9 May 2019

A flat white by any other name

| Alex Tricolas
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Don’t order a cappuccino here. You won’t get one. Or a latté for that matter. And syrup in your coffee? Most certainly not! No, this is not The Coffee Nazi, it’s The Cupping Room, and they swear they aren’t trying to piss anybody off; they just want to give you the best coffee experience they can.

Most people are quite set in their ways when it comes to their coffee of choice, not to mention a little precious. A look at any café menu will confirm that the spectrum of labels that have been ascribed to the various milky espressos are pretty much standardised across Australia, and not to be messed with.

Order a flat white, cappuccino, latte or macchiato, and any barista in the country will know what you are after, so it seems a little surprising that The Cupping Room have chosen to throw convention out the window and simply call their milk-based espressos, well, milk-based espressos.

A look at the menu tells the story: “We only have one style of milk based coffee to create a balance of espresso and textured milk. Served at 60°C,” it reads. The customer may choose from the blends on that particular day, the size of their serving (160ml or 320ml) or whether they want dairy or soy, and definitely no chocolate.

I have to admit that when I first encountered this, it all seemed a little oddball, and I wondered whether this could leave the average customer slightly confused or worse, just plain annoyed. I spoke to manager Jack Scheeran who brought the system in, and he admits that he had to fight pretty hard to get his partners at ONA Coffee to agree to it, as they didn’t want to come across as pretentious or arrogant.

Jack says that his insistence does not come from arrogance, but rather from his desire to give the customer the best coffee experience he can. He is aware that this approach may alienate some customers initially, but is certain that the ones that come on board will be rewarded with a better coffee appreciation. Moreover, he says that The Cupping Room was always going to be a flagship for the ONA brand, with a mission to push the boundaries and to be coffee innovators. But why the exclusion of the humble cappuccino?

“We play with every detail of the coffee to make it perfect, and when someone orders a cappuccino, they get this thing doused in chocolate. It’s just dry cocoa, which smothers the coffee flavour,” he says. “When somebody orders a flat white, they are getting an awesome coffee. I felt bad for the cappuccino drinkers who were getting a poor experience.”

Jack says that when he was at ONA in Manuka, he converted a lot of the cappuccino drinkers to drinking flat white. “There were maybe two or three out of fifty that said ‘no I want my cappuccino’, but many of the others were thanking me a couple of months later, telling me they were enjoying their coffee so much more now.”

Of course, I had to ask if this philosophy extended to the sugar that sat on the table in front of us. “Yes” was the immediate reply. While there is no threat to ban sugar from The Cupping Room, he certainly thinks it has no place in a decent cup of coffee.

“Sugar is just one of those things that people have become used to being fed so much in the last few generations, that it has desensitised their palates,” he says. “If you’re used to having your coffee with two sugars all the time, then when you taste something that is technically balanced, you’re going to taste it as acidic or bitter.”

Explanations aside, the challenge for The Cupping Room would be, and perhaps still is, to change customer expectations. Jack recalls the day when they decided to get rid of syrups at ONA in Manuka. “We thought it would be a huge deal, but it wasn’t. We lost maybe two customers, but people started to appreciate us as a specialty coffee business and we grew. I suppose this is just the next step.”

In effect, the culling of coffee styles down to just one–the milk-based espresso–seems to mean that what you get at The Cupping Room is a flat white. This is not a bad thing, as the flat white is the current darling of coffee geeks across the world, the herald of Australia’s rise as the leader in café culture globally. Why not just call it a flat white and capitalise on this? It’s simple, and everybody gets it.

“It was in our mission statement to be pioneering,” says Jack. “The coffee industry is still quite immature compared to the wine industry for example. Ordering a flat white or cappuccino or whatever, is like ordering a wine and just asking for a white or a red. I’d like to think that in the future, customers will come and ask for perhaps a seasonal blend, or a Panama espresso for example, and that they will be able to discern between them.”

Probably no other café or café chain in Canberra–or maybe anywhere in Australia–is as intimately connected to the coffee making process as ONA. They have invested in coffee plantations around the world; they import, roast, distribute and even serve your coffee. This is surely a sign of a passionate group of people who are immersed in what they do. At The Cupping Room, Jack Scheeran has been given licence to express that passion to the ultimate degree, even if it alienates some customers.

Perhaps it’s not for everybody, and perhaps some people will see this attitude as a little precious. Those who believe the customer is always right may find it a little off-putting, but judging by the queues of people waiting for a coffee and the fight to get a table on most days, so many customers can’t be wrong–Jack was given three months to trial his system, and the place hasn’t taken a backward step since. I for one, while a little unconvinced, will continue to order my flat white and then sit back and enjoy my milk-based seasonal blend because frankly, it’s the best milk-based seasonal blend in town.

Author’s note: ONA cafés in other locations continue to offer the standard styles of espresso, including chocolate dusted cappuccinos.

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What a load of arrogant pretentious nonsense. I won’t be going to any ONa related cafe anytime soon. A cappuccino is a traditional form of coffee originating in Italy. Mr Sheeran should get over himself. By all means get rid of the chocolate and don’t serve it after 11am, but it is just childish not to offer it at all.

Hi Alex – enjoyed your article. Cupping is a ridiculous nonsense and unbearably pretentious.
It’s origins are on the plantation and it was simply a way to give a buyer a primitive taste of the product, back in the day.
A sophisticated modern setup would now offer the buyer espresso from an espresso machine.
Here’s a link to Australian Food Timeline’s entry for the Flat White. First served in Sydney at Moors Espresso Bar in the 1980s

It mentions in this article that the cupping room culled the cappuccino because the chocolate dulled the taste of the coffee…. As someone who has worked as a barista in the past, I never viewed the cappuccino as being a cappuccino solely because of the chocolate but rather to the quantity of froth. In addition, the cappuccino should taste stronger in espresso due to having a higher percentage of froth compared to that of the latte or flat white.
As such, my opinion of a cappuccino has actually been in contrast to that of this article – the cappuccino being the best milk-based espresso for the coffee connoisseur who wishes to appreciate the taste of the coffee (without the additions of chocolate and sugar).
Perhaps the cupping room could consider introducing the cappuccino in this context?

Alex Tricolas9:07 am 19 Mar 15

Hi Kris, Thanks for your thoughts. They actually cancelled chocolate rather than cappuccinos. The original article mentioned the transition from cappuccinos with chocolate to cappuccinos without, and the hassles of explaining the differences in foam density etc. before settling on the final offer, but I edited it out of the article as I thought it was getting a little long winded (just like my reply, ha!).

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