America does have a great coffee culture, I promise – a practical guide to java in the USA

Dear Australians: please stop complaining about American coffee.

If there’s one thing that bums me out more than One Nation supporters, Pitbull songs, or canned food without a pull ring, it’s Australians returning from a trip to the US without finding any good American coffee.

Because it’s EVERYWHERE!

Nary an American holiday can pass without a fellow Australian taking to Facebook to lament the lack of good espresso.

‘sooo missing my local coffee shop right now #coffeesnob’

Blech. Each time I find myself staring baffled at my laptop. Stop the madness!!

Let’s make one thing clear before I start getting hate mail from Aussies yet to have their morning java jolt. Australian coffee is great. It’s fantastic.

I loved working in Sydney’s CBD and having at least 8 fantastic coffee shops within a one block radius. I loved living in Newcastle, where I could get the perfect piccolo by the beach, in the city, or at the weekend markets. In Melbourne you can swing a cat and hit a hipster café serving organic, fair trade coffee.

But Australia, let’s come down from our caffeine induced high horse for a moment.

We did not invent coffee. Or coffee culture.

Dear Australians: please stop complaining about American coffee.

Coffee culture exists across the world, from Iceland to the Philippines to Brazil – and even America. Shock.

Our national media love to jump on anything that’s both remotely successful and Australian – and there have been plenty of Aussie-café-in-the-USA success stories in recent years. New York is home to Toby’s Estate, Two Hands, Bluestone Lane and Little Collins. One of my favourite Seattle cafes recently featured Campos as its coffee bean of the month.

But we aren’t Espresso Disciples with funny accents pulling naïve America out of a drip coffee world.

And it’s not just here in Seattle, or other major US cities like NYC, Portland, LA or San Francisco. I was in tiny Alaskan towns over the summer and had great espresso. As I did in North Carolina’s mountain towns, Kentucky’s bourbon countryside, and boot-scooting Nashville. Every time I ski Mt Baker, I make a point of stopping for coffee and a cookie in Glacier, WA. Population just 211.

All amazing coffee, on par with what we serve in Australia.

But I’m not writing this just to be snarky. I want to help you!

Here are a few tips for my fellow coffee-loving countrymen before they embark upon an American adventure.

Because life is too short to drink bad coffee, regardless of where you’re travelling.

Dear Australians: please stop complaining about American coffee.

Black or White

If you don’t drink long blacks, French press, pour over, or siphon-style at home – AKA if you don’t like black coffee – odds are you probably won’t like black coffee in America either. Personally, I love it.

If espresso is your one and only love, find a café that serves espresso (it should be easy). If you find yourself in an old school diner, they’ll probably serve only drip – so skip it and order an OJ or hot tea instead.

It’s worth noting that if you order ‘a coffee’ you’ll get drip, served with cream and sugar on the side. Be specific if you want espresso.

When I first visited the States in 2013 I was bamboozled by the number of milk options – whole, skim, low fat, 2%, half and half etc.  It wasn’t until my boyfriend ordered a latte on half and half that we realised it was actually half milk/half cream and not 50% less fat milk. So dense. No wonder the barista gave us odd looks.  Don’t be like us, and get to know your milks before you visit.

Get out of Starbucks

Support local businesses and try to skip the chains where you can.

It’s only acceptable to break this rule if:

  • You’re road tripping and it’s literally the only place around
  • You really need to pee
  • You desperately need WiFi

Every city in the US has independent coffee shops that deserve more patronage. And there are a few cafes, such as Stumptown, Blue Bottle and Intelligentsia which have found major success and have locations in several cities.  If you come across these in your travels, you’ll definitely get a coffee to write home about!

Google It

Thanks to the Internet, finding great coffee has never been so easy. If you have time to complain on Facebook, you have time to look up a place for good coffee.

It seems obvious, but then it seems people don’t want to research. Just Google “best coffee in [insert city]” and within seconds you’ll have several suggestions of cafes that serve locally roasted coffee, with whole, soy, almond, even hemp milk.

Thrillist, TimeOut and Eater regularly publish round ups of where to find the best coffee in each major US city. They have never led me astray.

There’s an app for that

Beanhunter or Coffee Guru help connect the coffee-hungry to the best independent cafes in cities worldwide. I’ve not used these apps myself but have been recommended them by others.

My fail-safe backup is Yelp – a handy and free peer-reviewed resource helping to find the local favourites.

Beware the giant coffee

This sounds a bit hypocritical from the girl who can down an entire pot of French Press, but nobody needs 20 ounces of milk – whether it contains caffeine or not.  Just because it comes in jumbo size, doesn’t mean it should.

Go for the 8 ounce cup instead – which is basically equivalent to an Aussie small or regular. If you prefer even shorter style of coffee (cortado/piccolo) and it’s not on the menu, just ask the barista to only fill the milk half way.

Macchiatos are not always what they seem.

I have been burned with this one many times, I will admit.

A few years back, Starbucks popularised a caramel “macchiato” drink that is definitely not a macchiato, more like a jacked up latte – or as I call it – a cup full of disappointment. Thus there is confusion in some places as to what a macchiato is.

As this is my coffee of choice, I have discovered a few quirks and ways to overcome them.

  • Firstly, most espresso bars do offer macchiato
  • BUT macchiatos here in the states tend to be served more like piccolos would be back home – with the espresso cupped topped up with milk. I’ve only ever had the traditional espresso with a ‘stain of milk’ a handful of times. If you’re fussy, just politely clarify with the barista when you order.
  • Asking for a ‘traditional macchiato’ or short macchiato can help
  • All else fails? Order a double espresso instead!

Take a coffee tour

My adopted city, Seattle, is famous for coffee. It’s seen as one of the pioneers of coffee in the US, and has the highest concentration of coffeehouses per capita in the country.

If you’re visiting, sign up for the Seattle Coffee Crawl ($30). Over three hours and six cafes you’ll sample some of the best coffee in the city and learn about the exciting coffee scene.

Similar tours exist in LA, San Francisco and New York – and I’m sure there is more out there!

 Dear Australians: please stop complaining about American coffee.

Go forth and conquer, fellow coffee fiends.

Dear readers, feel free to help my Aussies out! Where can they find your favourite American coffee?

P.S. I try to cover coffee as much as possible on the blog, particularly on my US travels. A total Seattle Coffee Guide is coming soon. In the meantime, check out my favourites in New York City, Portland and Santa Monica.

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2 Comment

  1. If you find yourself in Kansas City, MO… you have to try the Roasterie and Khalid’s Coffee.

    1. Thanks Emmie, I will definitely keep your suggestions in mind! There are so many awesome independent coffee shops and roasters across the country, I wish more people would try them!

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