A Nation of Coffee Snobs OR How I Spent My Summer Vacation

It’s that time of year: Back to School Season! I thought I would kick off the term with my “What I Did This Summer” report.  In addition to working on my dissertation and on a research contract, I took a trip to a place called Australia. What I found there was shocking! Instead of kangaroos, I found a thriving coffee culture.

Actually, there were kangaroos, plus lots of beautiful birds, humpback whales, and awesome flora too, but since this is a food blog, I thought I would focus on an aspect of Australian food and drink culture that wasn’t kangaroo jerky (which yes, is a real thing that you can buy—in addition to emu jerky, but I didn’t.)

My blog co-editors all wanted me to come back with information about Australian cuisine. From my superficial impression (it's not like I lived there for years), I saw lots of hot tomatoes with poached eggs, fish and chips, and BBQ. None of those dishes are very appealing to me—especially the hot tomatoes: yuck! Also, in case you haven’t heard, Australia is quite expensive so I stuck to breakfast foods and dishes from a variety of Asian cuisines, particularly Thai and Indonesian because they were cheaper than the other options.

The seafood there was great. I sampled a few locally crafted micorbrews which were pleasant, but I forewent the Australian wine (honestly everything was super expensive and I spent my money scuba diving and surfing instead). When you are in a place that makes Montreal booze and restaurants seem cheap, you know you are in trouble.

I could have tried to write about some of the different aboriginal food and drink that is celebrated in Australia, or even told my story about eating green ant butts (they taste like sour lemon and were used to make a drink), but such a focus would have felt forced.

I have to say I failed my co-editors.  I didn’t immerse myself in the food culture much. But I did manage to immerse myself in the coffee culture!

Apparently Australia is renowned for its unique coffee culture. Were you as oblivious to this phenomenon as I was? I once went on a couple of dates with an Australian guy who was so picky about the coffee at whichever café we went to that I had to discontinue seeing him. I thought the coffee snobbery was just his problem (he also didn’t like sunshine). Suffice to say, we were not a good match, but his picky attitude towards coffee is apparently quite common on that continent/country. Last year, the Sydney Morning Herald seemed proud to declare Australia a nation of coffee snobs.

Okay—but why would Australia be a nation of coffee snobs? Sure they grow some of their own beans—but when I think of coffee cultures, I think of France and Italy or Columbia. I don’t think of people throwing a shrimp on the barbee and then ordering a tall black (what they call an Americano) or a flat white.

I even took a tour of the Royal Botanical Gardens which told the history of Australia through the history of its flora (Nerd Alert! Nerd Alert! But actually it was super fascinating and free!), yet on that tour the coffee bean was never mentioned.

Why? Well perhaps it is because the coffee culture is a fairly recent phenomenon—if you count building a culture over the last 100 years as recent. In the 1910s, Greek immigrants in Sydney and Melbourne began to open cafes. There they would serve some of the first cups of coffee with locally roasted beans. In 1952, fine Italian coffeehouses with their espresso machines began to pop up in these two urban centers. For example, Pelligrini’s Espresso Bar (1954) and Legend Café (1956) claim to be some of Melbourne’s first real espresso bars. In the 1950s, Vittoria, the country’s largest coffee maker and distributor, also came into existence. Espresso drinks garnered greater popularity in the 1980s, when Lavazza began its export business in Australia. It is important to note that this exportation to Australia began more than a decade before Lavazza started distribution in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Today, Australians continue to drink lots of coffee. According to Australian Food News, the demand is greatest in the form of consumers who prefer to treat coffee as a social experience, relaxing in well decorated cafes. The Datamonitor, reports that for every seven cups of coffee consumed by an average Australian, one is consumed out-of-home.

I can attest that Australia has lots of great cafes. I spent too much time in one in particular, Atlas Coffee in Bondi Beach (a suburb of Sydney that I stayed in, known for its amazing beach and great surf). I never tried the flat white, but I had quite a few tall blacks, plus one time I ordered a mocha drink that was more like a coffee milkshake and was amazing (even though it was 7 am).

Most texts on the history of coffee will not even bother to mention Australia. The literature like Tom Standage's History of the World in 6 Glasses, William H. Ukers' All about Coffee: A History of Coffee,  and Mark Pendergrast's Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World focus more on European and American consumption. If anyone is looking for a dissertation topic-- there you go. You can thank me later.

Forgo Italy! If you want a great cup of coffee, you gotta head Down Under (and believe me with the over 24 hours of flying to get there, you will need more than one cup to overcome the jet lag).