Wednesday, March 29, 2006


Coffee or a ‘cup of joe’ has come a long way since my American travels in 1993. I remember ordering a coffee in New York, when filter coffee was the ONLY type of coffee available. I thought I was about to cause an international incident when my request for a ‘white coffee’ was met with a blank expression, bordering on absolute horror. San Francisco was beginning to appreciate the wonders of espresso with cafes proudly demonstrating on large signs that “We serve Cappuccino”. To a Melbourne gal, this seemed a very unremarkable announcement.

Since that time, Starbucks has become a tour-de-force with an outlet on practically every corner. I eschewed Starbucks in Australia, as there are so many fine individually owned coffee premises to patronise. China was another case with a dearth of coffee shops and ‘western’ breakfast options, so Starbucks was a relief to me when I was there on work trips (mostly in Shanghai and Hong Kong) and I craved a coffee and a bagel. In the States too, it has become a somewhat of a beacon amongst espresso bars that often seem to serve a sort of foamed, coloured coffee-flavoured water. Starbucks however does serve a very inconsistent brew. We have had great coffee and some really awful coffee too. I really miss the service and consistent quality that we had become used to in the smaller owner-operator coffee shops we frequented in Australia – there is a lot to be said against the large chain store operations where staff really don’t seem to care.

A flat white is unknown outside Australia, so latte has become the coffee of choice. Paul and I have had a hard time finding a coffee made to our tastes. We finally worked out the problem. The ubiquitous latte here, is huge and made with about half the coffee to milk ratio that we are used to. The smallest coffee one can order is a Tall. Then there is Grande and Venti. At 12 fl oz (.029 litre), 16 fl oz (.473 litre) and 20 fl oz (.591 litre) respectively, the Tall is larger than a large coffee in Australia. Our solution is to order a tall size with a double shot of espresso, or a grande with a triple shot – this makes it more akin to what we are used to.

It is not as simple as ordering a ‘skinny latte’ when wanting a milk coffee with reduced fat content. One orders coffee with a 2%, 1% or no-fat milk. Paul was somewhat amused after ordering a 2% mocha, to be asked if he would like whipped cream with it!

We suspect that the massive size of coffee served here is directly related to some government initiative to subsidise the dairy industry. The introduction of the latte must have had a serious impact upon milk demand and production: it seems as if everyone is drinking them. The insulated takeaway paper cup is what most coffee is served in, whether drinking in or taking out. These are highly evident in the street with people drinking from them everywhere. It might also be a good way to keep one’s hands warm in the cold?!

There are several Lavazza coffee shops in the city and these have become a destination point. Not as popular as Starbucks, we have always managed to find a table and a great coffee – amongst the numerous patrons of Italian extraction. The coffee here is served in china and is consistent in quality.

Over the weekend, a new coffee shop, Saxbys, opened in our building (just as we are about to leave!). We have been giving it some patronage as we really want it to do well – and provide some much needed competition for Starbucks. There are some Chicagoans that rave about Intelligentsia Coffee. We are yet to find one of these establishments to try it out.

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