Saturday, September 17, 2011

Introducing the Bland Canyon American Coffee Blog (or BCACB)

As regular readers of the BC will know, last week I moved to New York.

(Sorry, I couldn't find a way to share that nugget of information without sounding like I expected a high five or some sort of award, so I just came out and said it. Don't click away in disgust, you'll see it's kind of pertinent to the rest of the column.)

Having lived in the USA for all of two weeks I can confidently say there are some things Americans do really well, and other things that have me hankering for the nearest Qantas flight back to blighty.

For instance, Americans are brilliant at shopping. Their population is so great, all clothes come in at least 20 sizes ensuring you'll find the perfect fit, and everything's on sale ALL the time. Not only that, when you've found a Michael Kors top reduced from $110 to $70, a shop assistant will then thrust a SPECIAL VIP DISCOUNT TODAY card in your hand and it will come down to $5.99.

Plus, American clothing shops let you take as many items into the fitting rooms as you like. Having been trained in the Australian “Don't even think about taking more than six items into that cubicle with the broken door and no mirror, missy” retail model, this was a revelation. (PS: Australian retailers, wake up – if you let people try on more, they will probably buy more.)

Americans are also very good at fresh produce. My local supermarket has more varieties of salad than one person could manage in a lifetime, and you can buy a punnet of blueberries for $2. Not to mention bananas at 99 cents a pound. (How much are bananas in Australia these days? Are they still $50 each? Sorry about that.)

But cheap bananas and discount designer duds will only get you so far. One day, you're going to want a latte. And that's when you'll discover the one thing they do very badly in this country. Coffee.

Wander into any cafe or deli in Australia and order a coffee and I reckon 90 per cent of the time you'll get an espresso, lovingly steamed out of an Italian machine, milk warmed and frothed.

Do the same in America and you're most likely to receive a cup of scary brown water that came out of a dripolator at some point in the morning and has been sitting in a glass pot on a hotplate for the last seven hours. Yes, a dripolator. Australia disposed of them in the 70s – I think they all migrated here.

Satan's coffeepot.

This is the standard American coffee which you will get everywhere unless you remember to specifically ask for an espresso. Many an Australian has been caught in the following trap:

"Can I have a flat white please"
"Do you mean a white coffee?"
"Yes, I suppose so."

Seriously, if this is the crap Central Perk was serving up to Joey, Chandler, Rachel, Monica, Ross and Phoebe in every episode it's amazing any of them stayed Friends long enough to make a series. Coffee of the type served in most American cafes is more likely to create enemies.

Sadly, ordering an espresso is not a guarantee of a decent coffee either. Of the six cafes I have tried in New York so far – all of which proudly displayed a big shiny machine complete with "barista" and walls full of packets of organic, hand-harvested beans - only one has produced a coffee like what I'm used to at home. It's like they've all imported these fancy espresso machines and forgot to read the instruction manuals.

Weirdly though, Americans love this stuff. There are coffee shops on every corner, and you can't walk two metres without seeing a local striding along clutching a paper cup. I feel like the little boy in The Emperor's New Clothes – one day I'll leap out into the street and shout "PUMPKIN SPICED LATTE IS NOT PROPER COFFEE!" and the spell will suddenly be broken.

In the meantime, I plan to document every coffee I drink in this country, WITH PHOTOS, so you may be spared the pain of drinking heated up bilge water.

Want to read them? Click the "American Coffee" link below or in the category menu to the left - they'll all be grouped there, with more added regularly.

* An edited version of this article was first published in the Sunday Mail's Sunday liftout on September 18, 2011.


  1. I can understand how you would feel this way coming from a place where you have had time to locate places where you can enjoy a coffee. My first coffee experience on my second NYC trip a couple of years ago was much the same as yours. However, we take for granted the fact that when we live somewhere, we eventually find places that serve product we like and generally forget that we didn't stumble on our favourite places in the first instance.

    What I am trying to say is, you will find awesome coffee in NYC, but you actually need to research it. If I wanted a good coffee in Adelaide, I would be naive to assume that any place serving espresso is going to produce a good latte or flat white. The preferred brewing method in America for so many years has been just that, brewed…not espresso. Australians are used to an espresso culture, because that is all we know.

    Try places like Doras, bluebird, abracco, third rail, everyman espresso, gimme coffee, stumptown(ace hotel), cafe grumpy's, rbcs, etc. And these are just in Manhattan. San Fran's Blue Bottle, Verb, and soon to appear Toby's Estate(Sydney based roaster) are in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn and Parkslope also boast numerous coffee shops, although I am yet to get there. Might be worth checking out these places first and reviewing the NYC coffee scene as I am sure after checking out some of the above mentioned coffee shops, your view on NYCs coffee will change. And check out some of the other brewing methods such as syphon, abid clever dripper and chemex, assuming they use specialty single origin coffee and you may even drop some of your lattes for drip.

