I have never planned a trip specifically around coffee, but, like many travelers, coffee is an essential part of my travel plans. Whether it’s the predictably disappointing but gratefully accepted in-flight coffee, an always-full cuppa joe at a diner counter, or an artfully crafted espresso drink at a world-class cafe, coffee is going to be part of any travel day — or it’s going to be a groggy and grumpy travel day.
The new book, Destination Coffee (comes out April 7th, 2021), by Jane Ormond, a book specifically targeted at coffee-loving travelers, can inspire new entries in your coffee bucket list, but it also turns out to be useful even for a time when travel has slowed to a drip. With the availability of coffees from all over the world, and roasters with different points of view across the country, you can bring the world to you.
Destination Coffee spans the globe, but when I talked with Jane from her home in Australia, I turned her attention on the US and our coffee culture. Does it measure up to global standards?
Destination Coffee: A Little Book for Coffee Lovers All Over the World, by Jane Ormond and illustrated by Wenjia Tang, comes out April 7th, 2021 from Hardie Grant Publishing — Pre-Order Now From Your Local Independent Bookseller
Being from Melbourne, a certified world coffee capital if there ever was one, what is your general impression of American coffee and our coffee culture?
I think one of the most beautiful coffee cultures of America is diner coffee culture. It’s egalitarian, it’s iconic, it’s the stuff of Twin Peaks. That is a special coffee culture. Even if the coffee’s not all that great — and it’s often not all that great — the actual culture around it is gorgeous.
New York has really come up to speed. I was actually surprised the first time I went to New York was the late ‘90s and I thought, “There’ll be great coffee here.” And there was not, not until recently. So I just ended up rolling over and going, “Huh, all right. Diner coffee it is.” But then at one point I walked into the now closed Cafe ‘Ino in the Village — which apparently was Patti Smith’s local at one time — and asked for a black coffee, and the guy very sniffily said, “Oh, we only do espresso here.” I nearly cried for joy.
Melbourne has a lot of parallels with the coffee history of San Francisco, with the coffee scene originating with Italian immigrants moving into North Beach.
New York has some of that, too. Caffè Reggio, which has one of the oldest espresso machines in New York and is one of the remaining classic little Italian coffee bars. You do find that in a lot of cities around the world, like London, where the coffee scene took off again in the ‘40s and ‘50s with Italian immigration.
You mentioned your love of diner coffee, even though it isn’t alway great coffee. Are we starting to take coffee too seriously now?
You can if you want to. I mean, this is why I love Portland. You can even go into a divey diner and they’ll still be pouring local Portland roasters. They’ll still have good coffee.
I actually think that people should take coffee seriously, because what people forget is that it’s an agricultural product. It is very much at the whim of the weather at the whim of the growers, the pickers, the processes, everything in between you and the cup. It is a very precious agricultural product, and a lot of blood, sweat and tears goes into it. So when you do get that incredible cup of coffee, you pay $10 for it or whatever, because it’s a cup of excellence. You should be paying that, you know, you really should. That’s why cheap, bad coffee is cheap and bad, right?
I recently stumbled across an old menu from a fancy hotel in the Bay Area from the late 1950s, and a cup of coffee cost 20 cents and a cup of Sanka cost 25 cents. It was more expensive to get the Sanka.
Well that was the ‘50s. Decaffeinated crystallized coffee was fancy. Our idea of “fancy” changes over time. I can understand that can be a little bit alienating to some people that kind of just want a cup of coffee, but it doesn’t take that much work to understand the differences.
I said recently in a Statesider editorial meeting that my goal in life was to be a regular at one of those diners where they have a designated mug with my name on it hanging on the wall, waiting for me to walk in. I have simple goals.
Do you have a particular diner or cafe that you want that mug to sit at?
It’s a good question. I’m not sure that it really matters. It doesn’t even matter if it’s the type of place where the eggs are fried in way too much butter or what have you. It could be an ugly old mug with a beaver on it, I don’t know. My mug is just waiting for me there.
Okay. I like that. And so the second you walk in, they just get it down. There comes your ugly, beaver-themed mug.
