The scene is loaded for anyone who’s done time on the front-of-house frontline. You approach a table of customers, their meeting already underway, with a tray of coffees. “Long black?” you enquire pleasantly, beginning the roll call. A skinny latte. A soy cap. An oat flat white. Until you reach an obstacle. The oat flat white goes unclaimed. A deafening silence falls upon the table before the negotiations begin: “Didn’t you order oat, Meryl?” She answers with an assertiveness so drenched in passive aggression that it could strip paint. “No, I ordered an oat latte.”

A fury hotter than a La Marzocco steam wand swells deep inside. A suppressed voice screams to be released, even though it can never be: “It’s the same thing!” It’s just one of a litany of struggles we face daily as cafe staff.

The Australian predilection for coffee is the grease that turns our cultural cog. We are obsessed with the stuff, but have become so caught up in terminology and misplaced notions of what “good” coffee is that we are stopping ourselves from truly enjoying the thing we purport to love: the coffee itself. A little information could go a long way to mitigating most customer complaints.

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First, we need to stop caring so much about what our coffee is called. At most modern cafes, the concept of a latte, flat white or cappuccino is fluid. Most customers won’t be able to tell you the difference, because increasingly, there is none: one shot (outer suburbs) or two (inner suburbs) of coffee, with an identical amount of steamed milk. Traditionally, a cappuccino is frothier and topped with chocolate, but this is becoming less common, meaning we’re all basically drinking the same thing.

I’m no coffee puritan. As much as I love to sample a fragrant Geisha and experiment with blends and brewing techniques, my day-to-day order is a strong flat white, preferably in a six-ounce cup. It’s what I’ve always ordered, and milk is not a crime in coffee. I want milk in my coffee the way I want pastry on my fish pie: it’s there to envelop and complement the core ingredients, not completely overwhelm them.

But, the bane of the barista’s life remains the average customer’s milk mania. “It’s not strong enough” is a key refrain of customers that have no idea how coffee works. Strength is not uniform, and most cafes will work to their own recipe. The “strength” referred to is usually courtesy of a dirty, caked-over group handle or unwashed filter, and the complaint most commonly comes from people ordering gigantic American-style 16-ounce coffees so completely asphyxiated by milk that any hope of perceptible flavour is lost.

A 16-ounce coffee cup would need four, possibly five shots of coffee to balance the milk. When some poor overworked and underpaid barista is being forced to dump 400 millilitres of curdled tofu extract into lovingly harvested, roasted and extracted espresso, the drink is doomed before it even hits your lips.

Most quarrels customers have with cafes stem from their inability to order correctly, or to understand that asking for extra work to be done to your drink should require extra payment. “My coffee was $8!” they may remark, without revealing that the coffee in question was an extra-large strong macadamia dirty chai, bought on a public holiday, or realising that that $8 doesn’t come close to covering the cost of delivering it. When it comes to coffee, the customer isn’t always right.

Jay Clough is the creator of the industry newsletter Bureau of Eating and Drinking.

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