It’s estimated that more than two billion cups of coffee are consumed worldwide each year, and you can be certain that a large number of them are poured in Wellington – it’s not for nothing that the city bears the title 'coffee capital of New Zealand'. You don’t need to go far in downtown Wellington before you encounter one of scores of cafés, humming with caffeine-fuelled animation. It might be housed in a converted industrial workshop, parked streetside in a colourfully painted caravan or up a hidden flight of stairs, or in a soaring, architecturally designed space.
The capital is a place that generates its own energy, perhaps from its gusty breezes blowing away any mental cobwebs, or the incubator effect of the dark hills cupping its streets and harbour. The city’s compact geography – that famous Wellington 'walkability' – combined with its unpredictable weather putting a focus on having good indoor places to go, and its residents’ bold and inventive spirit and irrepressible curiosity are the wellspring of a vibrant café culture.
Don’t be deceived by Wellington’s friendly village character: world-class hospitality and cutting-edge design quickly reveal its big-city smarts. Across the city, at all hours of day and night, coffee is brewing in elegant salons like Astoria and Floriditas, funky hideouts inspired by the legendary Fidel’s, and in Mojo’s suite of sleek new coffee bars. By day, office workers and shoppers surge in and out of cafés like a tide, mingling with a steady flow of artisans, students, tradespeople, travellers and housewives. Roasting machines, variously vintage and high-tech, roar into life at regular intervals, monitored by sophisticated computer software with sensors and probes, or by the traditional means: looking, listening, smelling, tasting.
The genesis of Wellington’s coffee culture was in the 1950s and 60s, when cosmopolitan 'coffee lounges' like the Windmill, Suzy’s and French Maid sprang up, serving espressos from machines imported by Greek, Dutch and Italian immigrants. Wellingtonians, more accustomed to the genteel British traditions of tea, began to discover the new and exciting possibilities of 'proper' coffee, with its unfamiliar dark, bitter flavour and heady aromas, and its role as a social lubricant. They embraced the lively, energising daytime buzz it provided.
But the newfound passion for coffee wasn’t matched by its quality. Not until the 1980s and 90s did Wellington really begin to embrace the bean. Unlike Australia, where coffee was carried ashore by waves of European migrants throughout the 20th century, Wellington’s – and New Zealand’s – love affair with coffee largely began on home turf. An enduring romance was sparked into life by young Kiwis returning from their world travels (a tradition New Zealanders refer to as their 'big OE' or overseas experience). While away, they’d caught the coffee bug.
Home once more in Wellington, they set out to recapture the exotic flavour of the beverage and the ambience of the European cafés they’d visited on their travels. These entrepreneurial young Kiwis channelled their enthusiasm into roasteries and cafés that blended what they’d extracted from the old world with their own fresh and inventive ideas about how things might be done differently and even perhaps better. The new guard brought a pioneering spirit to the business of coffee, striving to produce a fresher product and create the perfect blend. It was through this process of experimenting and creating that New Zealand’s most famous contribution to the coffee world was born – the flat white, with its fine, silky texture and foam of small bubbles.
Cafes followed by roasters
Among the first of the coffee pioneers were Midnight Espresso and Caffe L’Affare, soon followed by the likes of Supreme, Floriditas, Fidel’s and Nikau, many still operating and some in their original premises. The cafés came first, and then came the roasters. This next stage of Wellington’s coffee revolution involved them seizing control of the means of production, roasting and grinding fresh beans themselves to guarantee the quality and freshness of the brew.
The 1980s and 90s were a golden age of coffee in Wellington. Roasting machines were imported from Europe or built from scratch inside or alongside café premises. Seeing the roasters fired up to toast the beans became part of the cafés’ attraction.
Fast forward to the 2000s, and coffee is a Wellington way of life. It’s in the city’s DNA. You can get your caffeine fix in establishments dotted throughout the downtown precinct, on busy corners, tucked down laneways and arcades, in sparkling glass towers and served from quirky carts and holes-in-the-wall kiosks.
Wellington’s hipster-driven economy is an improbably successful distillation of creatives, artisan producers and tech-savvy public servants who are addicted to the idea of collaborating and brainstorming ideas on the move and catching up and talking face to face over coffee. It quickly becomes apparent that Wellingtonians know and love their coffee – from the caffeine fiend who exactingly details all the subtle effects on coffee of terroir and provenance, to the average man or woman on the street who knows precisely what they like to drink and where to get it.
The technology can be dazzling. Cafés like Hangar and Customs Brew Bar offer caffeine geeks specialty coffees prepared by batch brewing, cold drip, Chemex, Aeropress or V60. Hangar’s customers are invited to take a “Flight” (Hangar’s brand of coffee) of three different beans served as flat whites or espresso, or try three different coffee styles from the same bean. The diminutive Hopper Street espresso bar prepares its coffee from a rare manually operated level arm machine, while its technicians roast and taste in the R&D lab out the back. Many of the cafés offer tasting notes to help customers learn more about what’s in their cup. Others happily serve the old, gold standards: flat whites, lattes, long blacks, cappuccinos and their variants.
You can watch a roaster at work while you sample their bespoke blend, linger over a mellow cup at an outdoor table, take an introductory course in barista skills, hear all about a café proprietor’s family trip to Central America to stay with their coffee growers, and buy the grounds you like to take home. The dishes listed on menus are invariably sourced fresh from local suppliers, and mostly prepared and cooked onsite.
Another part of what makes Wellington’s coffee story so special is the sense of community of its cafés. While largely independently owned and fiercely competitive, they are also mutually supportive. Chains and franchises struggle to get a foothold in the city. The coffee community also holds its own on the world stage. Baristas take regular honours at international events, and café owners and staff are frequent participants on judging panels and at educational seminars, sharing their knowledge and continuing to build their own knowledge about the business of good coffee.
Whereas Wellington’s early coffee adopters ventured overseas, harnessed what they found and refashioned it to their own ideas, the coffee businesses are now taking what they’ve learned and developed back out to the wider world, travelling to the coffee growers and setting up projects with farms and suppliers. Through the personal relationships they form on the other side of the globe, they nurture sustainable practices and support fair trade. They’re building human connections at the same time as they’re trialling new beans and growing methods, preserving heirloom varieties and promoting biodiversity. And when they come home, they pass on to their customers what they’ve learned, not just about coffee, but about the people they’ve met living and working in those distant places.
It’s a global coffee circuit, with Wellington firmly pinned on the map as the place where visitors and locals returning home alike declare, “It’s so good to be able to get a good coffee!”
Top 10 for coffee
- Customs Brew Bar
- Hopper Street