Five years ago, you would be hard-pressed to find flat whites and avocado toast in New York—a mention of either of those things would probably get you laughed out of your local greasy spoon. But today, you can hardly walk five blocks in Manhattan without bumping into a different “Aussie café,” a new genre of coffee shop that emphasizes carefully crafted espresso beverages (such as the flat white), charming service (“G’day, mate!”), and a menu of fresh and light fare (said avocado toast). The sheer number of them indicates that, at the very least, Aussie cafés have been not just a gustatory success but also a commercial one: Two Hands, Toby’s Estate, Citizens of Chelsea, Banter, Ruby’s, Brunswick, Sweatshop . . . the list goes on. They’re popping up not only in New York, but all up and down the Eastern Seaboard, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, and Portland.
“It’s what I like to call the ‘koala mafia of coffee,’ ” says Andy Stone, charming Melbourne expat and marketing director of Bluestone Lane, a leader in New York’s Aussie café movement. “In the beginning there was a bit of competition and stealing peoples’ baristas, but now we really are all mates and rally each other on. We all drop in and check each other out. We all support each other because the success of everyone’s store adds more fun and excitement to the category.”
But who knew that Australian coffee could even become its own standalone category? Where does this down-under obsession with caffeine come from?
The answer goes back to the mid-20th century, when Italian café culture had a boom of sorts in the 1940s thanks to the invention of the steam-powered espresso machine. When droves of Italian immigrants relocated to Melbourne, Australia, after World War II, they brought their taste for coffee with them. Café culture was something that meshed well with the Australian experience, where life was slower than in hectic Europe, inevitably influenced by the surf and sunshine. And especially in a place like Melbourne (where the central business district is not unlike downtown New York in terms of density) cafés provided much-needed spaces for socializing. “Australia really has created our own dining culture as a space to meet friends and colleagues,” says Mark Dundon, co-owner of Brother Baba Budan, one of Melbourne’s most popular cafés. “Melbourne is blessed to have a population that enjoys eating and drinking out. The people are supportive and adventurous, which provides a great platform for pushing the boundaries.”
The Collective Cafe
For the latter half of the 20th century, coffee percolated seamlessly with Australian culture. Espresso beverages were the norm, unlike in America where filter coffee reigned until the proliferation of Starbucks in the 1990s. Before Starbucks, espresso coffee had an air of pretension and mystery in America. Why order a fancy-sounding “latte” and wait in line at a Starbucks when you could just grab a pour from the office coffeepot? In time, however, Starbucks invested billions in marketing its coffee to consumers, educating them about single-origin blends and how the espresso process extracts each bean’s true potential. “In a way, Aussie coffee owes a lot to Starbucks for educating the American consumer about espresso coffee,” says Stone. “By the time we came around, the American consumer was looking for something different.”
The American Aussie café boom also owes its success to a much more general cultural phenomenon: the recent rise in consumer fascination with wellness. “We really hit the mark at the right time because Aussie cafés are quite healthy,” says Stone. “Our demographic starts her day at SoulCycle, then comes to Bluestone Lane for a breakfast bowl.” Whereas the Starbucks era proposed that all coffee should be served with a greasy muffin or cinnamon scone, Aussie cafés offer up significantly healthier options, emphasizing fresh produce such as avocado toast, quinoa bowls, and the like.
Bluestone Lane’s Breakfast Bowl
But if there is a single beverage that has come to symbolize the Aussie café movement, it is the flat white. Essentially a smoother cappuccino, a flat white is not as intense as straight espresso, but not as milky as a latte. Whereas a classic cappuccino has distinct layers of espresso, steamed milk, and froth, a flat white is simply an espresso shot with steamed milk poured straight in, the milk supporting the espresso as opposed to masking it. Flat whites have been popular in Australia for decades, and when Aussie cafés began offering them up stateside around 2010, Starbucks soon followed suit and introduced a flat white of its own in 2015.
Despite all the Aussie-credited success of flat whites in America, origin stories of the flat white are actually quite contentious—New Zealand also lays claim to inventing the drink. And while it isn’t worthwhile or even possible to delve into that centuries-old rivalry here, it is worth pointing out New Zealand’s leg up in the competition against Australian espresso drinks. First, New Zealand prides itself on having a superior, purer dairy industry. Better milk makes better coffees. Second (and this gets a little technical), Kiwis typically use espresso shots in their drinks (such as flat whites), but Aussies typically use ristretto shots. A classic espresso shot is pulled for a few seconds longer than a ristretto, resulting in 50 percent more volume. That means that a Kiwi flat white will have a substantially more intense, robust, caffeinated flavor. Kiwis and Aussies might source and roast their beans in similar ways, but Kiwis are really squeezing out each bean’s true potential. It’s a distinction that might seem didactic, but for coffee nuts it’s everything.
Americans certainly seem to be happy with Aussie cafés taking over stateside. But if the transition away from Starbucks and toward indie Aussie coffee shops in large American cities has shown us anything, it’s that an educated consumer will soon begin to form more sophisticated opinions of their own—and once they discover that New Zealand coffee packs a bit more of a punch, Kiwi cafés might be the place to be.