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Post coffee

It’s been six months. Six months since I’ve felt a jug of milk heat up in my palm, watched the espresso drip out of a porta-filter and felt sweat glide down the front of my forehead trying to get ahead of the order.

It’s been six whole months since I made coffee and I miss it dearly.

I’ve had dreams of making coffee, thought about doing a trial and daily consider asking my local barista to shove across so I could take over. Ever since I joined the race I’ve been a little down frequenting the café as a consumer, not a producer.

After I finished my post-grad I went into full time work, 9-5 at a desk. It has taken me months to get over the guilt associated with sitting down all day, something unheard of in the field of hospitality.

But throughout this whole transition from working student to clockwatcher, coffee has been constantly in my thoughts. I am obsessed with it and given the lines I see on Saturday morning throughout Melbourne, so is everybody else.

So I am changing the direction of this blog – since I now stand in a very different place in the café. As a paying customer I’m curious as to why the coffee shop is probably the most frequented place next to the office and home.

I’m embarking on a social history of coffee in Australia, following the trends, the people, the influences, growth and how a love of beans became what it is today.

Although I’m pretty sure dreaming about coffee isn’t normal, I bet those that did in the past are the ones that transformed a popular foreign plant into a staple in society.

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Specialty instant coffee

I have to admit something, I like instant coffee. Why? It’s all in the name.

Instant coffee was my first. I had an assignment due in Year 12 and the procrastinator in me was forced to take the International Roast out of my kitchen pantry and up to my room for an all nighter I will never forget.

What got me hooked was the fact I could make my own tasty cup of coffee – after weeks of experimenting with how much milk, sugar and hot water was needed – cheaply. It was also convenient to have that cup as fast as it took the kettle to boil.

It wasn’t until I became a barista that I realized I could do the same thing with better tasting coffee.

But not all of us are baristas and since instant coffee is still a strong force on the market, it’s good to see some places offer a better instant product as an alternative to the four dollar latte.

Robusta beans are commonly used to make the freeze-dried granules soluble in water. The inexpensive coffee beans with over double the amount of caffeine content are inferior in taste to Arabica beans, what you will find in a proper café.

However, lately Arabica beans have been used to make instant coffee, a move that could make your kitchen pantry just a little bit more sophisticated.

Jasper produces 100% Arabica from Colombia instant coffee in bulk cans and 2g portion sticks. Although they market the product towards workplaces, they also emphasize its ethical pricing and rainforest growing conditions.

Oxfam targets the same audience selling de-caffeinated and caffeinated instant blends, both appeasing the fair trader in us all.

Starbucks released VIA in 2009 another attempt to find their footing after a long re-structuring process. Also using Arabica beans, it’s apparently so good Howard Schultz has been serving it to his dinner guests without them knowing.

Robusta plants account for 40% of global coffee sales a lot considering the negative impact it has on the environment and the fact that it just doesn’t taste as good compared to specialty coffee.

Although it’s popularity is mostly based on convenience, it’s nice that some coffee distributors have decided to make better tasting instant for the barista in us all.

Kids and coffee

With one eyebrow raised, I stared down the parent that ordered his 12 year-old son a latte last week. I proceeded to debate whether or not to weaken the espresso shot but didn’t, roughly 80 milligrams of caffeine was the order to abide.

I felt uncomfortable serving such an adult drink to a minor, the same sort of unease met when a group of teenagers approach you in a parking lot asking you to buy them booze.

It’s strange as there is no minimum age requirement to drinking coffee, just a general consensus that coffee is a grown up thing.

The fastest growing coffee consumers at the moment are young adults between the ages of 18 and 24, with 13 to 17 year olds consuming 20 per cent more products containing the drug in the past few years. I guess all those babycino drinkers finally grew up.

The common assumption that coffee stunts your growth and therefore shouldn’t be the preferred beverage of a growing child is actually a myth. Caffeine will inhibit some essential nutrient absorption, but it hasn’t been completely proven that calcium is directly affected.

It is merely a suggestion to cut down on caffeine for people that suffer from osteoporosis.

So what does that mean for the tweens and teens that idolize Twilight celebrities often photographed outside a café with a 20 oz cup full of caffeine?

Not much, in fact it may be beneficial. Research Scientist, Dr Tomas Depaulis of Vanderbilt University, US, has recently come out and debunked the downside to drinking coffee.

‘There recently was a study from Brazil finding that children who drink coffee with milk each day are less likely to have depression than other children,’ Depaulis went on, ‘in fact, no studies show that coffee in reasonable amounts is in any way harmful to children.’

Health Canada also condones consumption recommending a maximum daily allowance of 2.5 milligrams per kilogram of body weight, that’s a full shot of espresso for kids between the ages of 10 and 12.

A 250 ml can of Red Bull contains just as much caffeine as a shot of espresso yet tends to be thought of as a common drink amongst teenagers. However, it has about five teaspoons of sugar, added to the kick, and you would be hard pressed to find someone that puts that much in a coffee.

