We can blame the Ethiopian goats.

At one time Ethiopia was known as the Kingdom of Sheba. I’m shockingly ignorant. I never knew there was a Kingdom of Sheba. We always used to say: Who does she think she is? The Queen of Sheba? I thought it was just some made-up thing, and it might be, but apparently there could have been a real Queen of Sheba. Historians are still arguing about it.

Anyway back to the goats. Coffee was discovered in similar fashion to the discovery of silk, and the discovery of tea in China, as revealed in folk tales from long ago that probably have some truth to them. It was in Ethiopia in the Queen of Sheba’s time, long before the 16th century when this legend was first recorded, that a goatherd noticed that his goats got especially jumpy and excited after eating a particular kind of berry. The goatherd took some of the berries to the monks who, presumably by divine inspiration, decided to roast and brew them. The monks felt pretty energized after drinking this brew so they kept making it, and shared it around.

And now we all drink it, pretty much everywhere, especially in Finland. More coffee is consumed in Finland than in any other country. Who knew?

I don’t know much about Finnish coffee, but I know a bit about Australian coffee, and Australian coffee culture, and especially Canberra coffee culture.

Don drinking tea. Photo by Julie Garran

Starbucks failed in Australia. To the tune of $143 million. In Vancouver, as well as there being three other coffee chains, and multiple independent cafés, there is one Starbucks for every 10,384 people. In Canberra there’s zero. Zero. Not a Starbucks to be found. Nor any other chain. These statistics illustrate how much Aussies want, no, need, fresh coffee, best quality coffee, real coffee, slow coffee, hip-to-be-seen-here coffee.

Starbucks failed to realize that most Australians lived in cities that already had world-class baristas, and thriving European-style café cultures. The company approached the market as if it was an American coffee culture placing more emphasis on coffee as a commodity or quick source of caffeine, while Australia had been developing a café culture based on quality rather than convenience. Aussies wanted quality over quantity, and anyway they were not likely to take kindly to an American giant trying to push its way through the door.

Melbourne’s Anthony Douglas from Axil Coffee won the World Barista Championship in 2022. Canberra’s Sasa Sestic won the title in 2015.

Australians won’t drink fast coffee. We can blame Hitler, who wrecked Europe for a while there, which led to thousands of Italians and Greeks settling in Australia during and at the end of WWII, most of them in Melbourne. At one point Melbourne was the second biggest Greek city in the world after Athens.

Anyway back to coffee. In the late 1940’s an Italian man brought an espresso machine to Melbourne; espresso is a less bitter brew with a creamy top. The Italians and Greeks introduced Australia’s fledgling, mainly Brit, population, to the taste of real coffee. To this day Melbourne is Australia’s coffee capital, but Canberra has no problem keeping up. Recent research found Canberrans are more likely to go out for coffee than in any other major Australian city.

An americano is an espresso with water added, because the Americans stationed in Italy during the war didn’t like straight espresso. From this early Italian beginning Australia has greatly expanded the concept of coffee and coffee drinking, having invented the flat white, the long black, and the Australian macchiato. You can get iced Vietnamese, or strong Turkish, or a sweet Mexican-style brew. There’s experimentation with beans, blends, and temperatures; one Canberra café asks customers to order based on the blend of the beans. Baristas are gods; more chefs than servers. A family member once worked at a café we went to. I ask them if I’m not getting my coffee as hot as I like it because the barista isn’t getting the message or because the barista is a snob about coffee. They replied most likely the latter; you don’t tell a chef how to prepare their creation.

Coffee culture isn’t about how much you drink. It isn’t about fast coffee. It isn’t about drip coffee, or filter coffee. It’s about specially sourced and roasted beans, it’s about independent coffee growers and small-time baristas, it’s about ritual, it’s about hip cafés, it’s about taking time, it’s about socialising, and above all, it’s about espresso.

From December last year through mid-February this year Don and I are in Canberra visiting family, and an outing for morning coffee/breakfast/brunch is an almost daily ritual.

We can blame Julie. Of the four sisters Julie is the most enthusiastic proponent of an outing for morning coffee. Carol and John have a similar ritual, but usually always go to the same local place. Staying at Julie’s, almost every morning there’s some necessary or desired outing: grocery shopping, or Christmas shopping, or Weston Park to look for kangaroos, or the Jerrabomberra Wetlands, or the National Gallery. And almost every morning our proposed activity would be accompanied by Julie telling us of a great nearby café. We’d laugh, Julie was all about the cafés, but she was right every time.

Here we are at Bittersweet.

Julie and Suzanne get treats from some place down the road because they don’t like the ones at Bittersweet. Don’s pretty happy with his hot chocolate and fruit cake though.

And here we are at Močan and Green Grout, described by Google as: Stylish, retro-chic nook with inventive meals cooked in an open kitchen, plus fair-trade espresso. We go to Močan and Green Grout several times.

We go to As Nature Intended with its embarrassing name and cool interior with comfy couches and big wooden farm tables; and a couple of times to Oaks Brasserie and sit in the garden where the noisy miners come to cadge some food.

Here we are at Yarra Rossa Cafe.

And look! Here we are again! at Downtown Cafe,

and again! at Caphs.

And this is a fun outing! It’s raining. We could all squish inside, but Covid is still an issue for some of us, so after much negotiation we sit at a partially covered table and make do with an umbrella and jackets. Pretty funny. It’s at Fox & Bow, described by Google thus: Chill cafe with rustic accents & a patio, offers a creative menu with sandwiches & smoothies.

We go twice to a place that I call the cow-porn cafe. The real name is Farmers Daughter, described by Google as: Premium coffee and brunch classics at a relaxed cafe with yellow chairs and sewing machine tables.

I don’t notice the chairs. Or the tables. We always sit outside.

This is at Typica, one of Julie’s favourites. Google says: Brekkie & locally roasted single-origin coffee served in a breezy cafe with outdoor tables.

Of course the food’s important. The best place for pastries is Silo Bakery, but there’s not much seating, and it’s usually crowded. Sometimes I have smashed avocado toast,

but mostly for me it’s fruit toast, an upgrade on raisin toast. Serving fruit toast in cafés is, I think, peculiarly Australian. Either way I get addicted. It has to be good artisan bread though.

Back in my youth, a long time ago, I studied to become a librarian at the National Library Training School. In those days the entrance foyer of the National Library

was a wide-open space where there was nothing to distract from Leonard French’s magnificent stained-glass windows. Now there’s a book store at one end, and at the other Bookplate Café.

Google describes the Bookplate thus: Clever brekkie and lunch dishes served in a stylish library cafe with stained-glass windows. Who writes this stuff? A family member was an editor at Google a million years ago. I blame them.

I’m not a coffee snob, but I can tell you that after spending two months in Canberra for the first time in eight years, when I got home to Vancouver I threw away my instant and upgraded to a modern electric percolator. I can’t tell you anything about Canberra’s night life, or even if there is one, but I sure got to know the coffee culture.

Next post: hmmm, not sure. Canberra birds (screeching cockatoos and multi-coloured parrots), or the National Gallery and the National Museum, or Go-boating on the lake. Anyway something from my favourite Aussie city.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2023.