WELLINGTON, Jan 7 — Is there any country left that isn’t crazy about coffee?
We’ve visited so many cities around the world with rich histories of brewing coffee and a thriving café culture. There are the usual suspects (Tokyo, Oslo, Melbourne and Taipei) and there are the unlikely coffee capitals (Bangkok, Munich, Cape Town and, of course, our beloved Kuala Lumpur).
Still, in all our years of café-hopping and drinking more cups of coffee than is possibly sane, no other city has quite the same vibe as Wellington. The Kiwi capital is home to (what feels like) incredibly good coffee shops along every street yet it manages to maintain a laidback vibe about the phenomenon.
As far as the Wellingtonians are concerned, there is no phenomenon. Coffee ought to be good, and it ought to be enjoyed. It’s more than a lifestyle; it’s a fact of life here.
Little wonder the city’s best baristas, coffee roasters and café owners are truly lords of the beans, as it were. Here are our four favourites, but rest assured there are oh so many more...
An eclectic brew
If you find yourself strolling along Ghuznee Street in the heart of Wellington, you’re likely to catch a whiff of freshly brewed coffee. This is not an entirely unusual event; indeed you can encounter just such a hit of caffeinated aroma almost anywhere in the world.
Yes, it can be enticing but more often than not, the promise isn’t matched by the product or the experience.
Not so if you step into Customs Brew Bar, one of the best cafés in town, as we did.
Opened in 2010, Customs Brew Bar is the flagship store of Kiwi roaster Coffee Supreme. The ambience of the café is not unlike that of a retro airport lounge, all oily woods and olive-green mosaic. The shelves are filled with eclectic bric-à-brac; the space is warm and welcoming.
Some customers even walk in barefooted, reminding us of Peter Jackson (director of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies – and possibly the most famous Kiwi in the world). Perhaps it’s a local thing?
Shod or otherwise, our feet are certainly as happy, toes tapping away in anticipation of great cuppas. Given it’s the flagship shop, we get to enjoy the full range of Coffee Supreme’s beans here, brewed however we like — V60, Chemex, SwissGold and, of course, espresso. The latter are pulled as shots on a Slayer Espresso machine.
Every cup a delight, Coffee Supreme indeed.
When we enter The Hangar, Flight Coffee’s headquarters on the corner of Willis & Dixon, we understand how its name is more than a nod to any aviation theme; this is a place where, after a cup or two, we are flying high too... on caffeine, that is.
Home to Nick Clark, the 2013 New Zealand barista champion, and Nic Rapp, the 2015 New Zealand Brewer’s Cup Champion, The Hangar is a coffee hangout with serious clout. (Again, is it any wonder Wellington is New Zealand’s de facto coffee capital?)
The menu is awash with a variety of specialty coffees — to be enjoyed as espresso or cold drip or filter (a choice of Chemex, V60 or Aeropress). Some of the beans hail from Colombia, where Flight Coffee is part of Helena, a long-term farming project to preserve rare and heirloom varieties of coffee beans.
The aviation motif continues once we realise Flight Coffee has a sibling outlet just a bit further down the road – the somewhat more hippie-ish Memphis Belle (which is not saying that The Hangar is conservative, not with its hipster-approved décor).
We allow all of it to sink in: loud music, cakes as sweet as sin, and awesome coffee, of course. It’s the Kiwi way.
A siphon symphony
This isn’t a café we’d accidentally stumble upon, to be honest. (Research pays off handsomely when we travel.) Nestled on the quiet corner of Bond and Lombard, Lamason Brew Bar has a passionate focus on the siphon coffee-making method.
Opened in 2011 by Dave Lamason, formerly Peoples Coffee’s barista trainer, the brew bar isn’t the only café in Wellington to offer siphon-brewed coffee. However, once we find it (tucked under a parking building) and enter, we begin to understand its appeal and loyal following.
Bold red window frames invite us to peer in. While there is some seating outdoors, it’s inside that we want to be, the better to see the theatrical “performance” of brewing coffee using a siphon at the bar. (Quite the symphony, really, with the gurgling of bubbles.) In fact, the bar takes up nearly the entire length of the interior.
At one end, baristas manning a three-group La Sanmarco 80’s Chrome machine take care of the orders of espressos and flat whites Kiwis are known for. It’s the other end we can’t help but investigate: a show-stopping four-siphon bank of Hario gold and wood siphons imported from Japan.
This is where the magic happens. There’s nothing quite like seeing water defy gravity thanks to the heat of the flames below, dance with coffee grounds, then sink back down through the filter into the siphon bulb. The siphon bulbs are delivered to our table for us to pour as we like into our cups.
We sip. We savour. And we slip into silent revelry: wordless yelps of astonishment and disbelief... all without betraying a thing other than serene smiles on our lips. So good.
Down the rabbit hole
There appears to be an affinity between specialty coffee and adorable, furry rabbits. At least it seems that way: we’ve visited Alice in Wonderland-inspired White Rabbit Room in Munich and a “warren” of Casa Lapin cafés in Bangkok (lapin being French for, what else, rabbit), and enjoyed beans roasted by Rabbithole Coffee in Hong Kong.
Our latest “beans and bunny” encounter is Red Rabbit Coffee Co., a café and roastery founded by Kiwi barista Steve Barrett, who had previously worked at Square Mile Coffee Roasters in Leeds, England. Red Rabbit is unassuming and unpretentious. Our kind of café.
We throw back excellent espressos courtesy of Red Rabbit’s Kees van der Westen Spirit (a customised espresso machine), one tiny cup after another. Go with their flat white if you like milk coffee with less milk and more of a kick. The filter coffee menu is nothing to sniff at either: with a trio of single origin beans and different brewing methods (Chemex, V60, or Swiss Gold), there’s a cuppa for every palate.
Roasting is done in-house; it’s hard not to notice their Probat roaster and bags of green beans at the back of the café. We can’t help but try some of the baked goodies by Leeds Street Bakery, a small artisan bakery next door. The freshly baked treats are supplied through a rather cute hole in the wall. A “rabbit hole”, yes?
Coffee is good, and we enjoy our cuppas (and our chat with the friendly baristas). Yes, we get it now: this is more than a lifestyle; this is a fact of life here.
Customs Brew Bar
39 Ghuznee St, Wellington, New Zealand
Open Mon-Fri 7:30am-4pm; Sat-Sun 8:30am-4pm
Flight Hangar Coffee
119 Dixon St, Wellington, New Zealand
Open Mon-Fri 7am-5pm; Sat-Sun 8am-5pm
Lamason Brew Bar
Corner of Bond and Lombard, Wellington, New Zealand
Open Mon-Fri 7am-4:30pm; Sat 9:30am-3pm; Sun closed
Red Rabbit Coffee Co.
Hannah Factory Laneway, Wellington, New Zealand
Open Mon-Fri 7:30am-3:30pm; Sat 8:30am-4pm; Sun closed