Sprudge.com co-founder and editor Jordan Michelman recently visited New Zealand as a speaker for the 2013 New Zealand Speciality Coffee Association Symposium. He spent some quality time touring cafes in Auckland and Wellington, and took heaps of photos and notes along the way. Enjoy our Auckland cafe guide here, and dig in below for a Welly walkabout.
Wellington’s cool coffee scene is no secret, and Sprudge has experienced it previously through the eyes of World Brewers Cup champion Erin McCarthy, who visited in 2013. But on my own trip to New Zealand for the 2013 NZSCA Symposium in Auckland, I jumped at the chance to hop a quick flight south to Welly’s infamously windy airport for a few more days of NZ Barista Guild talks and general exploring.
What I found there was a place of almost indescribable beauty. In the photos to come in this feature, please keep in mind that hovering just beyond the urban skyline of Wellington’s downtown is a great expanse of verdantly green mountains and windswept bays. It’s breathtaking in the same way parts of the American Pacific Northwest are breathtaking, except there are prehistoric lizards and flightless birds here, and a palpable feeling of being at the very bottom of the world. This is a feature about cafes in a city, but that’s just one small part of the overall Wellington experience. It is one of the most astonishingly beautiful places I’ve had the pleasure of visiting.
It’s also thoroughly modern, stylish and chic in the same way somewhere like San Francisco can be, where layers are the order of the day and the elements seem to play a constant role in whatever you’re up to. It’s created a city of cafes with different uses, a willingness to hang out outside in all manner of weather, and a homey, familiar intimacy between the city’s baristas and the wider community. No matter how brief your stay might be, that this would be an absolutely wonderful place to live. All five of the excellent cafes on this list are within easy walking distance of each other; how’s THAT for a quality of life index?
New Zealand is well into its third decade of great coffee, sparked in the early 1990s by a vanguard led by Coffee Supreme and others. In 2014, Wellington continues to lead the way, with a steady flow of homegrown talent making the trip to London, Melbourne, and beyond to soak up other cultures, before taking them back home and making them Kiwi. Or maybe it’s the other way around? Without Wellington, there might not be a modern Melbourne or London coffee scene, or at least it would be vastly different than the one that exists now.
More and more you’re seeing coffee enthusiasts and professionals from around the world who seek out Wellington as a training ground, a destination, and a place from which to nick ideas. In its own unassuming, humble, out-of-the-way sort of way, Wellington is one of a handful of major coffee destinations on the planet. And if it takes a bit longer to get there, all the better.
Flight Coffee Hangar
171 – 177 Willis St
They are killing the game up on the top of Dixon Street at Flight Coffee Hangar, the cafe your average American coffee nerd wants to visit most in Wellington. Nick Clark, Richard Corney & crew are rightfully being looked to as part of New Zealand’s next generation of top coffee professionals, but there’s no angry young man vibe here–coffee at Flight is a joyful thing, something to be celebrated, and if the music’s great and the gear is cool, then all the better.
Flight’s home to a Slayer Espresso machine, their pride and joy, as well as manual brewing options like Chemex, V60, and Aeropress. They’re also set to become home to New Zealand’s first AlphaDominche Steampunk coffee brewing apparatus, set to be unveiled this coming weekend at Caffeination Wellington.
I ate often at Flight during my time in Wellington, and was consistently impressed by the food. Chef Lisa Craig oversees a menu committed to seasonal, local fare, with damn good eggs and toast on one end, and an elegant pan-seared salmon fillet on the other. Many options are gluten-free and vegan. The Hangar’s food menu is integrated and executed in a way that would be front page news in North America, and here it’s on par with anything you’ll find in Melbourne’s nexus of food & coffee options. If you’re using this guide as a traveler, dining at Flight Coffee Hangar is highly recommended.
Coffees at Flight are roasted by Megan Barker, a Kiwi whose previous work includes Artisan Roast based in Edinburgh. Offerings here are smartly limited: a good Kenyan, a tasty washed Yirgacheffee, a surprising dynamic Brazil, plus the brand’s revered Bomber Espresso blend. But don’t accuse Flight of playing it safe; they’re also two years into a restoration project at Helena, Flight Coffee’s own proprietary farm in the Risaralda Department of Colombia. Spearheaded by Matt Graylee from Flight, Helena is a longtime commitment to transforming a commodity grade farm in Colombia into “a super specialty haven“, the fruits of which are already arriving in Wellington.
With its close-knit staff of friends and colleagues, and no shortage of expectations from the wider New Zealand coffee community, you get that palpable sense that Flight could very well be one of those “bellwether cafes”–a place of tremendous importance to the next decade of specialty coffee in Wellington, New Zealand, and beyond. The sky’s the limit for what comes next.
38 Dixon St
Part of the Flight Coffee family, Memphis Belle has a prime location in the heart of Dixon Street, and a charmingly cluttered, fun aesthetic. Espresso service happens here on a classic Faema E61 espresso machine, complemented by one of Wellington’s top brew bars featuring V60, Chemex, siphon and SwissGold brew method options.
The space just *feels* like Wellington, with big street-facing windows and a cluster of sidewalk seating out front. This is a lovely perch from which to watch Wellington go wandering past on a blustery, grey day.
The cafe’s interior is packed with tchotkes and visual treats, from paintings to sugar bowl china to posters, painting, magazines, and much more. I enjoyed a superior macchiato here, served in an Acme & Co. bone white cup on mint green plate.
In other hands the space might feel thrown together, but here the overall effect is what folks think of when they say “shabby chic”–vintage store finds, so-ugly-they’re-cute accoutrements, and an interior that encourages familiarity over cold distance or pretentiousness. Memphis Belle is much-loved by locals in Wellington, and for good reason.
