New York’s coffee scene has exploded over the past few years, with new specialty shops opening on a regular basis. Many of the new storefronts are owned by Australians or New Zealanders, and those countries’ signature drink, the flat white, is becoming a relatively common sight on menus around the city.
To get a better sense of why the other side of the world is having such an impact on New Yorkers’ coffee options, I met with New Zealand native Aaron Davis, an actor who worked in the coffee industry in Australia and his home country prior to moving to New York. While discussing the ins and outs of coffee in Oceania and the US, we visited three Aussie/New Zealand-owned outposts: Toby’s Estate, the recently opened Williamsburg outpost of an Australian chain; Laughing Man, actor Hugh Jackman’s new nonprofit storefront in Tribeca; and Windsor Terrace’s Dub Pies, a New Zealand meat pie shop that takes its coffee very seriously (Davis trained baristas there several years ago).
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How would you describe New York’s coffee culture?
When I got to New York six years ago there was literally nowhere that I could find an espresso that was drinkable. Anywhere I tried an espresso, I wouldn’t even have one mouthful, I would just look at it and know it was going to be bad.
Nowadays things have really started to change. There are so many places around New York. Well, I don’t want to say so many—when you compare it to a populace of eight million, there really aren’t that many—but it’s certainly more than there were six years ago. It’s a lot easier now to find good espresso.
I think some of it’s the influence from the west coast. I’ve never been to Portland or Seattle, but I’ve heard they’ve got good café cultures.
And so many of them here are from Australia and New Zealand as well.
That is really interesting. I think during the Iraq war Australia really helped the Americans, sent a lot of troops and stuff like that, so as a thank you they put out some kind of new visa that made it really easy for Australians to come to America to work. So I think with that there’s been a lot more Australians in general coming over, and with the entrepreneurial types seeing that there’s a huge gap in the market I think they’ve just naturally picked up the ball.
How would you describe the coffee culture in New Zealand and Australia?
Australia and New Zealand have pretty advanced café cultures. I’m not really sure where it came from, because culturally most of our outside influences, television and fashion or whatever, would be the US and Britain, and neither of those countries have huge café cultures historically. So I don’t where we really got it from, but it’s definitely a big part of the culture there. Both Aussies and Kiwis are big world travelers, so perhaps it’s from many people visiting Europe over the years and bringing it back to our shores.
We don’t drink regular coffee when we go out, we drink espresso. Drip coffee and plunger coffee, like French press, is what we have at home, and when we go out it’s all cappuccinos, flat whites, lattes, that kind of thing. Ironically—I’m embarrassed to admit it—a lot of people still drink instant coffee when at home, so I guess having an espresso when they go out is a real treat.
At restaurants as well as specialty coffee places?
Yeah, exactly. It’s kind of everywhere. And flat white—I don’t know where it started, whether it was New Zealand or Australia, but it’s unique to those countries. The funny thing about the flat white at home versus here is that here it’s more standardized—back in New Zealand and Australia everyone’s got their own take on the flat white, which is kind of funny. But for the most part, across the board, it’s a cross between a latte and a cappuccino. It’s the foam of a latte with the strength of a cappuccino, basically.
Where are you from in New Zealand?
From Nelson, which is at the top of South Island. It’s about 40,000 people. When I left New Zealand—I moved to Australia in ’96—there wasn’t much of a café culture yet. I’m not sure about the bigger cities, Auckland and Wellington, but certainly the coffee in Nelson was pretty shitty.
Then I moved to Australia and started working in the coffee industry: trained as a barista, started working for some coffee companies, learned about the whole thing. The café industry in Australia was just really starting to take off in in about 1999 or 2000, but from what I heard things were starting to evolve in New Zealand earlier than that. So when I moved back to New Zealand eight years later, things were really advanced there. It’s really hard to get a bad cup of coffee in New Zealand now, even in the small towns.
Do they have chains, or is it mostly smaller shops?
A little bit of both. There are more chains in Australia than there are in New Zealand. There are a couple of chains in New Zealand, but they’re not quite as successful. New Zealand really loves its little independent business owners. Australia does too, but not quite to the same degree—Australia’s a little more commercial and corporate.
My first exposure to the industry was working for a café franchise called Gloria Jean’s in Australia. I worked in the operations department, so my job was to train baristas at the franchises around the country. It was my first exposure to coffee. The brand now is huge, so I imagine quality control is difficult, but when I was with the business it was a lot smaller. There were only a handful of stores around the country, so at that point the quality was still pretty good. And I also worked for a couple of different companies, smaller companies, so I got a pretty good understanding of the whole science and art of espresso.
Are there Starbucks in Australia and New Zealand?
Yeah, there are. In Australia, Gloria Jean’s was actually fairly well established before Starbucks ever arrived, so Starbucks really had a hard job getting a foot in the market. I don’t know how they’re doing now, but I know in the beginning they really struggled because Gloria Jean’s had such a good following.
And then Starbucks came to New Zealand sometime after that. At least when I was still there it was very unsuccessful, because everybody was all about their small business owner.
And plus, not only that, they saw the difference between Starbucks and quality coffee, because the New Zealand palette for coffee is really refined and they know what good quality espresso is. They might go to a Starbucks just for the novelty; because it’s a world-famous company and a world-famous logo they might check it out. But they take one sip of the coffee and say oh, this is crap, because they know the difference.
Davis sampling the wares at Laughing Man
Whereas here, Starbucks is an improvement from what you get at most places.
