch, temporarily, to tea.
My kids are much more sophisticated than we are when it comes to coffee. My youngest son, Chris, is a barista, his brother, Ben, is a former barista, and Chris’s wife, Morgan, (if I may brag a little) has placed in regional barista competitions – I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as barista competitions until she began to compete. Recently, my daughter, Mary, casually mentioned that she had ordered a Cortado at a coffee shop. I asked her what a Cortado is and she replied that it’s kind of like a Gibraltar. What language was she speaking? She went on to say that she recently went to an Atlanta coffee shop where the barista interviews the customer about his or her coffee tastes before creating a bespoke coffee beverage tailored to customer tastes. My, my, how things have changed.
Coffee Capital of the World
I knew before we arrived in Australia that the place has quite the coffee culture and is, by some standards, considered the coffee capital of the world. So, I was a little surprised when I first ordered a black coffee and got a blank look. I tried again “I’d like an Americano,” I said. The barista replied, “I have no idea of what you are talking about.” In our six weeks in Australia, beginning in the north in Cairns, and travelling all the way down to Adelaide, we learned a thing or two. In Melbourne we learned to order a “long black” which got us closer to what we wanted but, with two shots of espresso, was still too strong. Melbourne was also where a tour guide led us in an oath, hands over our hearts, to never visit a Starbucks while in Melbourne. Then, in Adelaide, a kind-hearted barista clued us in that a weak long black, or single-shot black is one shot of espresso instead of two, and may come closer to what we wanted. And it did.
Coffee tourism and an education we didn’t know we needed
There have been so many points of entertainment and surprise along the way with our exploration of Australia’s coffee culture. In Sydney, we walked a few blocks over to Surry Hills, an artsy neighborhood near our Airbnb to try out a shop with the trendy name Single-O Surry, which I learned means ‘single origin,’ something that is a big deal in the coffee world. The café seated 25 or 30 people and was packed, with at least 30 more standing around in the alley next to the shop either waiting for a seat or a take-away order. We moved on to a less stylish café about a block away, which was serving as an overflow spot for those of us not hip enough to wait in line at Single-O Surry. I don’t remember the name of the coffee shop, but it happened to serve an excellent Ristretto (still strong for me, but not bad).
Espresso drinks everywhere
On our drive from Portland to Adelaide on a very deserted stretch of road we encountered a small gas station that, despite being in the middle of nowhere, had a full menu of espresso beverages. While John was pumping gas, I ordered a black coffee for him and a latte for myself. The back-bush barista at the counter didn’t question the black coffee order, so I thought we understood each other. It turns out that I was mistaken. She gave me my latte and then handed John his drink:
“Cappuccino?” she said.
“No, black coffee,” John said.
“Cappuccino,” she repeated.
“Black coffee,” he repeated.
“Cappuccino,” she repeated once again.
“OK, cappuccino,” said he. And cappuccino it was.
My Kingdom for a Horse – or for a cup of coffee
In Adelaide, we walked to a charming little shop around the corner from our apartment called Paddy’s Lantern. It was at Paddy’s that we finally learned about weak long black. The coffee, the food, and the vibe at Paddy’s were all great. We had hoped to return on Saturday, but they are closed on the weekend and, yes, we also wondered what kind of coffee shop closes on the weekend?
We walked a little farther and went to a café with the charming name, My Kingdom for a Horse, which sounds like, and is, Shakespearean. It comes from Shakespeare’s Richard III and the phrase is currently used to mean something that is otherwise unimportant but is highly important at an exact moment in time. Like a cup of coffee. My Kingdom for a Horse offered on its menu a monthly single-origin selection. Feeling slightly more coffee-savvy by now, I asked what this month’s single-origin selection was (as though I would have understood the answer). The waiter shifted uncomfortably, “I don’t know, I’ll have to ask,” he said – obviously, this isn’t a question he gets very often. At that point, his colleague crowed that “the monthly single-origin is from the Gaitania region of Columbia and is a full-bodied brew with chocolate and berry overtones.” Or something like that. He might have been pulling this out of his ass for all I know. The coffee we were served at the colorfully named My Kingdom for a Horse was, unfortunately, disappointing.
I sometimes think about the coffee my father made while I was growing up. Every morning, he boiled water in a small pot and put a generous amount of Community Coffee, a Baton Rouge company that has been a local favorite for over 100 years, in a small, French drip pot. When the water came to a boil, he spooned it, one large spoonful at a time, over the grounds. The resulting coffee was strong and rich, but not bitter. I wonder what clever name it would receive in the coffee shops of Melbourne today. More importantly, I wonder what high price it would fetch.