One of my favorite things about Memphis Belle was the kind internal narrative played out on the cafe’s chalkboards, mounted around the shop’s ceilings. Between polite exhortations to like the shop on Facebook, there are running inside jokes like “You mum taught John English” and “King Eddy”, whomever he is.
Looking for the Kiwi coffee zeitgeist distilled into one bit of graffiti’d cheek? “World War II is over! We can all buy heaps of coffee!”
Customs Brew Bar
39 Ghuznee St
Upon opening in 2010, Customs Brew Bar set a very high bar indeed for others cafes in Wellington. This is a serious cafe, making professional coffee with a dexterity and intent on par with anything you’ll find in Melbourne, London, or New York City. It is also utterly good-looking, and able to execute visually on an overarching theme. From the departures and arrivals board to the collection of knick-knacks from around the world (the Ethiopian Coca-Cola, the Stumptown Cold Brew stubbie), this place is a like a mid-century airline lounge, all class and travel, olive and wood. It echoes coffee’s inherent sensibility of internationalism, but also the very Kiwi sensibility of being at the very bottom corner of the world, and determined to see the rest of it.
Espresso service happens here on a Slayer Espresso machine, with beautiful custom wooden feet made by the deeply talented customization crew at Coffee Supreme. [For more on Supreme design, check out our Auckland cafes feature, which includes their Good One and Supreme Seafarers locations.]
A cluster of tables entertains the front entryway on Ghuznee Street, and a large communal table dominates the space’s entryway, but it’s the cafe’s back two-seat table that captured my heart.
Like a professorial teacher’s lounge or a modern man’s rumpus room, this nook is transportive, all done up in wood paneling and and vinyl. It’s likely the best seat in the house for coffee anywhere in Wellington.
Drink coffee here! Coffee Supreme are sourcing and roasting some of the loveliest coffee in this part of the world, and they’ve been doing it for 21 years now, which is like bloody eons in coffee time. The company’s roster of fine coffees is on full display at Customs, paired to a variety of brew methods including V60, SwissGold, Chemex, and espresso. There’s something for everyone here, and the little details pile up into something much greater than its parts. Surely one of New Zealand’s very best cafes.
14 Jessie St
Oh, lovely Prefab, how very impressed we were with you. This is one of Wellington’s big city cafes, home to great coffee and much more by way of the shop’s robust food, pastry, and retail program, the latter happening under the Acme & Co. banner. Acme’s portfolio is highly diverse, including everything from teaspoons to barstools, clearskin wines to Hexomatic pens. They’re perhaps most well-known for their tasteful line of cups and plates, whose restrained (typically Kiwi) descriptors like “green” and “blue” belie deep pastel shades of robin’s egg, seafoam, azul and mint. The company also owns its own olive grove, in Marlborough, and produces its own olive oil. It is a top drawer line of products.
And the cafe? We say “big city” because you can feel a sense of urgency and bustle at Prefab, though the chaos is well-patrolled by the shop’s attentive staff and table service model. Acme is also, and perhaps above all, a coffee roaster, and the process happens onsite on the cafe’s Coffee Tech copper drum roaster. Espresso service runs through the shop’s trusty three group La Marzocco Linea espresso machine, serviced by two Mazzer Robur E grinders. Filter coffee is via a two-pot Technivorm Moccamaster, the likes of which you’re unlikely to see in North America–the Dutch manufacturers at Technivorm only make this model in 220 volts.
Long, shared tables, four-tops, and bar seating provide ample space for guests, but the place is still mashed at meal times, likely owing to Prefab’s deep roster of tasty food options. Breads, pastries, and even pizzas are made in-house, as are sodas, burger and hot dog buns, and bratwursts. The shop’s beer and wine is a series of good choices, and one can, each and every day, select from a number of delicious toast and toppings options. You almost can’t say enough good things.
I visited on a grey day, but the cafe does offer plenty of outdoor seating for guests, and on those nice days in the New Zealand summertime–you know, in January–one imagines the patio is a place to see and be seen. You keep hearing about Wellington as one of the world’s great undersold capitals of design and culture? This place feels like that.
Corner of Lombard and Bond Street
Siphons take front stage at Lamason, an understated cafe considered by Wellington locals to be among their city’s very best. A labratory-like four-burner siphon that one Wellington blogger described as “The Apparatus” dominates the cafe’s front bar, and while lots of coffee styles are served here–other filter brew methods, espresso–you sort of can’t help but order a siphon pot and settle in.
Coffee here at Lamason is by Peoples Coffee, a local Wellington roaster little-known outside of New Zealand. The cafe has a decidedly industrial, sparse design aesthetic, with cool choices throughout like a rustic copper boiler water dispenser, a well-loved store copy of the Peoples Coffee Barista Handbook, and an incredible oversized newsprint on “Coffee Machines And How To Use Them”.
Like Flight Coffee Hangar and Memphis Belle, Lamason was featured in a recent CNN “8 Of The World’s Best Coffee Cities” list, not bad for what is essentially a neighborhood coffee-nerd bar with minimal web presence. Service during my visit was a bit brusque, but then again, at the end of an all-day Wellington coffee crawl I may have well been noticeably vibrating. Coffee bars with a real dedication to siphon service are something of a dying breed here back in North America, so it’s a treat to visit places like Lamason where the method is a focal point.
As a sixth entry to this list of five, let us recommend you to one of Wellington’s newest and best cafes, Red Rabbit Coffee Company. Red Rabbit was profiled extensively in a feature on Sprudge that ran in December 2013, but they should definitely considered a must-visit entry on any researched Wellington coffee list.
This post was updated on March 20th to more accurately depict the copper water dispenser at Lamason, Also, the original version of this story inaccurately identified the large flightless stuffed bird on Dixon Street as an emu, when it is in fact a moa.