  2. I have also recently moved to the big city, and am in much the same predicament re: filtered swamp donkey coffee.

    I have found however, if you stay away from these so called 'deli's' and 'cafe's' and actually head into a boutique coffee shop, you might see a proper (dare I say Italian) coffee machine in full swing.

    Try Fika Espress bar (I like the one on Park Ave btwn 28th & 29th), or Birch (5 E 27th - next to the Girshwin Hotel), Gregory's is good, and Telegraphe on 18th St (opposite West Elm) is brilliant.

    There are these gems out there, and if I can find these in only a few weeks, imagine what is out there.

    One thing I cannot get used to however, is the latte in a mug. Please, traditional Italian latte and see what comes up - and the absence of chocolate on a cappachino? The real question is, if a latte is served in a mug, the cappachino has no chocolate and a flat white is a 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 in a mug....what is the difference between any of these any more?

  3. Hey Matt - thanks for your cafe suggestions, I'll be sure to check them out! I get what you're saying about research etc but I still maintain that in Australia you can pretty much walk, cluelessly, into any venue with an espresso machine and be guaranteed a decent coffee 90% of the time. I can't remember the last time I had a bad coffee in Australia that wasn't from a fast food chain (and really, if you order a coffee from McDonald's you deserve a bad one).

    Phillippa: I tried Fika yesterday and was semi impressed - not so Greg, who thought his latte was one of the worst he's ever had. A review is coming soon. And yes, what is up with the lack of chocolate on cappuccino? I have noticed this too. Very strange, although not a big problem for me as I don't really like the choc on top anyway - I generally order a cappuccino because "flat white" doesn't exist here, and lattes are too big.

  4. Here is a link that I found handy on my last trip to NYC. It has some of the coffee shops I mentioned and more.

    I think if you got a decent coffee in 90% of coffee shops in Australia, you were either super lucky or lived in Melbourne.

    That aside, am interested to see your reviews of the places I have mentioned.

    Abraco 86 E 7th St | 212-388-9731
    Sip an amazing espresso by the window.


    Bluebird Coffee Shop 72 E 1st St | 212-260-1879
    Sunny espresso oasis in the grubbiness of LES.


    Café Grumpy 224 W 20th St | 212-255-5511
    Best coffee on the island.


    Culture Espresso 72 W 38th St | 212-302-0200
    They serve Intelligentsia espresso? We're there.


    Dora 221 E Broadway | 212-876-8065


    Gimme Coffee 228 Mott St | 212-226-4011
    Amazing cappuccinos from the Ithaca experts.


    Ground Support 399 W Broadway | 212-219-8722
    Serving up the almighty coffee from Intelligentsia.


    Joe: The Art of Coffee 514 Columbus Ave | 212-875-0100
    Joe really knows his joe.


    Kaffe 1668 275 Greenwich St | 212-693-3750
    Excellent coffee in a really cool space.


    Ninth Street Espresso 75 9th Ave | 212-228-2930
    Gourmet coffee counter inside Chelsea Market.


    RBC Coffee 71 Worth St | 212-226-1111
    Super fancy Slayer Espresso machine makes fine coffee.


    Stumptown Coffee 18 W 29th St | 212-679-2222
    The real deal straight outta Portland.


    Third Rail Coffee 240 Sullivan St |
    Hooray for more great coffee in Manhattan.

  5. Wow Matt! That was a super serious response for a satirical column/blog! I always laugh at what Americans call coffee (cawfee). You understand why chains like Starbucks have become so huge there - because they serve something a bit closer to the real thing (but also a bit like crazy desserts). You do get bad coffee here but your hit/miss rate tends to lean more towards the hit side than it does in the States - possibly due to the preferences over there being SO different to ours!! I'm looking forward to some funny coffee blogs!

  6. @Snoozie-Q - Perhaps, but when you are very passionate about something, it is hard not to say something. My comment was also to provide a guide to some awesome coffee in a place that really is aimed at the tourists. I certainly don't expect good coffee in any airport throughout the world, and in NYC, I would pretty much expect the same coffee.

    I have been victim to the drip coffee through their bunns. I never knew coffee could be made so quickly.

    I won't disagree that we may have a better hit to miss rate in Australia for coffee than in NYC, but I would lean the other way if I was in Portland, OR or maybe even Vancouver, CA.

    I certainly struggle to find good coffee here and it is only by going to a select few places can I be sure to get a good to great cup.

    I really would love to see one of my recommendations reviewed in the not too distant future.

  7. They don't have good espresso anywhere in Mario Batali's EATALY?

  8. Anon - we have had dinner at Eataly but alas no coffee. Will report as soon as I can!

  9. Welcome to NY and our shitty coffee! I don't why I'm so excited about this, but yeah!

    And everyone in Soho deserves to be mocked.

  10. Thanks Anonymous! I've got some more reviews coming soon.