Editor’s note: Many of us in the international specialty coffee community are gathered here in Melbourne, Australia, for the Melbourne International Coffee Expo (MICE), and when we’re not at the show, we are trying to visit as many of the city’s famous coffeehouses as we can pack in. When Shanny Sena, a barista at Melbourne’s Axil Coffee Roasters, offered to write about the correct way to order in this sophisticated coffee city, I was delighted! But even if you’re not here in Melbourne this weekend, hopefully this guide will either be helpful to you on a future visit (I couldn’t recommend a trip to see this coffee’s shops any higher) or simply insight about what makes for a truly great stop at a cafe in Melbourne, we hope you’ll find this article as interesting as we did. Enjoy!
By Shanny Sena
I grew up in Singapore, a city crammed with every coffee chain you can imagine and corner ‘kopitiams’ (coffee houses) buzzing with locals 24 hours a day. My coffee knowledge was simple and straightforward. I knew what a frappuccino was, and my local coffee order was a ‘Kopi C Kosong’ (coffee with condensed milk and no added sugar) at my local coffeehouse.
Fast forward to age 19. I just moved to Melbourne, a university student, and I’m about to order my first coffee. I ask for (you guessed it) a coffee. Here’s how my very first Australian coffee experience went.
Me: I’d like a coffee please.
Barista: Yeah. What kind of coffee?
Me: Erm, just a coffee.
Barista: I know, but what kind?
Me: Just your coffee of the day.
Barista: (getting annoyed now) A cappuccino, latte…?
Me: I just want a coffee, with some milk!
Barista: (rolls her eyes) So you want a flat white?
Me: I’m not sure. What’s a flat white?
Having been a career barista for seven years now, I have had variations of this conversation with scores of tourists ”though I hope I was a lot more patient and understanding. Being so far away from the rest of the world, Australians have created our own versions of everything. Flat white. Latte. Cappuccino. Long black. Short black. Long macchiatto. Short macchiatto. Ristretto. Double ristretto. Americano. And as you go from state to state, these undergo further mutations.
I think it’s important to start with the iconic flat white. Australians and New Zealanders both claim to have invented the flat white. Seeing as I’m now an Australian, I’m going to support our stake in the creation. Head into any specialty-coffee bar in Melbourne, and your flat white experience will be fairly consistent. One part espresso, five parts milk, served in a six-ounce ceramic cup. The milk is steamed to a creamy consistency similar to that of a latte. I was in San Francisco a couple of months ago and heard a barista there describe a flat white to his customer as, “like a cappuccino with no foam,” and he discouraged the customer from ordering one because of the flat and watery consistency. I had to stop myself from giving them a lecture on the pleasure of a properly executed flat white. Instead, I cringed and bit my tongue. (For those who know me, keeping my mouth shut is a big feat.)
Another drink that catches non-Aussies by surprise is the cappuccino. A good Canadian friend of mine recently in Melbourne ordered his regular, a cappuccino. His reaction to what he was served was ‘What the hell is that on my coffee?’ Cappuccinos are commonly served in Australia with a single espresso shot, textured milk, and a dusting of chocolate powder. We’re starting to see a growing movement amongst specialty-coffee cafes in Australia to serve ‘traditional cappuccinos’ as defined by the WBC standard: single espresso, textured milk and no chocolate.
If you’re a latte drinker, be prepared for another surprise when your drink arrives. The ratios are similar to it’s northern counterpart, but it’s served in a 7.5-ounce (220ml) glass instead. I remember 10 years ago, the glass was served with a paper napkin wrapped around it because the vessel was invariably too hot to hold.
The next drink that is uniquely Melburnian (and I say this with confidence) is the magic. When I first heard this term three years ago, I couldn’t figure out what it was. There were no references online, and most people you asked had varying opinions on what exactly a magic was. I like to think that this was created during the double ristretto craze we experienced back then. It’s a double ristretto topped with five ounces of creamy frothed milk like that of a latte, always served in a six-ounce cup.
