Growing up as an American, I had a very specific view on cafe culture, one well portrayed on the big screen with oversized, complicated drink orders, an overabundance of disposable cups, and a wifi connection so good you could easily turn your tiny cafe table into your own personal office space. I knew nothing about New Zealand coffee.
I quickly learned there were basically two types of coffee: sugary, complicated drinks I didn’t understand or drip coffee from a pot that had been sitting on warmer for 4 hours that tastes like ash.
Although I thought of myself as a true coffee lover, I had no idea what I was in for the first time I tried to order coffee in New Zealand. I ordered a cappuccino and when asked whether I wanted chocolate or cinnamon on top, I said neither because I thought I’d be charged extra.
Over the past few years, I’ve come to cherish New Zealand coffee which has come to be an identifying thread in the fabric of the country, even working full time at a cafe in Wanaka. Here are some handy tips for those of you navigating the unique cafe scene in New Zealand – don’t mess it up!
1. Espresso is king
I thought I was a fancy coffee drinker before coming to New Zealand because I had used a French Press before and I even knew someone who had a Chemex. I came to New Zealand and asked for a coffee and was met with a blank stare. Drip coffee hardly exists in New Zealand and there are a million types of espresso drinks so of course, my request for a coffee was confusing. (Tip: the closest you’ll get to drip coffee is an Americano which is espresso diluted with a lot of hot water.)
Unlike drip coffee where the beans are soaked in hot water, espresso is the method of extracting coffee through tightly compacted, finely ground coffee beans with very hot water and extreme pressure. This means the flavor is usually strong and bold and will give you a real kick in the pants after a sip.
Short black, long black, short macchiato, americano, long macchiato, flat white, latte, cappuccino, mochaccino, piccolo, affogato, and vienna are all common espresso drinks. In New Zealand, most drinks are double shot and the variation of the drinks come from the milk (or water) quantities and milk texture. If you don’t know what you’re getting, asking your barista. They will be happy to explain the difference between their New Zealand coffee selections.
2. It’s all about quality, not quantity
In New Zealand, a shorter drink is a stronger drink so the hearty coffee lovers pride themselves in drinking out miniature cups that look like they were made for woodland elves. They frown upon mucking up a drink with too many ingredients and most will stick to the espresso base, milk/water, maybe sugar and very rarely syrup.
Fun fact: Because all of the espresso drinks start with the same coffee shot, all of the coffees have the same amount of caffeine in them. So, ordering a larger size coffee will not get you more caffeinated!
If you want an extra kick, order a few more shots of espresso in your drink.
3. Cafes are the epicenter of social hour
Unlike North America, New Zealand has truly stayed true to its British roots by placing the utmost importance on tea time and social hour. Morning and afternoon tea are routine events for most Kiwis even though it usually has nothing to do with tea at all. Every day around 10 am and 3 pm, Kiwis take a break from their work day and treat themselves to a hot beverage and snack often with their friends or family.
The act of getting coffee in a cafe is almost as important as the coffee itself. And the cafe game is strong in New Zealand, especially in quirky cities like Wellington and Dunedin.
New Zealand is still slow to catch on to the wifi cafe culture and Kiwis tend to like it that way. The cafe is a social gathering to be spent with others, not a place to be glued to your laptop for six hours. In fact, most cafes still won’t even offer wifi to their guests to preserve the culture and to lightly encourage their customers not to linger too long.
4. Every place has an expensive espresso machine
The waiting room in the dentist office? The dodgy petrol station down the road? The liquor store?
It seems like every establishment in New Zealand has some extravagant form of espresso readily available. While I can’t vouch for it being the best coffee in the world, massive kudos to the small shops serving up fresh brew in the most random places.
You often have to try to find bad New Zealand coffee here.
5. New Zealand cafes favor minimal waste
The cafe culture in New Zealand is not one that looks kindly on take away cups. Sure, you can get a takeaway coffee pretty much anywhere but most Kiwis tend to prefer to enjoy their coffee in a real cup, especially since most takeaway cups around the world ACTUALLY aren’t recyclable.
If you do have to take your coffee on the go, cafes highly encourage their customers to bring in their own reusable takeaway cup. In fact, some cafes will even offer a discount if you bring in your own cup!
High fives for saving the planet and caffeinating the world!
Two of my favorite glass reusable cups are Sol Cups locally based out of Bondi in Sydney and Joco Cups; they are so cute. And once you go reusable, it’s hard to accept paper cups.
6. Flat whites are the national drink
While not officially true, flat whites are perhaps the most popular coffee drink in New Zealand.
This drink is roughly 1/3 espresso an 2/3 steamed milk with minimal foam. This is the drink you order if you’re just looking for some excellent latte art.
The exact origins of the flat white remain a mystery with Australia and New Zealand both laying claims to fame on the creamy, milky beverage. Add this to the mix along with Russel Crowe and pavlova for controversial and polarizing New Zealand/Australia conversation topics.
7. Cafes know how to do food
Sure, New Zealand cafes are mostly about the coffee but they can definitely hold their own when it comes to food too.
Seriously, New Zealand knows how to do a damn good brunch.
Because of the small size of the country, a lot of food is relatively locally sourced. Also, there seems to be no bigger crime than buying non-cage free eggs so pretty much every cafe is guaranteed to have delicious eggs with healthy orange yolks. New Zealand is also well onto the gluten-free and vegan/vegetarian trends so there are plenty of food options to those who have a restrictive diet.
Between the epic coffee culture and delicious cafe scene, New Zealand is a good spot for those who love to a good cup of coffee.
Are you a big New Zealand coffee fan too? Where’s your favorite cafe? Love coffee culture too? Share!
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