ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 / Features

Coffee love in Wellington

There's history, culture - and a smokin' hot brew - in a cup in Wellington

Will Macpherson

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An intriguing aspect of Australia's oft-charming parochialism is the need for the big cities - particularly Melbourne and Sydney - to adorn themselves with self-penned monikers. A year spent living in Melbourne threw a few of these at me. Perhaps it's because neither is the actual capital but normally these titles involve the words "Australian capital of…" (see Melbourne: Australian capital of culture) or, if the city really rates itself at something, "international capital of" (see Melbourne: International capital of sport). No doubt many Melburnians would blush at such self-aggrandisement but, more often than not, there's a case to be made.

I found this particularly salient with regard to the bold claim "Melbourne: capital of coffee", which actually whirred between international and Australian capital, depending on who you spoke to. There's no two ways about it, though: Melbourne's coffee is excellent. A healthy culture has been fostered, which means that if a cafe serves poor coffee, it simply won't survive. Jeez, even the latte at McDonald's is pretty tasty. Melbourne played coffee cupid for me: I arrived a European who enjoyed it for functional reasons - social or the morning pick-me-up - and departed a mild obsessive, interested in the process of production, the passion of baristas and on the hunt for the best in town.

I've found just one rival for Melbourne's claims to its throne: Wellington. I spent three days people-watching and cafe-hopping ("working") in sunny Wellington earlier last year and left a very satisfied - if slightly over-caffeinated and certainly fully-brunched - punter.

Let's take a wander around the history, smells, tastes, colours and hot spots of the Kiwi capital's marvellous coffee scene. The locals, like the Melburnians, have plenty to boast about as the city has every coffee base covered: beautiful blends, artisan roasteries, the hole in the wall, the coffee cart and cafes old and new.

First, a brief history of it all, which isn't so much a story of Wellington and coffee as Wellington and its cafe culture and culinary habits. First, with the arrival of English settlers, tea rooms were all the rage. With US troops in the city in the 1930s, tea rooms were replaced by milk bars as the hangout of choice. An influx of European immigrants and Jewish refugees in the '50s brought coffee houses, which stayed open until the early hours, and the coffee was mainly cona in style, bubbling away in a glass bowl, but you'd find some espresso and instant coffee too.

In the 1970s, for various reasons, including the arrival of televisions in every home, relaxed liquor laws and thus a rise in the number of restaurants, the coffee scene nose-dived. But by the late 1980s, they were back on the rise in the city - as they were across the USA and UK - but with a new feel. They were no longer just places for the liberal and artistic; proprietors were often educated and middle class. Fast-forward a quarter of a century and this scene is as vibrant as anywhere in the world; there's an espresso machine at every turn, world class baristas are two-a-penny and cafes and coffee are as ingrained in the culture of the city as rugby or the vicious winds.

First up, we're heading right into the heart of the city and to my favourite of Wellington's coffee hangouts: Customs Brew Bar on Ghuznee Street. This place is just great on a sunny day - they plant long tables and benches outside - but the simple, light, '70s-style kitchen, wood-on-white interior is charming, too. They have huge windows, a record player, free WiFi and plain wooden furniture. The result is a place that you'd happily sit alone - to work, to watch the regulars flit in and out - or sit with friends, chewing the cud and trading tales.

Either way, it's all about the coffee (there's a small amount of counter food, too) and, unsurprisingly, it's excellent: Customs is the flagship store of well-known local company Coffee Supreme and they have a whole host of brewing methods (including NOF, which I hadn't seen before: coffee brewed using no filter), superb Kenyan and Brazilian blends and detailed tasting notes to guide your nose and please your palate. The low counter means there are no secrets - nothing is beyond the reach of prying eyes, and the heavily hipstered baristas are a pleasure to watch at work. You'll want to be upping your own hipster game, too: either side of this little gem are an art gallery and book shop for your perusal when you're all coffeed out.

