Australia drinks: flat whites and long blacks

by Julia Robinson

 Australia’s love affair with ‘proper’ coffee means that a teaspoon of instant coffee in a cup of boiling water no longer satisfies us as it did twenty-five years ago. We now prefer to drink espresso-based coffees such as cappuccino, caffè latte, short black, flat white, ristretto, or macchiato. We’ve come a long way; back in 1990 a North Sydney coffee lounge placed a classified ad for staff that read in part: ‘If you know the difference between a flat white and a Capuccino ring me’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 7 July).

The air of desperation suggests that the public’s demand for espresso-based beverages exceeded the supply of suitably experienced staff. Now, of course, we are familiar with the term barista, until recently an unheard-of job description. A barista near you is currently brewing up the usual cappuccinos, but is also likely to be serving a bewildering variety of beverages such as decaf and skim lattes, soyaccinos, mochaccinos, double-shots and skinny caps, along with mugaccinos for the thirsty and babyccinos for the very young.

Not only is the choice sometimes bewildering, but the terms we use can confuse non-Australians. In towns and cities across Australia (and New Zealand too) you can order a flat white, short black, or long black, but don’t expect to be understood if you ask for these in Toronto or Los Angeles. Ellen DeGeneres, the comedian and host of the US talk-show Ellen, noted this cultural difference when she visited Australia in March. She tweeted to her followers:

DeGeneres’ tweet suggests that our local coffee terms can surprise and amuse North Americans.

As a public service to Australians intending to travel abroad in English-speaking countries, the following is a list of Australian coffee terms that may not translate accurately in a foreign café.

Flat white: an espresso shot with steamed milk (less frothy than a cappuccino). This term is chiefly used in Australia and New Zealand, but is also known in the UK. First Australian evidence is 1983.

Long black: an espresso shot with extra hot water. First evidence is 1981.

Short black: an espresso shot.  First evidence is 1984.

Mugaccino (also mugachino): a large cappuccino served in a mug. It is perhaps based on a mishearing of a cappuccino as ‘a cup of chino’. An upgrade to a mugaccino, ‘a mug of chino’, is a logical extension. First evidence is 1994.

Babyccino (also babychino): a cup of hot frothed milk with a sprinkling of chocolate powder on top, served to babies or young children. This may have originated in Australia, but is now used elsewhere in the English-speaking world. The babyccino was a beverage waiting to happen, since there is a universal need for something to occupy the children while adults catch up over a coffee. First evidence is 1994.

8 thoughts on “Australia drinks: flat whites and long blacks

  1. Good stuff! But I don’t know what sort of service you are providing to Australians travelling abroad. You’ve told what not to say, but not what we are supposed to say instead! Tee hee.

    I also love that there’s one instance in your piece where you’ve fallen into ye olde trap of calling it ‘expresso’ rather then ‘espresso’ :-D

  2. Oops – thanks for noticing the typo. As far as ordering coffee when you travel, I suggest listening to what the person in front of you orders, and asking for the same. Eventually you should get the right thing.
    Any other suggestions welcome!

  3. “Espresso” and “espresso with steamed milk” should be well understood. I don’t know about espresso with extra hot water, but then again I don’t actually participate in coffee culture either.

  4. “Cafe au lait” sometimes means espresso with steamed milk, but it can also mean with heated (but not steamed) milk. Buyer beware.

  5. You may not have evidence of babyccino before 1994, but the term was definitely in use before then. My son started school in Carlton (inner Melbourne) in 1991, and each morning after dropping him off I went for coffee with a group of other mothers. Any pre-schoolers with us would have babyccinos. That was the first time I’d come across the word.

  6. Thanks for that Vireya. We’ll keep looking for an earlier ‘babyccino’.

  7. And don’t forget the ‘cuppacino’ – the frequently seen misspelling of cappuccino I’ve seen on sandwich boards and menus all over the country.

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