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The wrong city moaned about not being in the world top 50
God save the King. The King is dead.
New Zealand’s self crowned King of coffee was taken back to reality after being excluded from an arbitrary list of the top 50 global coffee cities.
The list showcased the best cities in the world to experience coffee. And shock, Wellington wasn’t on it.
The response from the City was swift and emphatic:
Wellington has long claimed to be the capital city of coffee, but is that really the case? Or was Wellington’s utterly predictable and contemptible reaction clouded by memories of the past?
We dug deep to look at what makes a great coffee city and asked coffee roasters, brewers and drinkers from around the motu (islands) which city should be the most aggrieved at missing out on the top 50.
The problem with Wellington? It’s you - the consumer.
Wellington was once at the leading edge of the New Zealand coffee scene.
In the late 90’s, early 2000s, Wellington’s baristas and roasters, fresh from OEs in Melbourne and London, were filled with hot ideas and even hotter coffee.
Back then Wellington was the New Zealand coffee scene - a pioneer in bringing the third wave of coffee to the country.
On the back of L’affare, Mason, Clerks and Fidels, the likes of Memphis Belle, Customs, Lamasons were all pushing the envelope with their offerings. Chemex coffee, NOF (remember ‘no filter’ coffee?? what a time to be alive), syphon coffee and Alpha Dominche Steampunk coffee were new and exciting, and showed the country what coffee could be.
You could describe Wellington’s coffee scene as pioneering, adventurous, cool.
The increased quality of coffee meant other baristas and cafes had to lift their game to compete. Before long, it was impossible to get a bad coffee in the city.
Things started to change, partly because of COVID, but the writing was on the wall before then. Filter coffee takes time to prepare, and people want their flat white and scone combo quick. So, instead of continuing to push innovation, Wellington cafes consolidated and focused on consistently good, (mostly) quick coffee through espresso-based drinks.
Wellington cafes are providing what the people (namely public servants, students and artists) want - quality and consistency. Innovation has been replaced by reliability, familiarity, and coffee auto-pilot.
Don’t be mistaken, the coffee is still good and it’s still hard to find a bad coffee in Wellington. Mojo, Supreme, Flight Coffee and Swimsuit provide friendly and reliable spots, where you get the same experience and quality. That’s important.
And other places like Cafe New Chapter, Mojo’s The Beanery and Franks, are leading the charge with consistently great coffee, showcasing their skills as baristas, but also as hosts who create an experience and aim to uplift people’s knowledge and understanding of coffee.
But ‘consistently good’ coffee does not a world-leading coffee city make, and despite the amazing work of Frank, Logan and Long, they alone cannot carry the city to greatness.
What is missing?
What takes a good coffee city and elevates it to a destination, worthy of travelling across the world (or motu) for? Innovation, courage and money.
With few noteworthy exceptions, Wellington cafes are basically like McDonalds - the same. The same feel, the same coffee, the same service, the same reliability. It doesn’t matter where you go.
In great coffee cities, there is a wider range of experiences. From the feel and vibe of a cafe, the coffee and methods of preparation, through to the background of barista.
This lends itself to more innovation, as cafes try to make a point of difference where consumers take enough notice to stop and spend their money.
That takes courage, as it’s a gamble to set yourself up like that, and risk getting it wrong.
It also takes money, not only to invest in creating something special, but also cashed-up customers willing to pay for what they are receiving.
Cities like London, Melbourne, Auckland have all of these qualities, and that is why they offer a very different coffee experience to the one Wellington now offers.
Wellington had this, but to survive, they’ve had to do what all businesses should do - listen to their customers and provide what they want (and the customer is always right afterall). But at what cost?
What do the experts say?
I asked coffee industry experts from all over the country to lean in and provide me with their reaction to the article and to tell me who they thought the King of coffee in New Zealand was. Here’s what they had to say.
Ex-Wellington Barista: “What is Wellington doing to keep the Wellington scene exciting, fresh and accessible? [Wellington] is boring, old news, tired and tired looking cafes and in my personal opinion is in need of a fresh wind in their sales.”
North Island Roaster: “I would say personally that we all should not be shocked that one of our cities didn’t make the top 50 in the world. As always we bat above our weight but I think since we invented the flat white, in the last 10 years nz coffee has in large stagnated and not kept up with the a lot of other countries. This is not entirely our fault as our population size works against us but there is still a very old school taste for coffee in the general population.”
North Island Roaster: “I'm surprised that Wellington isn't on there to be honest…Wellington to me is probably NZ’s largest coffee city. Debatable for best coffee city though 🤣.”
Auckland Barista and Roaster: “Oh mate that's such a hard question. I reckon it’s a toss up between Auckland And Welly now. You'd be hard pressed to find terrible coffee in most places in both cities.”
New Zealand coffee legend: “It’s all on social media numbers. Such stupid journalism…[But] I reckon Auckland [holds the crown]😬”
Current Wellington Barista: “I can't think why wellington should be on that list. A couple decent roasters, a couple descent shops and only a handful of truly excellent spots. Coffee culture here is truly lacking.”
If not Wellington, then who?
It hurts to say it, but it’s clear that Auckland hold the crown as New Zealand’s best coffee city.
Innovation, courage and money - Auckland has all three.
They also have an influx of new Kiwis, who are bringing their mad coffee skills that have been honed on the streets and in the cafes of Tokyo, Seoul and Paris. They are bringing new techniques, cool cafe experiences, and amazing new coffees from all over the world.
Take lower Queen Street as just one example. Within a few hundred metres you have Rumours Cafe, The EOS, Kokako - all providing amazing specialty coffee, with amazingly technical baristas, with an experience that you usually see in Monocle Magazine.
And they were just the ones I made it to during lunch. There’s more - just as Matt wrote about in his perfect day out in Auckland.
The Auckland coffee scene is pioneering, adventurous, cool - the things Wellington used to be.
If anyone in Aotearoa should be upset about not being in the top 50, its Tamaki Makaurau.
Wellington - keep doing you
I love the Wellington coffee scene, exactly for the reasons why its not at the bleeding edge. It’s reliable. It’s cosy. It’s familiar. It’s everything I want out of a city that I called home for two decades.
Judging by the reaction to the top 50, Wellington coffee drinkers feel the same.
Sprinkled across the familiar, are genuine pockets of greatness - New Chapter continues to take the coffee experience to a new level; The Beanery has an amazing coffee offering and one of the best coffee communicators in the scene; and Franks has, well, everything - including New Zealand’s best barista.
Wellington, keep being you. Keep being very, very good. Keep throwing punches when others are mean to you. Keep your slightly over-inflated sense of self worth because it’s cute and it’s what makes you, you.