For our second spot, we're staying in the trendy central suburb of Te Aro and going just one street over to Dixon St and Memphis Belle. This is a cool, cosy corner cafe with floor-to-ceiling windows and, as the name suggests, decor that evokes the Southern states of the USA with mismatched mid-century tables, chairs, stools and sofas and lots of deep reds, browns and leathers. No two seats are the same and there's also seating outside, although you're right next to a tiny lawn and some public toilets and opposite an establishment called "Dreamgirls" (I'll let you work that one out). The atmosphere is extremely convivial and they serve Flight Coffee, another outstanding Wellington brand, the baristas are the friendliest I met in the city and the Antipodean favourite flat white (basically a latte with a bit more silkiness and a lot more personality) is the best I've had anywhere.

The cafe itself and Flight Coffee have won heaps of awards - you can also check them out and their flagship store Flight Coffee Hangar at 171-177 Willis St, where they have a mix of high benches and stools and low tables and booths, the same excellent coffee and pies and salads on the food menu. The hangar is high up and moonlights as a cocktail bar. Just like Coffee Supreme, Flight brew their coffee in all manner of wonderful ways: syphon, chemex, v60 and the rest. You want it, they can do it. Fortunately, they can strip it right back to basics too, if that's your bag.

We're not walking far again, as we're off to Cuba Street. Why is one of the main streets in the middle of New Zealand's capital named after a communist Caribbean island, I hear you ask? Well it's not really. Cuba Street is named after a settler ship that landed in Wellington in 1840. Either way, we're headed to a cafe with the most Cuban of names: Fidel's. Be warned: this place is very popular and fills up, especially at brunch-time (whatever that means) on the weekend. The decor is Latin American, the staff super-trendy and there's a real buzz about the place that means it's not necessarily the best place to sit alone, although there's a covered garden that is cosy, even in winter.

The coffee and food are superb; the brunch menu is extensive but excellent: try the Cuban burrito or the bacon butty, which is jazzed up by the inclusion of BBQ sauce, cheese and an egg; serious stuff. They're open until late and have a pizza and dinner menu that oozes attitude (try the Jamaican Jerk Chicken or the Pulled Pork and Dirty Rice) - and even a window coffee stall and counter food - delicious pastries and sandwiches - if you haven't got the time to stop. Coffee-wise, I returned to my staple long black and it was superb. A must, must visit.

Still on Cuba Street is Midnight Espresso, a vegan cafe that closes for just 4.5 hours a day - between 3am-7.30am. I didn't sample a main meal (looks excellent) but the scone I had with my coffee (also delicious) was scrumptiously fluffy. The window benches are perfect for solo diners/sippers to take in busy Cuba Street as it runs past. As a side, if you're looking to take a break from your caffeine overload, head to Ekim, a quirky burger van opposite Fidel's where, to identify whose burger belongs to who they'll ask your favourite cartoon character. Sit and soak up the summer sun, the burgers are excellent and the atmosphere is one of wonderfully organised chaos.

Anyway, we need to get back on the coffee straight and narrow. And where better to head for that than a place that calls itself Wellington's oldest roasters, Caffe L'Affare. Just a few blocks from the Basin Reserve, this place has it covered: they supply their coffee to 250 cafes all over the country, sell it in supermarkets and present it in beautiful packaging with art deco-inspired art work. They even provide barista courses (not just in Wellington but Auckland and Christchurch, too) if you really fancy getting to the heart of the scene. The cafe itself is vast, a little dark with tables high and low and a bustling atmosphere. The menu is straightforward but well done and the coffee, well, what do you reckon? It's excellent.

The final stop on our tour takes in a spot slightly different from the rest. In Wellington, you know you're never far from the sea - the wind does that - but at Maranui Café at Lyall Bay, it's unmistakable: you're right on the water. The other spots on this list were very much downtown but the Maranui is a little further afield. It's worth it for the views out over the bay alone but the multi-coloured cafe, set upstairs at a Surf Life Saving Club, is an absolute treat. The stairs are lined with old surfing photos and the bannisters are kayak paddles. This feels like a place straight out of Newport beach and you can sit at the colourful tables and chairs inside or out. Their coffee is made by Havana Coffee Roasters, another local bunch who have been around since the '80s and can be found all over the city.

Enjoy Wellington: international capital of coffee!

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