There’s an old saying that an army marches on its stomach. Wellington’s urbane army of creatives, techies, politicos and office workers is fuelled instead by coffee. You won’t find these foot soldiers marching in formation, but you will see them stepping out in force to refuel at their dearest and/or nearest café.
Dug in between hills and harbour, the capital can be easily conquered on foot – and lining the way are scores of cafés in dozens of different guises, dispensing Wellington’s special blend of coffee and hospitality. Coffee is without a doubt the capital’s social and commercial lubricant, and you can gain great insights into what makes it tick by taking a self-guided walking tour of downtown and waterside cafés, diverting as you please to explore the many interesting sights and shops.
Nothing but classy
The city’s edgy architectural style is reflected in its café spaces. Many are a pleasure to visit as much for their visual interest as for the coffee they serve. Any time of the day and well into evening, cafés are ideal places to watch the capital go about its business and pleasure.
Wellington workers characteristically escape their counters and desks to conduct at least some of their meetings over coffee, while students and parents regularly assemble for a caffeine and sanity check. By afternoon and during weekends, the sea of suits and pumping atmosphere gives way to more relaxed gatherings and a mellow, unhurried vibe.
Set back from Lambton Quay across diminutive Midland Park, Astoria is a central city landmark and a good starting point for a coffee tour. Its antiqued walls and outdoor tables suggest it has been lifted straight out of Eastern Europe, but the building actually began life as a police carpark and the ambience is entirely the product of its owners’ imagination.
Here, visitors to the city can observe the locals at close quarters, as many of Astoria’s regulars live in apartments or work in offices nearby.
Although Wellington’s coffee scene is constantly evolving, Astoria sticks with the standards: flat whites, lattes, cappuccinos, long blacks. There’s no latte art here, they’re too busy pouring coffee to have time for decorative flourishes.
No lack of Mojo here
Across from Astoria on the waterfront, at heritage-listed Shed 13, the Mojo HQ and Roastery has its doors thrown wide open to interested passers-by throughout the day. Mojo is one of Wellington – and New Zealand’s – biggest business success stories, opening more than 25 cafés since 2003, including one in Japan. The capital has 18 of the outlets, at locations ranging from the airport and Wellington Zoo to office-tower lobbies and inside the Old Bank Arcade.
While each café is individually architecturally designed and uniquely interesting, the coffees are blended to uniform ‘prescriptions’: Dr Mojo’s Medicine, Dr Mojo’s Feelgood and The Injection. You can take the cure at Waterfront Mojo, adjacent to the roastery, or wander along the harbour’s edge to the newly refurbished Clyde Quay wharf, where the brand’s newest incarnation, Poneke, brews ‘soft’ single origins in a Steampunk machine.
Over the bridge
Alternatively, cross the ‘big bridge’ at the lagoon to the Civic Centre, where Nikau is discreetly tucked into a corner of Wellington City Art Gallery. Good coffee is complemented here by simple, thoughtful, seasonal food, stylishly served either indoors or in a sunny rooftop courtyard.
Nikau is one of the legacy sites for Wellington’s coffee scene, along with perennial favourites like Midnight Espresso, Fidel’s, Floriditas, Havana, and none are showing any signs of losing their vitality with age.
An oldie but a goodie
A little further afield is another Wellington institution, Caffe L’Affare, on College Street, a short diversion from Courtenay Place. Established 25 years ago on its present site, opposite the celebrated grocery providore Moore Wilson’s, L’Affare is a well-oiled machine, with upwards of 70 staff serving about 150,000 coffees a year.
One stalwart of the open-plan kitchen, affectionately known as Paul the Poacher, reckons he’s poached at least a million eggs in his 11 years there.
Do it yourself
The proliferation of artisan roasters – the capital is thought to have as many as several dozen roasteries – has had a big influence on Wellington’s coffee culture. Heading back towards the city centre past Cuba Mall, Emporio in Abel Smith Street is an intimate café serving craft coffee from a drum roaster visible behind the front counter.
The business was an inevitable progression for its husband and wife operators, who earlier established Arabica café in Grey Street (where it is still going strong). Ultimately, they decided they wanted to roast coffee and not just brew it.
Like many Wellington café proprietors and roasters, Emporio trades directly with its farmers and invests in the production side of the business – to the extent that these owners have taken a family trip, with their teenaged children, to Nicaragua to meet and work alongside one of the growers who supplies their beans (July 2015).
Trend-setting Hangar on the corner of Willis and Dixon Streets, and its roastery Flight Coffee, are home to a crew of self-declared coffee nerds. The three owners (barista, espresso machine technician and auto engineer) set up whiteboards to design the interior, merging the former carpark’s industrial origins – the concrete floor has the original vehicle turntable and painted parking spaces – with a cool retro look and feel.
Hangar takes an innovative approach to coffee, experimenting with lighter-than-conventional roasts, cold drips and batch brewing.
You can similarly step out of your caffeine comfort zone at cafés like Neo (Willis Street), Lamason Brew Bar (corner of Lombard and Bond Streets), Customs Brew Bar (Ghuznee Street) and Prefab (Jessie Street), each of them offering fresh and modern interpretations of coffee and coffee-inspired hospitality.
Try one or try them all – however you take your coffee, you’ll be certain of having a spring in your step.