“When I went to the U.S., I flew into LA. The first cafe I went to, I ordered an iced coffee. When I got it, I thought, what is this crap?”
I was chatting with an Australian about his American iced coffee experience. I found that his story, and sentiment, was a common one. As it goes with many food and drink items, just because something has the same name in two different countries does not make it the same thing. Iced coffee as I have discovered, is one of those things.
Driving through Australia's Northern Territory (aka: Middle of Nowhere) and out to Kakadu National Park, we stopped at a roadhouse, the kind of place you swig a beer and eat a pasty. There was a sign next to the gas pump advertising a carton of iced coffee. Naively I turned to my boyfriend and said, “they sell iced coffee in milk cartons??”
He laughed and kindly explained that it wasn’t just cold, black coffee—that this was a sweetened coffee with milk. “That stuff is like crack,” he warned.
I of course had to try one. I sauntered into the roadhouse, looked up at the stuffed buffalo head on the wall with an Australian flag next to it, and pulled out a Paul’s Iced Coffee as if this purchase was totally normal. I grabbed the (super-charged?) Double Shot version for good measure.
Let’s get one thing straight: I am not one to buy drinks at service stations. But when in a new country, live it up. Cast those ideals about not consuming processed foods out the window and experiment a little.
I got back in the car. I looked at the back of the label. Coffee was of course not the first ingredient. I realized I was about to down an entire carton of sugary milk flavored with coffee powder.
Um, when in Rome?
I took a sip. I took another sip.
Yup, crack. Sickeningly sweet, but yes, crack all the same. I bought another one a few days later, and after that I had to call it quits with my iced-coffee-carton-drinking habit; one is excusable in the name of experimentation, two is excusable in the name of a hot day in the middle of nowhere, but three? I didn’t want to push my Australian coffee karma too far.
Traveling and first experiences are a funny thing; what’s a revelation to you is simply the norm for others, even in a country where you speak the same language.
Not until I made it farther south to Adelaide did I realize that iced coffee in Australia is a thing, and not just in the milk carton. Just like in the U.S., you can get an iced coffee at every single cafe, except that the difference when you say, “I’d like an iced coffee please” or “I’d like an iced coffee, mate” if you’re feeling extra casual that day, is that instead of a glass of black, chilled coffee with ice, you’re going to get some concoction of espresso, milk and ice cream. There may be some coffee beans thrown on top for good measure, and yes, you can ask for a double shot.
Unknowingly I had shown off my Territorian spirit by first consuming a Paul’s; everyone else knows that when it comes to mass-produced iced coffees, Farmer’s Union is the name of the game, proved to me when I found a 3-liter container of it at the supermarket.
Nowadays in the U.S., specialty brands like Blue Bottle and Stumptown are making a name for themselves in the refrigerated aisle with their own iced coffee milk cartons. Of course Starbucks, Monster and other brands have been offering various takes on adulterated coffee-milk in gas-stations for ages, and Starbuck' sells a whole cornucopia of coffee-milkshake Frappuccinos in their stores. But in Australia, it seems like even some of the most craft of the craft coffee places have an “iced coffee” milkshake on the menu. So I started to wonder, if I got an iced coffee at a respectable coffee establishment, could I feel good about drinking it, or would the craft coffee gods still come and strike me down?
I had to ask a professional, and thankfully Tom Gunn, head barista at Proud Mary in Melbourne was willing to answer my non-native Australian questions about his country’s seemingly favorite drink.
First thing first, how long has this creamy iced coffee phenomenon been a thing? “Iced coffee has always been around in Australia as far as I know,” says Gunn. “We have a few generic brands that have been going since I was a kid, but they are generally just sugared milk and coffee in a carton.” In other words: crack in a carton.
I asked if Gunn had ever gone so far as to drink one of these himself. No Farmer’s Union, but Gunn said, “I will admit I have had one or two Dare iced coffees and 3 or 4 Big M iced coffees. I don't really think of these drinks as part of coffee though, more like the way a Coke has caffeine, they are just sugar drinks and really don't resemble coffee in any way!”
In other words, we’ve got the low brow and the high brow, with one iced coffee better put to use for long road trips or college all-nighters and the other one an excuse to drink a sweet drink when you’re out with friends. Maybe think of it more like buying a bottle of Coke at a rest stop compared to ordering an artisan, homemade cola at the latest hip joint in Brooklyn. Same same but very different.
“Generally, all cafes and most tacky restaurants serve iced coffee,” says Gunn. Which means for the iced coffee convert, you can plan your next Aussie trip accordingly.
But if that’s the case, while some specialty coffee spots do serve up glasses of milky, icy, coffee goodness, does it mean that the drinks are still looked down upon by the coffee elite?
Not so fast. It all depends on why you’re ordering it.
“Coffee purists do scoff at iced coffee.”
There, I knew it!
But Gunn continues, “But that is only in reference to iced coffee as a replacement to a latte or an espresso, there are much better options,” says Gunn. “As a ‘milkshake' it can be delicious. Who doesn't like ice cream?”
I couldn’t agree more. Just be sure to order it with a double shot.