It’s probably the pandemic talking. I don’t know about you, but having someone recognize you and know your name sounds nice right now. And that’s something you get with coffee shops.
It’s a beautiful thing. I was in Sydney and there was a cafe across the road to where I was staying, and the second day I walked in, they went “Long black!” They knew my order. By the second day. That was the best thing ever. When you live somewhere where there’s a lot of choices, you can be quite sort of, um, slutty in your, in your cafe choices. It’s harder to become a regular.
Are there any specific places from the US that stand out from a coffee perspective?
I mentioned Portland already. I have to say I’m a huge San Francisco coffee fan. I think Trouble Coffee in the Outer Sunset is really good. Sightglass Coffee too. You’re hard pressed to get a bad cup of coffee in San Francisco. I’ve had some beautiful coffees, particularly at Trouble.
Did you have the famous toast?
[Editor’s note: Yes, yes, San Francisco. Expensive toast. Before you mock, read the backstory (and try the toast, really).]
I did, I had the cinnamon toast, and I have tried to replicate it. There was a short-lived loaf of bread from just like a regular sort of Wonder Bread brand here in Australia, but they were doing something called “scone bread,” which was like a whole loaf of scone. That was the closest I’ve got to replicating the Trouble toast. And then they discontinued it. I even rang the factory when I stopped being able to find it. But yes, I had the toast.
I’ve also had great coffee in Hawaii. Hawaii’s got an interesting coffee history as well, with the Kona coffee and how the water and the volcanic soil affects the plants.
I think the most memorable coffee I’ve had was at the highest point in Thailand, and it was pouring and freezing cold (for Thailand at least) and there was a little place making coffee up there. It was the confluence of good, hot coffee, and cold me in a rather dramatic place. That was a memorable cup of coffee.
It can be a full sensory experience. The first time I went to Byron Bay, I was desperate for coffee. My partner’s not a coffee drinker, but he knows me: no coffee, no happy. So there was this tiny little hole in the wall called Spice. It’s gone now but it was literally just big enough for the people behind the coffee machine and their dog, Zulu, who would lounge around out front. I got their coffee and I literally smelled it for 10 minutes. You know, it’s like you’re trying to cram all the flavors in just through your nose. It was mystical. It was a company called The Blessed Bean. They have a coffee roasters in the hinterlands in Byron Bay. It smelled like chocolate. It smelled like cinnamon. It was the whole thing. I could not believe how full and gorgeous it was. So that was probably the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had in my life.
But I think getting that espresso after swimming in the desert of diner coffee in New York, getting that espresso at Cafe ‘Ino was also really beautiful.
If you’re in somewhere you don’t know well, and you’re looking for The Good Coffee Shop, what do you look for?
You want to trust your instincts. Tune into the vibe. A barista should have a bit of soul. You want to make sure that they’ve got a decent coffee machine and what looks like a no-nonsense coffee menu (with no options of supersizing to the ‘bucket o’ joe’) and decent beans. Have a bit of a looky loo and see if they feature beans from a guest roaster, that sort of thing. Trust your instincts, because it’s also become such a recognizable format, it can be hard to differentiate, you know?
A question we always ask: Cake or pie?
This is a very, very important question. I think the option of pie is a very specific US option because of your diner culture. People will have coffee and pie. We don’t have that culture here. You get apple pie, you might make a pie, but we don’t do pecan pie. We don’t do pumpkin pie. So I guess just out of familiarity, I’d have to go for cake…but I don’t really like cake.
I’ve got to tell you, a friend of mine was at a hotel buffet breakfast, and she heard this American guy go: “I don’t like bagels: they’re too tight. I like something looser, like cake.” So I know where he would fall.
But I’m going to go with a dark horse and say sour cherry strudel.
Is that a cake? Is it a pie? Is it a tart? Whatever it is, it goes perfectly with a cup of coffee.
Pick up a copy of Destination Coffee: A Little Book for Coffee Lovers All Over the World for yourself or your travel-loving coffee drinker friends at your local bookstore.
Coffee painting by Richard Pearson