Moderation is the key and teaching kids at an early age that lesson is probably more beneficial than restricting something of curiosity.

My parents gave me a glass of wine with dinner to learn how to enjoy the beverage responsibly. Drinking too much caffeine will have detrimental effects and it’s much better to figure that out sooner rather than later.

Keep Cup standards

The Keep Cup has become the green bag for the café.

About a month or so ago I noticed a massive influx of customers using the re-usable plastic cup to replace the cardboard alternative we offer for takeaways.

One or two made me think similar shopping tastes were the answer, but upwards from 50 different Keep Cups from people ranging in age are stark signs that a movement is underway.

The Keep Cup is latte Tupperware. It’s made out of polypropylene, a type of microwaveable plastic that lasts up to four years. It was designed in Australia and marketed under the fact that it is of Barista standard.

Barista standard. What on earth does that mean?

It certainly couldn’t mean that I have to put two shots in the smallest size available to avoid customers telling me their coffee is too weak.

It also couldn’t mean that since the medium and large varieties don’t fit under the group handle I have to waste another cup collecting the espresso to pour into the environmentally friendly version.

I’m a barista, either my challenges are related to machinery or I’ve got to lower my standards.

As The Keep Cup Movement continues to rise, so do the amount of products.

Next month, they rollout the 4oz version for the babycino, pretend-coffee for children. Being a necessity for the two-year old certainly proves its popularity. But doesn’t secure my affection for a company that promotes a drink I greatly detest.

Yet, saving hundreds of cardboard cups from ending up in landfills makes the Keep Cup a hero. Sure it’s not perfect, but by holding it in your hand, like a green bag to the market; you’re showing others that you care about what goes into the trash.

As more and more people make this point, our environmentally conscious standards will rise.

Did you say chai?

Orders for chai tea lattes spiked last week.

We usually go through a bottle of our concentrated Phoenix Organic Chai a day, yet we were averaging two by Friday’s end.

Why? I blame The Age, to be specific, the culprit was Epicure.

Waiting for my strong soy latte at my local, I grabbed the token newspaper sitting on the bar and flipped through the food section. In the middle of the publication were two pages devoted to the delights of chai.

Thinking nothing of it I went on my merry caffeinated way. Then boom, word had spread, every other Tom, Dick and Harry were ordering a ‘chai tea latte’, chai meaning tea in Hindi making for a rather redundant ordering process.

You need to drink at least three chai lattes in order to reach the same caffeinated level as a shot of espresso, a filling experience that warrants palette satisfaction yet little for a buzzing reward. When most of my customers switched to tea, I was taken aback.

As the orders grew to mass my boss shook his head in amazement and after the tenth request for a ‘soy chai latte’ I remembered the article. So I interrogated my customers.

“Did you happen to read Epicure last week” I asked Luke, a consistent soy long macchiato drinker.

“Actually yes, I did, why?” Luke said, surprised that I could speak and steam simultaneously.

“Read an article about chai?” I asked in a rather sarcastic fashion assuming he would know where I was going.

“Yeah, good article, made me want a chai.” And so were the rest of the responses I gathered from my pseudo-vox pop where no customer seemed to make a connection.

Chai, the infusion of cinnamon, ginger, star anise, pepper, cloves and cardamom, it is a delicious drink that I indulge in nightly with a  little honey and sometimes a sprinkle of cinnamon.

It has gathered a following over the years and is mostly listed to order on any Melbourne café menu. The method, however, tends to vary.

I have worked in an assortment of cafés that all seem to believe that their chai tea latte is the best chai latte in Melbourne.

I have steamed milk with fresh chai sitting at the bottom of the milk jug then strained it into a cup. I’ve used a pot with hot milk, chai leaves sitting within and condiments on the side to let customers deal with the rest of the process.

Now, I use a concentrate which keeps the flavour yet does the authenticity no justice. Our concentrate is a Western alternative, an easy way of dealing with the complexities of its flavour.

However, it is the drink of choice at the moment as it perpetuates consumer contribution, where they decide how much honey and cinnamon makes their individual beverage.

Most Melbourne cafés have seen the popularity of chai rise and have taken to out besting one another through the manner of which it’s served, some of them have got it down.

The Indian method, of which it originates, is to simmer the tea and spices in a saucepan with milk, it seems that most cafés have figured this out.

Like my customers, I go with the trend, which is steamed milk over chai tea leaves served with honey and cinnamon on the side with a straining device.

Whether or not print had anything to do with the surge of chai tea latte requests, my vox pop offered me no conclusions other than the fact that most of the chai orders were on the heels of a browse through Epicure.

Starbucks back on top?

Starbucks the coffee mogul, Starbucks the international meeting place, Starbucks the failure, now Starbucks the news distributor?

I can see the board room discussion that took place two years ago when Howard Schultz came out of retirement and re-appointed himself as CEO.

“We’re losing money and have closed hundreds of stores around the world,” Howard would have screamed across a long rectangular table.

“The internet seems to have taken off, why don’t we do something with that?” A pimply faced intern would have replied.

