University City

Ozpresso: Australian coffee tsunami hits NoDa

With the New York Times and Wall Street Journal singing the praises of Australian coffee bars and cafés, where New Yorkers now line up for flat whites and long blacks instead of lattés and Americanos, it’s good to know Charlotte isn’t being left behind.

For your Aussie coffee fix, head for Ozpresso on North Davidson Street in Charlotte’s NoDa arts district.

Ozpresso shares the bottom floor of a condo complex with a bank and a trendy hair salon. It’s on the site of the old Fat City Diner, a NoDa landmark in earlier, edgier days.

With its coolly minimalist-funk interior lurking under a enormous ADHD-inspired urban mural, the new coffeehouse represents another wave of change.

The area was once a mill village on the outskirts of a much smaller Charlotte. In the 1990s, art galleries moved into the rundown, half-abandoned area, lending NoDa an artistic identity.

Most of the galleries are gone, along with Fat City’s incomparable blackeyed pea salad. They were pushed out by rising rents made possible by revitalization based on the artists’ vision and creativity.

It’s an old story, one that is still being written.

Ozpresso faces stiff competition nearby. There’s the wonderful Smelly Cats on 36th Street, and, in the opposite direction, Amelie’s French Bakery near North Davidson and 28th Street. Both offer excellent coffee and suitable places to solve the world’s problems or write the great Charlotte novel.

Nevertheless, Ozpresso is different enough to merit a lasting place in NoDa’s mix.

“I really like it,” says Katie-Diane Grooms, enjoying a coffee with Keith Kilpatrick on Ozpresso’s small patio facing the Johnson YMCA. “It is a little bit different. With the Australian owner, it has a different feel. There’s a twist to the drinks.”

Evidently, while we Yanks were distracted by Crocodile Dundee, Australians were creating and enjoying their own brilliant version of coffee. An influx of Italian immigrants, bringing their espresso makers and a sense of La dolce vita Down Under, helped spark the change.

When Australians traveled the world (something else they are justly renowned for) they groused incessantly about the quality of local coffee (except when they visited Italy), especially in the United Kingdom and in the United States.

Eventually, entrepreneurs began opening Australian coffeehouses and cafés – like the ones in Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane – in other countries.

In its classic form, Australian coffee is brewed with an espresso maker. If you want something more like normal American intensity, you add water to espresso. This is the “long black,” similar to an Americano. “Short black” is a stronger version with less water.

Australian coffeehouses and cafes also offer such Italian standards as lattés, cappuccinos and espressos. The signature Aussie coffee may be the “flat white,” somewhat like a latté or cappuccino, but with velvety steamed milk without foam and a higher coffee-to-milk ratio.

The flat white has even earned a place on the Starbucks menu (only in the United Kingdom so far, not yet in the States), for those who “don’t like milky coffee,” in the words of Starbucks’ U.K. website.

There is a tradeoff: Though Aussie coffee is stronger and more flavorful, there is less of it. Australian coffee servings are small and intense (like Italian coffee), not served in Venti and bigger sizes worthy of the Peachoid water tower in Gaffney, S.C.

Ozpresso offers flat white, long black and short black on its menu, along with American-style brewed coffee. That is happening back in Australia as well, where coffee bars are experimenting with cold press, drip brewing and especially single-origin beans.

Ozpresso also offers one of the most opulent, indulgent drinks imaginable, the Iced Australian, a brew of espresso over ice, with whipped cream, cocoa powder and vanilla ice cream. It is delicious, with a caffeine boost roughly analogous to a Saturn V rocket.

Ozpresso offers food as a second thought to the coffee, which is typical of many coffee places (Starbucks included), with a couple of differences.

Ozpresso has a couple of Australian specialties, including ANZAC biscuits (cookies) and Lamington cakes, which are brown or pink blocks of spongecake (chocolate and raspberry, respectively) covered in frosting and coconut.

The delicious if odd-sounding avocado smash, another Australian treat, is slated for the future, as a spread for bagels. No TamTams yet, however.

And what about that viscous brown spread, made from used brewer’s yeast, that’s part of life in Oz, along with the sharks, snakes and deadly jellyfish?

Owner Geoff Broomhead, who hails from Brisbane, said he plans a Vegemite contest. He will fill a generous spoon with Vegemite, and whoever can eat it in one minute will get a free coffee and their photo on the wall.

Broomhead, a former professional golfer and member of the Australian PGA, moved to Charlotte 4 1/2 years ago. His grandfather started a successful coffee plantation in Papau-New Guinea in the mid-1950s.

The Broomhead family become something of a development agency, helping Papauan villagers by building a school and hospital, and providing jobs.

Eventually, the family sold the plantation to villagers to run as a cooperative. There’s a photo of the family and coffee farm on the wall in Ozpresso.

In Australia, people customarily sit down to enjoy their coffee, rather than running out the door with a to-go cup. Ozpresso, with lots of light and comfortably mismatched chairs, has all the elements for hanging out.

Ozpresso is making plans to add beer and wine to its menu in the future. It has a standing offer for all students: Show your ID card and receive a 10 percent discount.

Broomhead, a good-hearted soul with the Australian habit of joking around, got himself in a bit of hot water over some dismissive comments about American coffee. It’s a bum rap.

You can get a decent cup of standard American coffee at Ozpresso, if that’s what you want. You will be missing a bet, however, if you don’t at least sample the Australian versions, and sit down to enjoy it. Ozpresso adds its own distinct flavor to NoDa’s changing character.

Trying to gobble down all that Vegemite might not be terribly pleasant, but that is entirely up to you.

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