Appearing in Bean Scene Magazine,
Issue 6, 2004
Australians v Italians: Who Makes Better Coffee?
On Matthew’s recent trip to Italy after tasting much Italian coffee, he was surprised to realise just how good Australian coffee has become – not just in taste, but in product offering at the café level and presentation as well. If Italians are the grandfathers of coffee, as Matthew Gee explains, Australians may well have just earned their title of the young and vibrant upstarts.
I arrived at Milan airport full of excitement and anticipation. After suffering the cruel coffees that the French and the English had served up on my summer sourjourn thus far, Italy stood out like a beacon and promised espresso par excellance and nothing short thereof.
I rushed to the high-tech vending machine at baggage claim and ordered my first latté. The only problem was that the machine dispensed hot milk! I felt like kicking the machine to help the espresso out but suddenly remembered that indeed "latté" was "milk" and the machine did exactly what it was meant to do. I think I muttered to myself how stupid it was to offer such a drink (after all, when was the last time that someone ordered a hot milk in their local Australian café?) but I knew there was only one option now and that was to insert another one Euro for an espresso shot to put on top of my steamed milk. A latte at last! One Euro down - granted, but after a lengthy plane trip with a small child and lost luggage on arrival, money was no object at this point.
So my coffee experience in Italy got off to a bad start and whilst it would be untrue to say things never really recovered, I was surprised at just how close we have come to beating the Italians at their own game.
Before continuing, it should be made clear that this article is not about denigrating the fine Italian espresso tradition. One can only have utter respect for the Italians when it comes to coffee. After all, it was the Italians who discovered coffee as a black drink, the Italians who created and did a lot of the early pioneering of espresso machines and the Italians who made famous some of the stock menu items that we see at espresso bars all over the world today. A bit like cricket to the Aussies, coffee to the Italians is a sacred pastime and nobody has the right to say they do it badly. It’s just that these days it seems, in some ways we do it better.
When talking about taste, the coffee in Italy can really be separated into two categories: black and milk-based. The black coffees were brilliant. There were two places in the city of Como in the northern region of Italy (bordering Switzerland) that were complete standouts. The extraction was spot on and consistently so (many repeat visits ensued during the following week). The staff were efficient and mindful of how an espresso should look and (more importantly) taste. Their equipment was clean, the staff were all uniformed and worked together like a well-oiled machine. This was not uncommon in the good "espresso bars" that existed in most Italian cities.
Black coffees in Australia are, on the other hand, a little hit and miss. It seems that a fair percentage of cafés here employ the "don’t tamper with the grinder" rule to their ultimate detriment as rarely do they get that 30ml-in-30second extraction. Many Italian espresso bars obviously treat extraction very seriously. The proof is in the taste and presentation of their black coffees, especially their espressos. The crema is thick and honeycomb in colour and there is no bitter aftertaste even though the beans they are using are so black they are probably 20% carbon!
The milk-based coffees in Italy were however pretty atrocious. Old-style dry, foamy froth ruled supreme and if it weren’t for the hot coffee beneath, one could be forgiven for thinking that you were drinking a milkshake. Where caffe lattes were offered, they were served in old-fashioned tall glasses and whilst nobody layered (thank goodness), the presentation and taste were rather bland.
If you go into a major Australian city these days, whilst it is true there are many baristas committing atrocities out there, you also don’t have to look too far to get a great-tasting milk-based coffee. Perhaps it is because we get a lot more practise at making these types of coffees than our Italian counterparts (probably 90% of coffees here are milk-based and 10% black whereas the reverse is probably true in Italy).
From Milan to Rome there was an unnerving sameness about the presentation of milk-based coffees. The foam was usually dry and aerated rather than silky and creamy. Where chocolate was applied it was simply dumped on the top rather than artistically sprinkled and in the case of caffe lattes we did not see artwork at all. There was therefore no "wow" factor when the coffees reached the table and because they didn’t look good, perhaps subconsciously they also didn’t taste good.
Coffee art is becoming more popular in Australia and whilst it is not practised in the majority of cafés, it is a part life in a reasonable percentage of city cafes in Australia now. Free-poured lattes are reasonably common in these cafés but few have cottoned on to the breadth of designs that can be achieved by using an implement after the coffee has poured to achieve shapes like four-leaf clovers, flowers, hearts, stars, feathered designs or chinese characters etc. Working with fudge on cappuccinos, hot chocolates and caffe mochas can lift the presentation even further. When you see a café that has taken the time to perfect this craft in Australia, it is a café that you recommend to others because its product stands out from the crowd.
In cafés in Italy it is not uncommon to see just espressos, macchiatos, ristrettos, long blacks, cappuccinos and hot chocolates on the menu. Mind you, in good espresso bars in Italy you can often get a choice of what blend or origin you would like. I went to one that offered as well as the house blend, Jamaica Blue Mountain and India. To see this choice is pretty rare in Australia. Italian espresso bars also are more high-tech than ours. Intricate machinery that dispenses different beans from different air-sealed hoppers is possible at the press of a button for consumers to use for take-home coffee.
Australian cafés generally seem to offer more espresso-based drinks than the Italian cafés. I know this is probably because the Italians are not big milk-based coffee drinkers but you can’t argue with the fact that good espresso bars in Australia will offer the above coffees as well as drinks such as steamers, babycinos, caffee mochas, white hot chocolates, flat whites and long macchiatos. You will also often have a choice of soy, skim or full cream milk, a choice of decaf if desired, a choice of a range of different cup sizes and flavour shots should one take your fancy.
To be brutally honest, I don’t think that Australians invented the size, milk-type, decaf and flavour shot notions. We probably borrowed those from the Americans (the kings of customer service). In accepting the place for these extended products and adding our own hybrid drinks such as the long macchiato and the flat white, we have created our own espresso microcosm which other parts of the world would benefit from taking a look at. I would argue therefore that we have taken the fine espresso tradition that Italy has created and built on it to appeal to more people.
We’ve come a long way since a coffee at the local café meant an instant coffee with a centimetre of milk laid on top. In a matter of two decades, many Australian cafés have invested in proper espresso machines, expended their menus and trained staff to treat barista work as a true career path. As a result of this revolution, taste, presentation and product offering have all been greatly enhanced. Whilst the Italian coffee scene has yet to undergo such a revolution, with the speed of the spread of international trends and travel, surely it is only a matter of time.
Matthew Gee and his brother David Gee currently run a wholesale coffee business in NSW and a barista training school called BARISTA BASICS Coffee Academy that operates in Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney and Newcastle. They have also owned four cafes in Brisbane (still own one), have been partners in a specialty coffee roaster, have written Australia’s first textbook on coffee, produced several training videos on coffee and are currently producing a book and DVD focusing on domestic espresso machines.
This year Matthew and David have appeared on Bert Newton’s Good Morning Australia and Channel 9’s Fresh with Jeff Jansz. They have also worked as official espresso tasters for Choice Magazine’s 2004 review of home espresso machines. They also periodically appear on Ella James’ Saturday night radio program on Sydney’s 2UE.
Ó & Ô 2004 David Gee and Matthew Gee
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