Once stereotyped as a nation of meat-pie eaters and Foster’s lager swillers, Australia has developed a vibrant coffee-drinking market that devours more fresh beans per person than any other country.
Raj and Sharon Sidhu quit their steady public-service jobs in Singapore last year to open a cafe there, one of Asia’s most competitive coffee-selling markets. For an edge, they spent a month learning the trade in Sydney, Australia.
“That’s where our gurus are,” Raj said over the telephone from his “House of Commons” coffee bar in Singapore’s vibrant Little India neighborhood. “Everyone who’s got a cafe here is influenced by the coffee movement in Australia. Even our decorations — clocks, scales, rugs, burlap coffee bags — it’s all from Sydney.”
Once stereotyped as a land of meat pie-eaters and Foster’s lager-swillers, Australia has developed a A$4 billion ($3.2 billion) coffee-drinking market that devours more fresh beans per person than any other country. It also has novel brews copied as far away as London and Seattle.
Starbucks last month credited the introduction of the flat white, a velvety variant of a latte first made in Australia or New Zealand in the 1980s, for helping to drive its fastest growth in quarterly sales in eight years.
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McDonald’s, which opened the world’s first McCafe in Melbourne 22 years ago, sought a U.S. trademark on the beverage in 2004.
Then last month, to reiterate Australia’s knack for a perfect crema, Canberra cafe-chain owner Sasa Sestic won the World Barista Championship in Seattle.
The flat white’s growing popularity is an endorsement of Australia’s evolving cafe scene, kick-started by visiting U.S. servicemen in the 1940s and influenced by European immigrants whose small, family-owned businesses are tough rivals for multinational chains.
There are just 24 Starbucks-branded coffee houses across eastern Australia — about the number found within a 10-minute walk of New York’s Times Square.
The Seattle chain doesn’t even own those outlets; it sold them at a loss last year to Withers Group, the family-owned company that runs Australia’s 7-Elevens. f
“The coffee scene in Australia is different from that found in many other countries,” said Julia Illera, who tracks Australia and New Zealand markets for Euromonitor International. “Australians expect their on-trade coffees to be made by specially trained baristas, not just anyone pressing a button on the coffee machine.”
The nation is also an early adapter of premium coffee, Illera said. Organic, fair-trade, sustainable, single-source, carbon-neutral and micro-roasted artisanal products are included in the world-topping 1.3 kilograms (2.9 pounds) of fresh beans consumed per person in Australia each year.
“It’s very hard to get bad coffee in Australia and, because of that, the bar’s been lifted,” said Jillian Adams, a food historian whose coffee academy in Melbourne was first in the country to offer barista accreditation.
In a red-painted kitchen above a barber’s shop and a discount-clothing store in Sydney’s financial district, Tony Vitiello is teaching barista skills to students from Nepal, Japan, Colombia, Thailand, Malaysia and Italy.
“Some customers will drink maybe two or three of these a day,” he says, pouring freshly brewed espresso into cups of hot water to make the Americano-style drink known locally as a long black. “That’s A$6 to A$9. ($4.60 to $7)”
Vitiello’s courses range from a three-hour session for A$99 to a two-month program that costs A$2,500 ($2,000) and is mainly taken by overseas students.
A two-minute walk away, Barista Basics has 22 pupils enrolled in its Sydney training school and the same number in Melbourne and Brisbane. A quarter are foreign students or backpackers hoping to work in local cafe, said co-founder David Gee.
Raj Sidhu took one of Gee’s courses after being inspired by Australia’s cafe culture while on vacation. He’s now sharing the allure in Singapore with each flat white and long black he serves.
“These people set up in different markets — the U.K., Singapore, the U.S. — and spread the news,” Gee said. “They’re the ambassadors of Australian coffee.”