When I think about bad coffee, I think about the Sydney public transport system. More specifically, I think about the Opal card.
The implementation of Sydney's unified public transport card back in late 2012 was an absolute schmozzle. It cost far more than it was expected to. It didn't work properly. And it's still far from perfect given you can't buy a card from an actual train station and it seems to take forever to swipe through a gate.
The reason I think about this when I think about bad coffee is that there's a major similarity. It's not like the Opal card was new technology back then. It's not like the people in charge had to sit down and come up with a way for passengers to use a contactless card to pay for public transport.
Other cities already had a version of Opal. London had the Oyster card. Hong Kong had the Octopus. By that point Melbourne even had the Myki, which wasn't ideal, but at least it worked.
So why didn't the Sydney planners just use other people's expertise? Why didn't they copy their exact system? It was as if Sydney existed in an alternate universe where smartcards didn't exist.
And so it is with coffee. Good coffee exists in the world. People know how to make it. Italians make incredibly good coffee. The Vietnamese make great coffee. Ethiopians make a very fine brew. Australians and Kiwis make excellent coffee.
So why doesn't the rest of the world just copy? This thing has been mastered. High-quality coffee exists. Just do the same thing as the Italians do, or the Vietnamese, or Australians or Kiwis.
And yet, other countries don't. Most bafflingly, other countries that share history or pretty much border those fine coffee-drinking nations refuse to just steal their ideas, and instead forge ahead on their own.
I'm currently based in Spain, and the coffee here is not good. It's popular. It's drunk everywhere all the time. But it's not very good. Nowhere near as good as Italy, which is not too far away at all.
The way to rate coffee, I've figured, is to consider how much sugar you have to put in it to cut the bitterness and make it taste good. Cappuccinos in Italy need no sugar. Espressos in Italy are the same: smooth, rich and delicious, with no sweetener required.
Coffee over ice in Vietnam needs no sugar because it already has evaporated milk in it, and it's perfect. Flat white in Australia? No sugar. Piccolo in Australia? Still no sugar. Espresso in Australia? OK, a little bit of the sweet stuff, but not much.
Now let's look at Spain. Everything needs sugar. A café con leche, the milkiest coffee you can order, is still too bitter to drink on its own.
That's a problem, and it's a problem partly because of "torrefacto", a Spanish method of roasting coffee beans that, coincidentally, involves the addition of sugar – a lot of sugar – to the beans in the final stage of roasting. This sugar coats the beans, and is supposed to help preserve them, but it also burns and adds a distinctive and unpleasantly bitter taste.
Torrefacto is widely and bafflingly used in Spain, as it is in France and Portugal, which goes some way to explaining the really average cups you get in those countries. Again, guys: Italy has mastered this skill. Just copy them. No more torrefacto.
The same goes for the UK, which again, isn't very far from Italy, and again, makes terrible coffee. (And yes, I'm aware that there is excellent coffee to be had in certain places in London and Manchester and wherever it is you live, but I'm talking about your average cup, which in England probably comes from Costa in a "mugacino" the size of your head and doesn't taste good).
British coffee culture is in its infancy, so you can forgive the reliance on large chain cafes. But still, why is it so hard to make good stuff? Just copy people who know how.
And then, of course, there's North America: the USA and Canada. These are two countries that drink a lot of coffee, and that also have a history of migration from great coffee-drinking nations, and yet the stuff they drink over there is overwhelmingly bad.
It's not the American-style drip coffee that's the problem, though that's not really my idea of a good time, particularly the "bottomless" stuff that's served in cheap cafes and left lukewarm in pots for hours on end. It's the crazy espresso-style coffee that's the real issue for me, the super-milky lattes served in giant cups, the "cloud macchiatos" with caramel drizzles, the pumpkin spice chai lattes, the cherry mocha crème frappuccinos. North of the border it's the "double-doubles" with two creams and two sugars.
This is not good coffee. It's barely coffee at all. How did this happen? Why didn't North Americans just steal other people's ideas instead of developing this oversized Mickey Mouse coffee culture of their own?
Australia might have invented the flat white (don't @ me, Kiwis), but that popular drink is not hugely different to the way a cappuccino is served in Rome, and our entire café culture has essentially been "borrowed" from the likes of Italy and Greece. There's no shame it that, of course – we found something good and we copied it.
If only we'd done the same with the Opal card.
Which countries do you think have the worst coffee? What about the best? How does Australia rate?
LISTEN: Flight of Fancy - the Traveller.com.au podcast with Ben Groundwater
To subscribe to the Traveller.com.au podcast Flight of Fancy on iTunes, click here.