How to survive North America's terrible coffee
They say what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. What should have stayed in the US resort city after my recent visit there was this terrible truth: I regularly drank coffee at Starbucks.
You may draw a sharp intake of breath at this revelation. After all, it's only been five years since the US coffee giant was forced to close almost three-quarters of its Australian outlets, having seriously misjudged the local coffee palate.
However, as Aussie and Kiwi travellers will know, sometimes in North America a Starbucks outlet is the best place you can find at short notice.
In my case, the Starbucks was a 24-hour stall on the ground floor of the Tropicana, one of the city's longest established resorts.
With the jingle of gambling machines ringing in the background, I examined the menu closely. Below all the Starbucks codewords for their coffee-flavoured milkshakes, past the "ventis" and the "grandes", was listed a simple espresso doppio.
I was desperate for a long black, not the big weak watery Americanos you usually end up with in North America when ordering black coffee. So I decided to see if I could create one.
One thing I'll say for Starbucks: they hire friendly staff, willing to accommodate the eccentric requests of a traveller. I ordered the double espresso with extra water, but not too much. They obligingly marked a level on the paper cup.
What emerged was not unlike a long black. I repeated this procedure in cities across the USA and Canada with varying success; sometimes there was too much water added, other times the beans were clearly inferior to start with.
But still, it was something. At least I didn't have to issue the complicated order devised by Canadian blogger Chelsea Herman, who lived in Australia for a while and on her return to Vancouver was desperate for a flat white.
"If you ask a barista here for a flat white, they look at you blankly until you order a triple short no-foam latte," she wrote on her blog Chelsea Tells Stories. "Which is as close a substitute as I can find, but doesn't come close to the real deal."
On the other side of Canada, I found a wonderful exception to the lack of home-style coffees in Quebec: the café allongé. Aside from being a delight to pronounce (a-lon-zhay), it was much the same as a long black, and Montreal's atmospheric independent cafes turned out several satisfying examples.
Such indie cafes are the other side of the story of North American coffee. We assume that all coffee in the USA and Canada is bad, partly because we're not used to the dominant drip-style filtered brew.
"You find it everywhere," says Australian Jason Scheltus, co-owner of Melbourne's Market Lane Coffee and a former New York barista. "That's part of the reason why it's hard for travellers. They see coffee and assume it's going to be fine. If you go to corner shops and bodegas and delis, they'll have a pot of coffee sitting and you can get a cup for one or two dollars. But it won't usually be great quality coffee."
There's also an impression of weakness.
"Many travellers go there expecting espresso and get filter coffee, so the first thing they notice is the difference in strength," he adds.
However, times are changing even in these smaller outlets, says US-born barista Jenni Bryant, one of Scheltus' Market Lane colleagues.
"A lot of smaller roasteries and coffee shops are starting to taste different coffees and saying they want something that tastes better and fresher, so they're roasting for themselves, trying to brew fresher. So it's similar to what's happening here, though there's always been a more of a balance between espresso and filter style coffee in America. People have always drunk both."
The key to finding really good coffee is to look beyond these ubiquitous outlets, adds Bryant, pointing to America's vibrant independent coffee scene.
"It depends on the cities that you go to, as to how much will be available; but if you're going to visit New York or San Francisco or Chicago, Philly, LA, Seattle - even Kansas City - most major cities will have a scene. It's the same here; if somebody got off a train in Melbourne or Sydney and was looking for coffee, they wouldn't necessarily find the cafes which are hidden around the corner, up the stairs, in little nooks and crannies. You have to be in the know."
So how do you find these places?
"Personal recommendations are obviously the best," says Scheltus. "But if walking into a coffee shop to decide whether it's high quality or not, I would look at how clean it is and if they have reasonably clean equipment, if they're grinding their coffee fresh. If it smells good in there, it actually makes a big difference to me."
"If you find a great café, ask the baristas where they like to drink coffee," adds Bryant. "And ask them where they like to drink their beer and their cocktails, and where they eat as well. The number of times I took out a piece of paper while I was on shift in New York and wrote down recommendations for visitors... You want people to have a great time and you want them to experience unique, special places."
Beyond the human touch, there's plenty of coffee-related information online. I've had good results when using the Beanhunter mobile app in North America, and popular crowd-sourced sites such as Urbanspoon and Yelp allow users to drill down to a list of coffee outlets in a given vicinity.
Individual cities often have useful resources, such as the New York Coffee Guide, Portland Food and Drink, and the Chicago Coffee Review.. TheLos Angeles Times recently created The Great LA Coffee Map, and you can ogle Montreal coffee photos at Adbeus.
Also, tour company Seattle By Foot offers its popular Seattle Coffee Crawl as an orientation to the city's famous coffee scene, visiting numerous cafes on the way.
With all this on offer, is it possible that our stereotype of bad North American coffee is outdated?
"I think it's a limited concept of what coffee is," says Bryant. "There can be delicious filter coffee, but a lot of people might still not like that, because it's not what they think it's meant to be."
"I would say that every country has bad coffee," adds Scheltus. "I don't know that America has more bad coffee than any other country. There's a lot more new stuff going on over there; maybe it's evolving a bit quicker as well."
"You've got to put a little legwork in," says Bryant, laying down the bottom line. "You can't just expect it to be amazing. All parts of the industry are represented, so you'll have bad coffee, absolutely, but there's also excellence. I think it just takes a little work."
What have your coffee experiences in North America been like? Post your comments below.
Jason Scheltus and Jenni Bryant's café recommendations for the Big Apple:
Third Rail Coffee, 240 Sullivan St, Greenwich Village (thirdrailcoffee.com)
Variety Café, 145 Driggs Ave, Brooklyn (varietynyc.com)
Stumptown, 18 W 29th St, Manhattan (www.stumptowncoffee.com)
Café Grumpy, four locations (www.cafegrumpy.com)
Joe, nine locations (www.joenewyork.com)