How coffee works in the Outback
When heading off on a trip into the Big Australian Outback, I feared the worst. In terms of snakes and exposure, but also in terms of the quality of the coffee that would be available. As a precaution, I had already brought along the fanciest jar of instant coffee I could lay my hands on (spoiler: it was terrible), because I had oftentimes been warned that one of the primary reasons for folks not surviving their solo travels in the outback was being caught out at midday in the blazing sun with a flat tyre and no coffee. This is why Jack Absalom has a video on how to make a cuppa coffee with nothing more than bulldust and soap.
It took me a while to learn the language of outback coffee, though. Initially, a similar pattern would repeat itself: I’d walk into a promising looking establishment and order “a coffee”, intentionally being vague, so as to allow the server to save face, but also avoiding having much in the line of expectations, to limit my own potential disappointment. Often the server would then respond with something like, “what kind?” Of course, this would make me get my hopes up - perhaps they had real coffee after all? Maybe I could choose between a cappuccino or a drip coffee or a ristretto after all? So, with renewed hope, I would order a double espresso, please and thank you. I would then often be greeted with blank expressions. “We don’t have that.” It turned out, I discovered much too late in my trip to be able to save face, that in these instances, the choice they were expecting me to make was “with or without milk.” Indeed, more than once I simply got something milky without being given a choice.
My favourite anecdote was from a particular servo we stopped by in Dirranbandi, QLD (these were desperate times - don’t stop for coffee there), where I did the usual, ordered “a coffee”. The server pointed to a table at the far wall behind me, where a forlorn thermos was standing amongst a few styrofoam cups, and asked whether I’d like “that stuff” or “the other stuff”, motioning to the kitchen behind her. Trying to be friendly, I smiled and asked which was best, but she was having none of it - I was promptly informed she didn’t know anything about coffee. I composed myself and, noticing a board on the wall above her listing a few coffee types you’d be forgiven were thinking were reminiscent of a real café, hopefully ordered a double espresso (I mean, I was given the choice, after all). Confused looks were cast about, and she rushed to the back and consulted with a colleague. After a while she reappeared and apologetically said that their machine “wasn’t that good” and “if I was sure”. I wasn’t surprised by that information, but tried to be reassuring and not-a-painful-customer, saying I didn’t mind, wasn’t picky. She went back into the kitchen, and I heard many busy sounds of water steaming and beans grinding and all manner of activity. It took minutes before she came back, looking flustered, and asked whether i’d like a small, medium, or large. Having ordered espresso this confused me, but i always try to be kind towards service personnel - they’ve probably already had 23948 shitty customers that day, and don’t need me to be an asshole about it. I asked for a small, crossing my fingers, and theorising that “small” surely most closely described an espresso. Another long while passed, and finally I was presented with.. a rather large paper cup, full to the brim with steaming water, a vague brown colour. Oh well, I had tried. It’s really not such an interesting story, but I guess it illustrates the wide range of hot beverages we encountered.
But other than that, there were also highlights - you should, for example, head straight to Cunnamulla (famous for the Fella statue), and grab a coffee at the Gidgee Bean Café. It’s good! Even Bean Hunter thinks so, for whatever that’s worth! Also, while not quite the Outback, the coffee at The Cupping Room in Canberra was pretty interesting, if unaffordable.