“I like it! To the keyboards!” Shultz would have said.

And that’s what probably happened. Since Shultz’s return, Starbucks has become the number one consumer brand on social media with over ten million friends on Facebook and nearly one million Twitter followers.

In fact, they decided to go a step further then the status update and on July 1st introduced free Wi-Fi in all of their US stores and a few in Canada.

This is not a new thing, free Wi-Fi is something people now expect from a café and most public places. The crumbled communal newspapers are being replaced by laptops and Apple gadgets.

However, it is the upcoming launch of the Starbucks Digital Network (SDN) that is changing the dynamic of the café.

Partnerships with iTunes, The New York Times, Patch, USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo! and others are enabling Starbucks to offer otherwise exclusive content free to their in store customers.

Pay walls on news sites such as The Wall Street Journal can be side stepped upon purchase of a beverage and free downloadable music will be available through their deals with iTunes.

So their stores become downloading hubs. Not being able to find a place within the specialty coffee market has forced the company to give content away for free in order to get back on top.

As they filter information in their cafés to caffeinated consumers, they will no doubt re-invigorate their brand. Sitting in a café on a laptop for hours can equate to multiple purchases as one coffee does not fulfil hunger, only a muffin could tie you over til you’ve reaped all the benefits from the SDN.

Yet the perpetuators of the second wave of coffee may now have started the fourth. This network may very well turn the social part of a café into a point for connectivity, where we all stare at our screens, silently flicking through the web giving whole new meaning to the phrase ‘having a quiet one’.

Confessions of a former bitchy barista

This was first published in the National Times on 6 July, 2010

I did something crazy, something so un-Melbourne, anti-social and mood altering that I am a changed barista. No, I didn’t pick up a habit; instead, I got off drugs.

With dispensaries lining each of our main drags, we are consistently putting caffeine in our systems. I indulged with an espresso eight times daily. Teetering on addiction I decided to give up coffee for seven whole days.

I went cold turkey and took away what fuels my lifestyle. This included of course coffee, chocolate, energy drinks, coke and all teas except the herbal varieties. I have been making coffee for nine years and through that time have not gone more than a day without the stimulant.

It wasn’t completely on a whim. The University of Bristol in the UK published a study earlier last month that found that we build a tolerance to caffeine by consuming it daily. Our morning shots are not waking us up; they are merely bringing us back to “normal”.

This I’ve heard countless times but never believed it to be true as I thought I was getting a buzz from my morning ritual. Yet my week without stimulation garnered a new opinion.

I got the first headache the second day in. It was probably one of the worst migraines I have ever had, only bed cured the sharp sensation pulsating behind my half-closed eyes.

Then nausea followed. I was “flu-like”, experiencing how the body reacts without using the classified drug. I was out of it and feeling terrible but at least I wasn’t irritable.

In fact, I was the complete opposite to irritable, which was second to headache on the uninspiring withdrawal symptom list. I was completely unfazed by any problem I encountered, I had adopted a new personality.

As I said, I make coffee for hundreds of people that all seem to know how to push my buttons. This has made me a moody little shot-pouring demon quite capable of throwing change back at customers after it’s been scattered on the counter. Yes, I was that kind of hospitality worker.

Yet after a few frail days and about 11 hours sleep each night, I had become so calm most customers probably thought I had jumped on the Mary Jane bandwagon.

The fog eventually lifted and I gained clarity. Being spacey probably added to my mellow demeanour but, after sleeping and drinking litres of lemongrass and ginger tea, I became productive.

The attention age has taught me how to multi-task and open endless tabs to bask in status updates and tweets. Searching the internet for crap and data is where caffeine makes its presence in the system most noticeable.

So I single-tasked. I stopped stalking Facebook “friends” while trying to conjure up witty one-liners to feed my Twitter followers. I did everything one task at a time with more focus than a one-armed calligrapher. My mind stopped jumping.

So there I was a calm, slow-talking, unstimulated being capable of holding a conversation on one topic instead of following tangent after tangent. This was me off caffeine.

I didn’t realise the effect it had had on me. It had never occurred to me that my consistent mood swings were related to the eight shots I was consuming. I was able to manage stress better and not fly off the handle when something went awry.

When day seven rolled around I was hesitant to have the first one back. I had already stood up from my chair proclaiming caffeinalism and herbal tea rehab seemed to balance me out. Yet in the name of science I got all dressed up and went to my local.

The study was correct. I went from aloof to jittery after a strong latte and for the rest of the day displayed an erratic bout of productivity. I cleaned, exercised, Googled everything and talked to everyone.

Habitual use was keeping me at a level where I didn’t feel the effects anymore. I had to get it out of my system to see what it really did. It gave me more energy than I had had for nearly a decade as my tolerance was re-configured. I have since scaled back my habit to one a day, which seems to wake me up yet maintain my new laid-back trait.

Although the eight shots were aiding my jam-packed life, I was rarely in good spirits and no one wants to get a coffee from a bitchy barista.


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