Coffee is a shape-shifting drink. No matter what country you’re in, that country has added something distinct to the coffee bean and the way people drink it. Each time I travel out of North America, I find a little learning curve waiting for me.
Imagine an Australian visiting a cafe in California and asking for a flat white. You can count on that traveler getting a blank stare from the barista. Same for an American visiting a non-Starbucks coffeehouse in Costa Rica asking for a Frappuccino, and so on.
My first experience abroad as a coffee drinker was in Costa Rica. I was expected some awesome coffee since Costa Rica is famous for exporting quality beans. I couldn’t wait to drink some coffee – even after checking into our hotel at about 9 p.m., I found a pot brewing in the lobby. I scoured the area looking for cream, only to find out Costa Ricans don’t take cream in their coffee. Better yet, I learned it doesn’t really need it. I also found that just about any place that serves coffee serves it well, from a roadside soda to a full-service coffee pillar like Cafe Milagro. Most of it is brewed rather than served espresso style.
Belize, on the other hand, couldn’t compete. It might not be far away on the map, but it doesn’t produce its own beans. There are locally made coffee liqueurs that taste great, but there wasn’t much of a coffee house culture at all. Let’s put it this way – I didn’t go to bed eager for the next morning’s cup of coffee.
Australia and New Zealand show a lot of similarities in menus, concepts and execution. Most of the better cafes stick to espresso drinks – and many have fairly extensive menus. Some of the better meals I had came from places that are coffee houses first, restaurants second. The coffee nomenclature is a bit different: You won’t see flat whites (which some incorrectly believe is a latte) or long blacks at a cafe in the United States. I never realized this before visiting, but Queensland produces some great beans. I brought a batch of Highland Pearls home, and was loathe to finish them off. There are two things I really appreciate about Australasian coffee culture: It doesn’t produce sickly sweet coffee drinks, and it doesn’t regard coffee as a performance-enhancing drug that’s worthless unless it leaves the drinker with a case of the shakes. I think my favorite coffee drink ever might be a flat white at Barista Empire in Auckland. Here’s a nice bit of info about Ben Boyle, the superbarista in charge.
As for the United States – it’s a country with a wide array of coffee culture. It’s a huge country with a lot of people scattered throughout, so it might be too much to develop a truly cohesive coffee culture. Starbucks truly established coffee in this country – love them or hate them, just about every coffee house owes Starbucks for cluing people into the fact that there’s more to coffee than Folger’s. Since then, we’ve had cafes of all sorts pop up around the country. The quality is inconsistent – if you’re a traveling coffee fiend, do your homework before arriving: Unless you’re going to Seattle, the odds of wandering into a top-flight coffeehouse are slim – our cities tend to be sprawling, which doesn’t help. If you’re in Phoenix, I suggest Conspire in the downtown area. The coffee is awesome, and barista John Sagasta and his crew of regulars make sure the place is funny and laid-back rather than serious-snobby as some coffeehouses can be.
So there it is … one bean, many flavors.
If any of you who prefer travelling in Europe, Africa or the Middle East have anything interesting to say about coffee culture in those regions, feel free to pitch in!