Well, the interesting thing is, Starbucks really introduced America to espresso. This is what I attribute the whole quality of espresso in America to. Before Starbucks came out it was all filter coffee and percolated coffee. So Starbucks sort of picked up the ball and went hey, let’s do espresso. And they came and did it with their own style, which is really bad. They overroast the beans—they’re way too carbonized before they ever get to the espresso machine—and then they just do these extremely weak coffees with this extremely weak, frothy, bubbly, crappy milk. And because they grew fast and expanded right across the country, they set the benchmark for espresso. Anybody else that started to offer espresso in their business just did it the Starbucks way, because that’s all they knew.
How would you rate the places we’ve been?
Dub was my favorite. On a skill and craft level they’re all good, very good. But on a palette level, Toby’s and Laughing Man were a little mild for my personal taste. Back home most places would definitely be more full-bodied than that, but I think they’ve adjusted a bit to the American palette. I’ve been to very few places here that do a nice, full body, even places with good coffee. Dub’s is nice and full, though.
Do you think the Australian places here tone down their roast in general?
In Australia and New Zealand you’d get a mixture of some fuller-bodied and more mellow, but for the most part it’s more of a full-bodied blend. I feel like the ones that come here sort of tone it down.
It all depends on how you blend your beans, the proportions you get from different parts of the world. Southern American and Hawaiian beans are really well-balanced. They’re sort of medium-bodied, mild-flavored. They don’t really have any outstanding characteristics, so there’ll be some sort of South American or Hawaiian bean in almost every coffee blend because they sort of balance everything out. Middle Eastern and African coffees are sort of more known for their acidity—there’s more of an sharpness to them. Then coffees from Southeast Asia, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, they’ll more full-bodied. Often they’re really big beans with a lot more fullness. So how you mix up your ratios in the blend will determine what kind of flavor and body you’ll get in the end cup.
Resting after a long, caffeine-filled day
And the roasting plays a big part in it as well. Starbucks and a lot of places roast it really dark. I feel like if you look at coffee beans and they’re shiny and oily, they’re over-roasted. If your coffee tastes burnt it’s generally not because of the way they made the coffee, but because of the way the bean was roasted. If the oil comes to the surface, that means that it’s not on the inside, and much of it has been burned up during the roasting process, which is why you get that burnt taste. That’s a personal thing, but that’s what I believe. I like a dark roast, but not dark to the point when it gets oily on the outside. When it gets there it’s gone too far.
Some will disagree with me on that, but that’s one of the things I love about this industry: all the very strong opinions of experts across the world. It keeps things interesting, and it means there’s always something new to learn.
But I’m not a roaster—I think roasting and being a barista are two very separate arts, and most people specialize in one or the other. I think if you’re a barista who decides you want to roast your own beans as well—it’s not impossible, but I think a lot of people who try to do that are spreading themselves too thin, and so they’ll compromise both. But again, that’s just me.
Meat pie case at Dub Pies
What do you think are the most important qualities for a barista?
You’ve got to know some basic machine maintenance. The pump pressure and the water levels and boiler pressure have to be right, so if you don’t know how to gauge those things that can lead to problems. You’ve got to know how to set the grind right. The grind can change throughout the day depending on temperature changes, humidity changes—so that will change the density of the grind, the coarseness of the grind. And the grind has got to be right in order for the right extraction. This is one of the key points that most people get wrong.
The extraction will vary from roast to roast, and from bean to bean as well. For the most part an extraction will be about thirty seconds. If you’re pulling a double shot, you’ll want about two to three ounces of liquid to come out in twenty-five or thirty seconds, and it’s got to be the right caramel color. If it starts coming out really pale and it only takes ten seconds, then you’re under-extracting. So there are some technicalities to it. You’ve got to see and taste what’s coming out and be able to adjust accordingly. I always trained people to look for QQT: quality, quantity and time. All these three need to align, and that is adjusted by having the grind right. Which, of course, may change a dozen times a day.
And the other big thing is steaming the milk properly. A lot of places follow the Starbucks model and have this foamy, frothy, bubbly milk. The texture of the milk is important, because that’s what carries the flavor of the coffee, and it sweetens the coffee a little bit as well. So if you’ve got this foamy, bubbly milk it won’t carry the flavor of the coffee as well, and it won’t sweeten it as well. If you go too far, it starts to break down the proteins in the milk and leads to a bitter taste instead of a sweetness.
And another thing—you shouldn’t be reheating milk. If you heat milk to make one cup of coffee then pour fresh milk in with the leftovers to make the next drink, the protein chains in the original milk are still broken down to a point. When they’re reheated they’re being broken down more, so you’re going to get a bitter flavor. You really just want to dump out the leftover milk after you make a drink. Many café owners see this as wasteful, which it is. That’s why you should steam your milk in small pitchers, not the enormous ones I see everywhere.
So it’s all that kind of thing. I often judge a café by latte art—the rosettas, flowers, that sort of stuff. Just because somebody can do a design doesn’t necessarily mean the coffee’s going to be good, but for the most part it means it’s going to be good, because your milk has to be perfect to do it. If they’re going to make latte art you know that their milk texturizing is perfect, so chances are they know how to get their grind and extraction right too. You don’t generally learn advanced barista skills before learning the fundamentals. If I go to a café that does latte art, eight times out of ten it’s going to be good coffee.
“Great atmosphere, fast service and friendly staff. Coffee was a 10 out of 10, although for my particular taste it was a little light-bodied.”
“Cool vibe, but a bummer there’s nowhere to sit. Coffee was well-prepared and fast, but also quite light-bodied.”
“Finally, a full-bodied cup! This is closer to they way we have it at home. Very well-prepared (on a much cheaper machine than the other two places). Cute vibe in the little store too.”