Steve Mccabe is an expat living in New Zealand who shares his insights and experiences on McCabe.net.nz. This is an exerpt from Steve’s musings about finding consistently excellent coffee in the Land of the Long White Cloud.
On my very first visit to the country, I found myself, at breakfast time, walking along Parnell Road in Auckland and looking for a cup of coffee. I had heard that New Zealand was capable of good coffee, and I was keen to carry out a little field research. Lonely Planet wasn’t a massive amount of help as I tried to pick out a coffee shop to sit and relax — certainly the Lonely Planet map of Auckland gave no idea how understated the word “Rise” was in the street name “Parnell Rise;” “Parnell Sheer Bloody Cliff” might well have been a touch more appropriate — with a cup. The clincher, in the end, was a “Free Wifi” sticker on the window of Esquire’s Coffee.
I sat, outside, in the warm early-summer sun, looking at the silver fern drawn into the fawn-and-white-coloured foam on top of my flat white. Please, please don’t ask me the difference between a flat white and a latte — other than the fact that “flat white” sounds so much more down-to-earth than “latte,” they’re essentially the same drink. Starbucks in New Zealand and Australia (yes, I’ve been in both — their city mugs do make decent souvenirs) sell both flat whites and lattes, but I have a strong suspicion that they’re exactly the same thing.
I took a sip, and immediately knew that I liked New Zealand very, very much. I also knew that I would never really enjoy Starbucks’ coffee ever again. This flat white was a revaluation — smooth where Starbucks’ was harsh, rich where the latte was bitter. It was the first of several flat whites I had that day. I used jet lag as an excuse; I told myself that I’d need the caffeine to help me get up Queen Street (that one’s not as unreasonable as it might sound — the top end, as you approach Karangahape Road, is damn near vertical). But all I was doing was justifying my fix. I wanted flat whites. Lots of them.
I was back in the US for nearly six months, and I didn’t get a good latte once. I tried Starbucks, but it wasn’t the same any more. The milk wasn’t velvety and soft, but viciously scalding. The espresso wasn’t rich and creamy, but burnt and bitter and harsh. It was coffee, but barely.
And so , in 2009, I moved to New Zealand to live, and, shortly after arriving, I found myself in the Duck’s Crossing café in Warkworth, drinking an impossibly perfect flat white — smooth, rich, right. The sign outside the café said “Gravity Coffee;” when I saw bags of the beans — whole beans, no less — on sale. 200g would cost me about seven dollars — I was sold.
The coffee I plunged in my press pot was every bit as rich and delicious as the espresso I’d tasted at the café. I was happy.
But could it last? The Duck’s Crossing, for all its wonders, was but one café, one source. On the one hand, it was entirely possible that this was the standard, the benchmark, for coffee across New Zealand. On the other, it could just as easily be the only place in the country that knew what it was doing behind a Gaggia.
Research was in order, and, one by one, I tried each and every café in town. They were all, each one of them, good. They were very good. I tried further afield, in Matakana, in Orewa. Coffee was consistently, reliably, wonderful.
It seems to make no difference here whether you try a smart-looking restaurant like the Cornwall Park Restaurant, at the foot of One Tree Hill, where I enjoyed a creamily excellent flat white a week or so ago, or a coffee shop attached to a tourist trap — in fact, ask Debbie or Daughter where the very best coffee of all is to be found, and they’ll both tell you that the café of the Bird Gardens in Katikati, between Waihi and Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty, made the finest flat white any of us has ever tasted. And who am I to argue? The coffee I have found in every café I have visited, North Island and South, has been outstanding, consistently and reliably. This, it would appear, is a country that just gets coffee.