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If you need a caffeine fix in Australia, you need to know the lingo to get the buzz your body craves. Writer Erin Walton lays out the country’s coffee shop lexicon.
Text: Erin Walton
Country: Australia

hat on Earth is flat about a flat white?” thought Mandy Welfare when first confronted with an Australian coffee menu. Having recently arrived in the country, the confused British serial expat found she had to almost learn another language to order a coffee.

And it’s little wonder. With concoctions on offer like short blacks, flat whites and long macs, visitors to an Aussie coffee shop can be forgiven for not knowing where to start ordering. There, “I’d like a coffee, please,” isn’t going to get you much more than a blank look from the barista and a “Right. What sort?”

As “Cuppa Joedrip coffee is all but non-existent and the same bizarre names are found on every menu, learning the lingo is essential if you’ll want to savour a brew while in the Great South Land.

But when did coffee snobbery arrive in the country better known for snakes, Sydney and surfers?

A caffeinated history

Australian coffee culture is at least 60 years old and skyrocketed in the 1950s after the first espresso machine was brought to Lygon Street in the heart of Melbourne’s Italian quarter. At a time when a “cuppa tea” was the hot drink of choice for most people, this fancy new arrival would change everything: Australia was about to become a coffee nation.

“(Australia’s) coffee scene seems to have influenced the rest of the world,” says Mandy, who now lives in Germany. “I choose my coffee shops in Berlin (based on) the barista’s accent: the more Aussie, the better!”

And it’s true. Australians love their coffee, and they love it their way. ‘Flat whites’ have appeared on various English menus and a handful of coffee shops have been named after the famous drink. However, across the pond, where drip coffee remains popular, North American coffee drinkers have been slower to take up the trend, and travellers to Australia are often just plain confused by the country’s espresso obsession.

The Milky Way

With coffee shops continually springing up, several elements are at play when it comes to attracting customers.

“I think in Australia, you aren’t only paying for a coffee, but the entire environment, music, service, scenery, art and experience that go with it,” says Mandy.

Decoration and service play a large role, but increasingly the coffee itself, and the ingredients that go into it, do too. Take milk, for example.

No longer a simple sidekick, milk now plays a starring role in the perfect coffee. Apart from the importance of achieving perfect microfoam, there’s a veritable menu of milk options available at a typical café. Down Under, you won’t be mocked for asking for low-fat (“skinny”) milk, nor are you limited to full-cream dairy: Most Australian cafés have an array of low-fat and plant-based options for health-conscious or vegan customers.

But how many types of milk can you choose from? Well, try these on for size: full cream, low-fat, skinny, soy, skinny soy, lactose-free, skinny lactose-free. Some stores even offer (and occasionally make their own) almond and rice milk. Others go even further by using milk sourced from micro-dairies, such as Saint David Dairy, a “totally independent, Paddock -to-Plate, Grass-to-Glass option for fresh milk and milk products” in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy.

Creative coffee

With all this colour and nuance in the cafés themselves, what of customer creativity? Well, as a few short moments in the queue of any urban coffee corner will show you, coffee lovers are the masters of their tastebuds and know exactly how they want their pick-me-up made. There are those who want ¾ or half strength, decaf or milk steamed at precisely 50 degrees Celsius. Others ask for their cappuccino to be served in a latte cup, or want to decorate their drinks with shots of caramel, vanilla or mint. There are mums who order “babyccinos” for their children to sip on and those who insist on taking all the fun out of coffee with the much-ordered “half-strength skinny decaf flat white” (otherwise known as a “Why Bother?”). Other oddities later become a barista’s norm (take, for example, the “half-strength decaf skinny soy mocha without cream”, heard ordered in a coffee shop in Brisbane).

With nooks and crannies all over the country serving up beautiful brews, there’s a café for you in every capital city – although when asked, locals and travellers tend to agree that Melbourne is – “hands down!” – where the best coffee is made. So next time you’re under-caffeinated in Australia, don’t fear: a great coffee’s just around the corner.

What can you expect from the typical Australian coffee menu? Essentially, you’ll find a bit of a mix between new names (short mac) and European beverages (cappuccino, macchiato).

Let’s take a look:

● Flat White – ⅓ coffee, ⅔ milk. A flat white is made by pouring glossy, steamed milk called microfoam over a double shot of coffee, ideally without breaking the crema. Its quirky name comes from the fact that it’s topped with a thin layer of foam, rather than a cappuccino’s obvious “cap”.

● Latte – ⅓ coffee, ⅔ milk with a cap of roughly 1 cm of foam. Lattes are served in a slightly larger glass than flat white, making for a milkier coffee.

● Cappuccino – ⅓ coffee, ⅓ milk, ⅓ foam. Often dusted with chocolate.

● Short Black – a single shot of coffee. A simple “espresso” to others.

● Long Black – a double shot poured over hot water. A long black is similar to an “Americano”, although differs in that the coffee is poured after the water and does not break the crema. They’re also usually stronger.

● Short Macchiato/Short Mac – a single shot of coffee “marked” with a touch of frothed milk, just enough to alter the colour of the espresso shot (“macchiato” is Italian for “to mark”).

● Long Macchiato/Long Mac – a double shot of coffee also served with a dollop of foam.

● Mocha – chocolate and coffee, usually topped with cream and dusted with chocolate.)


Cultured coffee Down Under

Australia is a place that is famous for its coffeehouses. It’s coffee culture is at least 60 years old and became quite popular in the 1950s after the first espresso machine was installed in the heart of Melbourne’s Italian quarter. In a short time, people went from drinking a cup of tea to drinking a cup of coffee. Australian’s love their coffee, and they love it their way.

“I think in Australia, you aren’t only paying for a coffee, but the entire environment, music, service, scenery, art and experience that go with it,” says Mandy from Berlin. The decoration and the service are important, but so is the coffee and the ingredients that go into it, such as milk. To understand the coffee menu in Australia and order a drink, you need to understand the lingo and know the difference between a flat white and a short black.

There are unique cafés in every capital city; but the best coffee can still be found in Melbourne. No matter where you are in the country, if you need a fix, great coffee is just around the corner!



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