It took me three days to order a coffee after I landed in Melbourne. My usual style of caffeine intake is very American—medium-roast drip, black, and straight to the veins if possible. In a city known for its discerning café culture, asking a seasoned barista to explain a flat white felt more mortifying than succumbing to jet lag and dozing off in the middle of a restaurant or bar or conversation.
On day four, I met up with old Australian friends for brunch in Richmond, an eastern suburb heaving with succulent-adorned restaurants and hip cafés. In the midst of settling into our table, a harried waiter asked for our coffee order. Crap. I fumbled with a menu and attempted to decipher terms like “long black,” “short black,” and just plain “white,” while the rest of the table casually asked for extra-hot skinny caps.
All too soon it was my turn. “Uh. . . . I don’t know what any of this means.” Defeat, admitted.
“How about a flat white?” one of my dining-mates swiftly suggested. “It’s an Australian classic.” I nodded, he nodded, the waiter nodded, and that was that. My first coffee-ordering experience, about as embarrassing as I imagined it would be.
At least, to me it was. My companions were quick to reassure. Drip coffee, they said, the kind that flows from insulated carafes as freely as water in most American restaurants, is rarely found in Australia. Instead, coffee Down Under is primarily espresso-based and made to order. And while independent coffee shops typically reign supreme, even the menus at local chains focus on espresso and offer the option to drink from an actual mug. As I sipped my creamy $4.50 coffee, the heat drained from my cheeks and I began to understand that the difference wasn’t just in price and name but also in culture. We ordered one more round, then another, and spent several hours chatting, nursing our drinks and picking at our avocado-adorned breakfasts.
After more than a month, I finally gained some confidence and figured out my order (skinny cap, extra shot). Getting over jet lag helped (a bit), but so did standing in line at bustling coffee shops and simply listening. That being said, here are a few things I wish I had known about coffee in Australia before that first, awkwardly ordered flat white.
Don’t just ask for a coffee. Start by stating whether or not the drink is for takeaway, then the size, then the style. Specificity is key—the beauty of Australian espresso drinks is not only in their careful creation but also their adaptability. Locals are unafraid to ask for customization: strong or weak, a dollop of foam, sweetened, and topped up with milk are all common requests. Alternative milks are popular, and most cafes carry soy or almond for nondairy drinkers. Ordering something “skinny,” as in most places, gets you skim milk instead of full fat.
After perfecting your order, prepare to hang out for a few minutes. Baristas have to measure and pull espresso, steam and froth milk, and create a signature swirl for you, plus a half dozen or so other eager coffee drinkers. Don’t fret; a good flat white, cap, or long black is worth the wait and the coinage.