This brings me to my next point regarding double ristrettos. Most cafes pour double ristrettos for their take-aways in an attempt to maintain milk to coffee ratios. Ask if you are getting a double ristretto before ordering your take-away. To really enjoy the proper coffee experience in a take-away cup, you really want either a full double shot of coffee, or a full, unrestricted single shot with half the amount of milk. I know this sounds confusing, but I really want you to get the best experience. In fact, don’t order take away coffees at all. Just sit down, drink out of a ceramic cup, and enjoy the Melbourne cafe scene.
The final contender in our list of milk-based espresso drinks: the Piccolo. This is usually served in an espresso cup, or a miniature latte glass, so the volume can vary from three- to four-ounces (90-120ml). It consists of a single shot of espresso, topped the rest of the way with steamed milk. Though it resembles a tiny latte or a flat white, it’s generally twice as strong.
When I hop from cafe to cafe, I tend to order two drinks side by side. I call it a One and One (a term I learned during my short stint at San Francisco’s Ritual Roasters, which I understand was originally created by Jared Truby and Chris Baca of Verve Coffee Roasters in Santa Cruz, Calif., which, by the way, they discuss in the feature article “Trubaca,” in the April+May issue of Barista Magazine, that I’m hoping will gain some popularity in Melbourne). It’s an espresso (single shot) served alongside a flat white. I ask for both shots to come from the same size cup so that I get an accurate idea of how milk changes the flavor of that particular espresso.
At the risk of this blog post becoming a mini e-book, I’m going to quickly skim through the remaining coffees.
¢ A Short Black is an Espresso.
¢ Americanos are the same in Melbourne as they are in the USA: a double shot of espresso poured over a cup ¾-full of hot water.
¢ Our Long Blacks are similar to what the Americans call a Little Buddy. A cup is filled with one- to two-ounces of hot water and topped with a double shot of espresso.
¢ A Short Macchiatto is an espresso topped with a dollop of foam.
¢ A Long Macchiatto is a Long Black topped with a dollop of foam. Though if your barista was trained by a Sydney-sider, they’ll leave out the hot water.
All cafes with the exception of a small handful will offer three kinds of milk: Full Cream (3.5%), Skim (1.3%), and Soy. If you’re a soy drinker, be prepared for unsightly clumps floating in your cup. I’m not sure what the difference is between the soy milk I used in the USA and the soy milk here. Both taste similar, but ours curdles, and it’s gross. As a barista, I am guilty of silently cursing the soy latte drinker because I can’t hide those lumps in a glass.
Most specialty cafes will offer at least one form of filter coffee. This will most likely be a pourover, or a brew from a home brewer such as the Moccamaster.
You’re almost ready to start wandering the streets of Melbourne in search of our best cafes. The last thing you need to learn is literally how to order your coffee.
Now, how to order:
First off, your greeting is highly important. G’day mate, hows it goin? is your best and most fun bet. We love it when tourists try to speak ‘Aussie.’ If you just say ‘hello’ like I used to, (think Gertrude Moon, Daphne’s mom, from the TV series Frasier), locals tend to think you’re a little creepy. You’ll get a fake smile and minimal interaction.
The majority of our cafes offer table service, so grab a seat and wait for your server. You’ll find that our wait staff are actually quite knowledgable about the coffee being served. While it’s not common to order your coffee with the barista, I do know that there are a few baristas out there who are happy to chat with customers about their coffee. The baristas at Patricia and Cup of Truth in the CBD do an excellent job with customer interaction.
Some of Melbourne’s best coffee can be found in hidey-holes tucked away in our laneways. Stay off the main streets, make use of your phone’s GPS, and enjoy our beautiful city.
I’ve listed some of my favourite spots in Melbourne; consider adding them to your own list of cafes to visit.
Reverence Coffee Roasters, Ascot Vale
Auction Rooms, North Melbourne
Dukes Coffee, CBD
Market Lane, Queen Vic Market, CBD
Cup of Truth, CBD