Australia does coffee right. Simply right. You have to know their superb beverage culture before you get a supersized blank stare by a barista. Oh, because yes, that happened to me several times last summer during my 2-week visit to the land Down Under. It’s somewhat convoluted and can be confusing. So if you’re an American, especially an American who loves coffee and all things latte, foamy, skinny, tall, grande, cold or hot, educate yourselves first before traveling there.
But first, let me show you how serious they are about their café.
I was there for Melbourne‘s Food & Wine Festival, which I’ll get to covering and even this post serves as a part of that series. One of the tracks during the three-week festival was on coffee-roasting. I spent a brief hour talking to a local grower whom gave me the basics on the privilege they have in their soil, temperature, and other variables, creating a perfect platform to make incredible coffee. I did a tasting with green and black bean coffee on a super hot day in Melbourne and enjoyed every bit of it.
But little did I know the reason for a special coffee track was because of their impressive culture. Coffee is a serious business there. Mostly craft. Very little chains. And no Starbucks in sight. Well, not until I got to Sydney. But even then, I only saw one.
My snobbish espresso personality came out in full form when I started piecing together this attractive lifestyle they boast. Coffee houses full of hipsters, businessmen and women, parents, tourists, locals, old, and young, occupy pricey real estate on every corner. Coffee cups are in hand there the way yoga mats are seen on celebs in our gossip magazines here. I was overwhelmed initially but I took full advantage and ordered coffee whenever I had a chance, no matter where we were.
(Cafés line the Victoria Farmers’ Market, via my Instagram)
My first taste was at our hotel, The Metropole. Still a newbie to their ordering language and habits, I stuck to what I knew and simply asked for a triple espresso with skim milk on the side. I’d hook it up on my own. And that worked until I had a taste of the cappuccino I enjoyed for breakfast for 9 days at the arty hotel. A sexy triple shot topped with a generous dusting of cinnamon and cocoa powder, served in lovely Bodum glasses, set the tone for long days of exploring the city.
It was so right I go too comfortable and caps most of the time even tho I was enjoying navigating the city and becoming familiar with their coffee styles. So much, I enjoyed all of these at various spots. Not a single one disappointed.
It’ll make sense as I indulge you with this exploration.
(My cups of café as shared on IG. Clockwise: The one time we didn’t enjoy breakfast at our go-to spot in Sydney; Two dark shots, no milk at Hotel Casino; My daily morning ritual while in Melb at Hotel Metropole; the prettiest capp I had in Melb during lunch on the South Bank.)
During a day trip of vineyard-hopping in Yarra Valley, we made a quick bathroom pit stop. For me that meant eyeballing a café as we drove by to park. 10 minute breaks are just enough time to order, sit, sip and snap a few pictures.
Essenza was super ambient and cozy. Positioned right across the street from The Grand Hotel, I suppose it draws in a lot of their guests. Still, it wasn’t overpacked and annoyingly loud. It was quiet, but chic. American jazz playing and shelves stocked with accouterments. And this is where I had my first experience trying to order like an Aussie.
Super fail. As you see in this picture below, I had two glass bottles: one with steamed milk; the other with warm water. Cute. But, huh? Que, que. I was so flustered, I ended up spilling the milk everywhere and the poor barista couldn’t help but chuckle at this American. Yes, he referred to me as an American. I squirmed back to my seat to bare my sister’s sincere mockery…. she doesn’t drink coffee so she doesn’t even get it.
The drink he re-poured was still good. Really good. But I was hyped about making sure my next order, cappuccino apart, was tastefully requested.
The culture is such where everyone drinks at all hours of the day and as such, friendly invitations to join and share a table with complete strangers is not uncommon.
Sis and I, as chatty as we are, ended up spending an hour with these two equally chatty guys from the U.K. at Viconilo, an Italian-styled cafe. The coffee was surprisingly mediocre (though I paid close attention to the coffee-maker as she prepared it for me and even broke out in Italian with the owner, thinking that would yield me an over-the-top perfect drink), but the encounter was super-beneficial. They shared tips on where to dine and since we were on our way to Sydney (but first a hop over to Fiji!), they knew exactly what to suggest we do during our 6 days there. We shared American tales in exchange for their vast knowledge of Australia.
You learn a lot about people over coffee.
Every shop has lustrous espresso machines like this one I drooled over while my double shot was whipped.
And while I had higher expectations, my cup did look this amazing!
