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Saturday, November 23, 2002

The Coffee Underachievers

Mark Harrison of Catallaxy Files says that he used to have Starbucks beans shipped to him in Australia, before a Starbucks opened in Canberra. But the local Starbucks is a disappointment to him.

Sydney has quite a coffee culture. Just in the suburb where I lived, Randwick, we had...let me least ten cafes within about three or four blocks. Almost none served brewed coffee. It was made a cup at a time, espresso style.

On my first day in Sydney I arrived early in the morning, and my boss and his wife took me out to breakfast. The waiter asked me what I wanted, and I told him "coffee". He gave me a blank look.

Waiter: Er, what kind? Espresso? Latte? Cappucino?
Me: No, just coffee.
Boss (in a stage whisper): We have real coffee in Sydney.
Me: I just want some coffee.
Waiter: Short black? Macchiato? Maybe iced coffee?
Boss (still whispering): If you want it like you get it in America, you want a long black.
Me: Uhhh...
Boss: Say 'long black'.
Me: Long black.
Waiter: Coming right up!
Me (to boss): I just wanted coffee! I didn't know there was going to be a quiz!
Boss: Same thing happens to me when I order eggs in America. Over easy, sunny side up, upside down...I just want eggs!

Coffee was considered so important that eventually our department acquired its own coffee machine. Not a coffee maker (although we did use that until it got a roach infestation), a coffee machine. This used little packets of premeasured coffee like this. Because I was cheap, though, I took my coffee to work in a thermos. This caused no end of bemusement among my colleagues, who kept asking me if it was special coffee. "Is it American coffee?" my Indian colleague asked. "It's just the coffee I make at home." "Oh, so it is American coffee." Presumably he didn't know why anyone, in Sydney, would actually want anything to do with American coffee.

(I think the thermos itself was a source of confusion. A complete stranger on the street actually remarked on it! I was probably known in Randwick as "that coffee pot woman"---"coffee pot" I guess being the Australian term for it. Fact is, coffee was $2 - $2.50 for a small cup, and I didn't want to pay a zillion dollars a day for coffee.)

We didn't have a Starbucks in Randwick. I got my beans from one of the local places, but I missed the roasted-to-death flavor of Starbucks and sometimes went up to Elizabeth St. (downtown Sydney) to get some Starbucks beans. (Mark says the beans at the Canberra Starbucks are not the dark oily ones you get in the US, but I believe the ones I got were.)

Now, I have always heard foreigners belittle Starbucks, but I always figured it was standard reflexive anti-Americanism, because it came with all those trappings. And then once, once, I actually got coffee at Starbucks in Sydney, and boy, was it awful. I think Dennys has better coffee. So maybe Starbucks ships all the stinky coffee abroad and keeps the better stuff here at home. Or maybe it's because they had that coffee sitting on the burner all day, and it was near closing time. That's probably also why they gave it to me for free, for buying the beans.

Mark suggests good coffee in Canberra can be found at the Mount Stromlo Observatory. I've not been to Canberra, but surely that's a long way to go to get good coffee! This is one thing I really liked about Australia---you can't throw a rock without getting something to eat. They had a little coffee shop up at Siding Spring observatory near Coonabarabran, too. And on Sydney ferries. And after you'd driven a couple miles up a lonely dirt road, you'd find one at the Hastings Newdegate Cave visitors' center near the south end of Tasmania. (And in the cave itself, you'd find an elderly tour guide with an American accent, who said he was from Palo Alto, and had come for six months and stayed for twenty years.)