Flat Whites, Antipodeans and Starbucks
So the Flat White has arrived to the American coffee zeitgeist, courtesy of Starbucks North America. On behalf of coffee drinkers and professionals across this land, we'd like to welcome our brethren from Down Under to our ongoing love affair with coffee, the beverage, as well as its lively subculture.
It would be an easy and convenient matter to dismiss the Flat White as another marketing artifice, along the lines of the Caramel Macchiato and the Cortado, monikers that were successfully co-opted - and substantially modified from their original forms - by, respectively, Starbucks and the Third Wave movement. Such a characterization would miss the deliciously nuanced point, however, that the integration into American coffeehouse menus (Starbucks just added it to something like one third of all coffeehouses in America yesterday) of this particular drink, in this particular manner and at this particular time, represents a significant intersection in the journeys of the Second Wave and the Third Wave coffee movements. As such, we have arrived at an important milestone, a confluence of thought on what well made coffee should be, and how it should be marketed.
The Antipodes, for reasons that are complicated and somewhat obscure, have long enjoyed an espresso culture that has been markedly superior to that found Stateside. The Italian diaspora brought espresso to Australia and New Zealand in much the same way that it migrated to North America, and yet, the particular milieu of cultural factors that shaped the assimilation of this coffee subculture Down Under resulted in a product that is prepared with more care and attention to detail than has been accorded it here, where our fascination with speed, size and portability has resulted in a culture of, well, Starbucks coffee.
It's interesting to note that most folks in Sydney and Wellington don't realize how good they've got it until they travel abroad. My friend William Rubel and I were in line at a well regarded Third Wave coffee stand in San Francisco five or six years ago, in front of a couple from Australia, who had come and stood in that long line because they had been told that the coffee was the best they'd find. Out of curiosity, I asked them how their coffee was as we were all leaving, and they shook their heads and commented that it was good, but it was nothing that they didn't drink every day back home, and that they didn't understand what the fuss was about. Us coastal Californios have the same experience with Mexican food when we travel to the hinterland. I remember a Mexican joint in Ann Arbor, on Washington Street, that had a large banner proclaiming to their very many patrons that they served their tacos and burritos with fresh romaine lettuces, flown in from Amsterdam every morning, even in the dead of winter. Of course, I moved back to Santa Cruz in due course. I like cheap, fresh, well made Mexican food too much to deal with that every day.
The high drama that surrounds the production of coffee in some Third Wave establishments can be overwhelming, even annoying. The experience of getting a cup of coffee in some of these places is like having a mariachi band playing at you every time you go to the local taqueria for a taco. That can get tiresome somewhat quickly, even if there's Dutch romaine lettuce in it. Most of the time, the majority of us prefer to get a really good cup of coffee with a minimum of fuss, and at a reasonable cost. That's likely to remain the case well into the future, regardless of whether we're Americans, Australians or Kiwis. And so once again, we'd like to thank Starbucks for easing our path forward to better coffee, not so much by making it, as by bringing awareness of it to an audience that the rest of us cannot command. We've offered Flat Whites at Lulu's for well over a decade now, at the request of our many Aussie and Kiwi customers. It will likely please and tickle them immensely to see their coffee culture get the respect it so richly deserves :-)