Of all the places I enjoyed in Melbourne, none was better than a classic Italian cappuccino at Brunetti. I talked a bit about them in this blog post over at B So Chic! I was introduced to Mariella by a friend in Atlanta who knew I was going to Atlanta. He said I must meet her. And she was kind enough to pick sis and me up the day before we left to treat us to a great breakfast.
We ended up in Little Italy, well because as it turns out, her entire family is Italian. And who better to treat me to perfect espresso than an Italian. She knew exactly where to go.
Brunettis is the kind of place you’d expect to see in Manhattan, not Melbourne: really big, long lines, very commercial and corporate like. Almost cafeteria like. Nothing boutique about it like I’d seen for 8 days past. Though there was nice patio seating set in a beautiful neighborhood. But it’s all in the coffee. And whatever my new friend ordered for me was just right. So right, I wanted to meet the owner.
A 2nd generation Italian (can’t recall his name), whose mission is to offer Australia the best coffee. He was in the process of remodeling the huger than life cafe and gave us a private tour of the new quarters of the building. Imagine an upscale, more modern Maggianos. That’s what the new space was looking like. Only it was simply coffee. Nothing more. Pastries and coffee.
Brunetti was also in the business district of Melbourne, surprisingly styled much like you’d expect to see: glass house, WiFi, fancy wood grain seats juxtaposed with metal dining bars.
I’d give Melbourne a 9.5 in coffee. I had some superb tasting espressos, lattes (my least favourite concoction), fraps, etc… I just didn’t always know what I was having. At least not by name.
And then there’s Sydney.
We were fully on our own in this super chic city, so I didn’t have a local to fall back on to help me in times of despair.
Fortunately, we made quick acquaintance with a particular server at Uliveto, a highly-rated Italian restaurant and café, conveniently a 4-minute walk from our hotel.
And so for 6 mornings, sis and I enjoyed $40 breakfasts, consisting of parfait with granola and figs, one for each, fresh squeezed orange juice for sis and my coffee. That’d be right. $40 for that minimalist breakfast.
But since it’s all about the coffee, our barista’s charm and sheer talent in designing some fabulous “latte art” deleted any wonder of such a pricey early morning noshing. We just got used to it and enjoyed his shaking hand as he created all kinds of creatures and faces, like his own in this case.
This is loosely the guy you want to see at Uliveto — an Asian fella with a long beard. You can’t miss him, but he’s your guy. He’s won awards for this kind of awesomeness… I’m sayin’. It’s almost too pretty to drink, especially if I’m thinking of sipping the guy’s face. But I knew underneath that foamy veil was a pool of bold and nutty goodness: Triple shot espresso, steamed skim milk, and little foam. I’d sweeten it myself.
And so I distorted his face.
Our mornings in Sydney were glorious. Cooler days warmed by a bucolic patio at Uliveto was the perfect invitation for a longer stay. I’d read the paper and enjoy café con leche, watch the laid back morning commute and plan our day. It was just too perfect.
Thanks to extended conversations with our daily server, I finally felt comfortable enough to order my drinks as I had learned:
Single shot espresso = short black
Cup of black drip = long black
Espresso shot with steamed milk = latte
Espresso with steamed milk and foam/froth with a dusting of cocoa and cinnamon = Cappuccino
Espresso with thick steamed milk = flat white.
While none of it made sense to me (still doesn’t), I was audacious and tried.
At this spot.
And it was a fail like never in my life.
I got the meanest blank stare.
To the point I was told they couldn’t make my drink.
And my sister came to my rescue. Because I believe I went numb for a long moment.
Sydney gets a 9.5, too.
After 15 days in Australia, I still hadn’t gotten it right. See why I stuck to ordering cappuccino? Everybody knows cappuccino. It’s universal.
So if you end up at Maxwell’s (at least in Sydney) make SURE you know how to order coffee!
Oh, and if you want iced coffee, make sure you do not say “iced coffee” — you’ll end up with a cold affogato. Just ask for a “cold drip.”
I enjoyed coffee every morning and afternoon during our entire visit, so I had many more shots, cups, glasses, moments, twisted faces, “huh” moments, and luscious ‘ahhhh, yes!’ exhales — too many to share.
But it was all a process.
An enlightening delicious one.
Visit the land Down Under. That long flight is so worth it.
Traveling to Australia? Check out the 10 Things You Should Know & Do!