Wellington cafes and espresso culture
Wellington didn’t have the post-World War II influx of Mediterranean migrants that brought espresso culture to Melbourne and Sydney, so New Zealand’s capital had to invent its own.
Three names loom large: Caffe L’Affare, which started in 1989; Havana Coffee Works, in 1990; and Coffee Supreme, founded in 1993. They’re all still going (though L’Affare has different owners), and they can all claim a share of the credit for making Wellington a coffee city.
L’Affare and Havana Coffee Works have stayed close to their roots, roasting dark, rich blends and single origins that are best suited to short blacks and flat whites – “Staying true to the tried-and-true culture of espresso coffee – espresso is king,” says Havana’s master roaster Joe Stoddart. Coffee Supreme, though, has been a pioneer of sourcing specialty green coffee and roasting light for soft brewing.
Wellington cafes … what to drink
If a city is a cup of coffee, Wellington is the flat white. Australians and New Zealanders argue over who invented the flat white, but any visitor will agree that Wellington has perfected it: a robust, fruity double espresso shot, beautifully textured milk, served in a 6oz cup to get the proportion of coffee to milk just right.
That ratio holds in a takeaway, with most cafes offering 6oz paper cups – something cafes in Aussie haven’t caught on to, where takeaways tend to be big, milky and served in 8oz cups.
Black espresso in Wellington cafes is usually a darker roast than in specialty cafes in Sydney and Melbourne, though the style is still brighter and cleaner than traditional Italian espresso: in a short black you get plenty of body, some fruit up front and a nutty finish.
But there are plenty of Wellington cafes for fans of a soft brew, with roasters including Coffee Supreme, People’s Coffee and newbie Rich Coffee Roasters offering Wellingtonians lighter filter roasts.
Wellington cafes … where to go
Wellington is a city of around 200,000 people – it’s compact and walkable, with most of the cafe action centred around the city-edge neighbourhood of Te Aro and its heart, Cuba Street. “The main artery and the lifeblood of this part of town is Cuba Street,” says Cameron McClure of Rich Coffee Roasters. “You can do the city within 10 minutes if you are just walking and talking.”
So start in Cuba Street, at Floriditas (161 Cuba Street, Te Aro), an elegant restaurant/cafe that has been serving classic cafe food and great Coffee Supreme espressos for nearly 10 years. Floriditas feels like something out of the old world, with dark timber, white tiles and art deco lamps. It’s a Wellington institution.
Customs Brew Bar
Around the corner in Ghuznee Street is Coffee Supreme’s Wellington cafe showcase, Customs Brew Bar (39 Ghuznee Street, Te Aro). Customs, which opened in 2009, has a beautiful timber fit-out that gives it a warm, domestic feel. The full range of brew methods is on offer here – espresso, V60, Aeropress, Chemex and batch brews – with the full range of Coffee Supreme’s beans to try, from their classic 7:3 blend for espresso to single origins like the recent Honduras Yire and Costa Rica La Cruz for filter brews. There’s a snacky menu of toast and sandwiches, too.
Grab a table out front if the Wellington weather is kind, or huddle at the bar or a couple of small tables indoors.
Next door to Customs Brew Bar, at Milk Crate (35 Ghuznee Street, Te Aro), you’ll find brews from new Wellington roaster Rich Coffee Roasters, the latest project by Cameron McClure (who started Flat White in London) and Richie Russell (a Kiwi with 10 years’ experience roasting at London’s Monmouth Coffee).
Red Rabbit Coffee Co
A short walk north towards the CBD is Red Rabbit Coffee Co (14 Leeds Street, Te Aro) another compact space, this time packed into an old factory that has been redeveloped as a bit of a craft food destination: the neighbours include an artisan bakery, a chocolatier and a small-batch peanut butter maker. Red Rabbit roasts in-house, focusing on washed coffee: look out for clean, vibrant filter brews, particularly via Aeropress.
If you head down the lane when you’re done at Red Rabbit you’ll come to Dixon Street and Memphis Belle (38 Dixon Street, Te Aro). Second-hand furniture ranged on the little plaza outside and op-shop art on the walls inside give you a clue to the laid-back, making-it-up-as-we-go nature of the Belle, though there’s nothing made-up about the coffee. Espresso and filter brews of beans from Flight Coffee Hangar feature. Memphis Belle seems to be the spot for student lounging and other forms of urban time-killing over good coffee.
Flight Coffee Hangar
Further west on Dixon Street is Flight Coffee Hangar itself (119 Dixon Street, Te Aro), away over on the edge of Te Aro where the streets start to climb steeply up towards Victoria University. Flight Coffee is home to former New Zealand barista champ Nick Clark, and specialises in sustainably sourced green coffee.
Flight offers a range of beans and brews, including coffee from their own Helena project in Colombia. Try one of their flights – one origin presented as espresso, flat white and cold drip, or three flat whites made with different origins. (See? The flat white is Wellington’s own.)
Lamason Brew Bar
Down a laneway near the city end of Cuba Street is Lamason Brew Bar (corner of Lombard and Bond Street, Te Aro), which specialises in siphon brews of Fairtrade single origin beans from Africa and Central America roasted by People’s Coffee in the Wellington suburb of Newtown. Lamason is tucked away – a real laneway specialty coffee experience, with a few toasty-sandwichy bites and a hip soundtrack as well.
Coffee Supreme Midland Park
Right downtown you’ll find Coffee Supreme’s city retail store, Midland Park (31 Waring Taylor Street, Wellington). The only coffee to drink here is batch brew samples poured in paper cups, but it is a beautiful space to browse and buy Supreme beans, a range of brewing gear, and to take one of the free coffee-making workshops.
Havana Coffee Works
The Wellington cafe trail wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Havana Coffee Works. The big, green deco building on a Tory Street corner in Te Aro was once the Firestone Tyres HQ. Today it’s like a slice of Havana, Cuba.
The packing area in the roastery is styled like a traditional Latin American courtyard house, and the company’s offices and cupping room look down over it all from a balcony.
The cafe itself has a retro Latin feel, and the coffee is styled to match – syrupy, bright and toasty to the end.
Havan’s philosophy is summed up, in their words, as “real trade” – dealing directly with farmers to source the six tonnes of green beans they roast here every week; some comes from the Asia-Pacific neighbourhood – including a farm on the slopes of a volcano in Vanuatu.
And if you want to complete the Wellington cafe history trail, Caffe L’Affare is just around the corner at 27 College Street, Te Aro.
Wellington cafes … out of town
It would be easy to spend your time in Wellington shuttling around Te Aro, the city and the immediate surrounds, but a couple of short bus rides (or longish walks) into the inner ’burbs give a different taste of everyday life in Wellington.
Newtown is an old working-class neighbourhood that is slowly getting just a bit gentrified – there’s even a hip ramen bar. So People’s Coffee (22B Newtown Avenue, Newtown) fits in nicely, with its focus on Fairtrade and sustainable specialty coffee. Let’s call it Wellington specialty coffee with a conscience (although all specialty coffee should have that).
The People’s coffee comes from Trade Aid Importers, New Zealand’s biggest green bean broker, and is sourced from co-ops in a direct-trade relationship that ensures transparency of the supply chain – and the money trail back to the growers. The coffee is pretty delicious, too.
Further south again is Lyall Bay, a long stretch of beach that borders Wellington’s airport at one end. Just a kilometer or so west of the runway is Maranui Cafe (The Parade, Lyall Bay), a beach-side affair on the top floor of an old surf life-saving club with views out to Cook Strait.
Cafe classics come from the busy open kitchen, coffee comes from Havana Coffee Works, and on weekends it seems like half of Wellington has made the trip down for coffee and brunch at the seaside: expect to queue. #