There are few things in life as highly anticipated but so frequently underwhelming as a cup of coffee.
For a beverage so widely consumed and so long ago introduced to mankind’s palate, it is remarkable that the experience of drinking the stuff is so often a disappointment. I am aware that this view might open me up to accusations of coffee snobbery, but if that is the case, then so be it. At its best, coffee is something worth getting out of bed for; a smell to set nasal hairs quivering; a taste that can transform a bleak morning into a bearable one. And yet, despite it being now a multi-billion dollar global industry, the hit-to-miss ratio of a commercially prepared brew weighs heavily with the latter. We deserve better.
Thank god, then, for New Zealand, a country which prides itself on serving up good coffee with the same devout enthusiasm that we Brits do a voluminously headed pint of beer.
Ironically, I first became aware of the Kiwis’ mastery of coffee-making during my last days in London, where a handful of upstart Antipodeans – no doubt sick to the stomach of the lazy muck being served up by the locals - opened cafes that provided exemplary espressos and pretty much invented the Flat White for the British market.
My personal coffee requirements are simple. There is no fannying around with milk or syrups or cocoa powder. I have my coffee served black and strong; an espresso topped up with a dash of hot water. It therefore makes it very easy for me to compare coffee from different outlets, and I grew to be particularly discerning of the finest purveyors during my five and a half years in London, where my routine entailed the purchase of at least two takeaway cups a day.
As anyone who has spent any degree of time there will know, the UK coffee market is dominated largely by corporate chains, kingpin of which is the ubiquitous Starbucks. For a company whose very raise d’etre is coffee, it is startling to find just how nondescript its core product is. A standard black filter coffee from Starbucks, while just about drinkable, is almost invariably too watery, and lacks all of the craft and expertise you’d hope to associate with a market leader. Selling exclusive albums by Paul McCartney is not enough to disguise the fact that what should be the mainstay of Starbucks’ business is dismally substandard. Homegrown chain Costa is no better, and while (non authentic) Italian-style Caffe Nero offers better coffee, it is clear when walking into one of their outlets that food and frappuccinos are their primary concerns.
Coffee from outside of the big chains can vary wildly. London, inevitably, has its fair share of quality coffee houses, including on-site roasting Monmouth, the benchmark by which any self-respecting coffee outlet should judge itself. But the good ones are all but drowned out by cafes for whom coffee appears little more than an apologetic afterthought to the ‘sandwich of the day’, and ‘greasy spoons’ that have long since lost their kitsch value and should politely be pointed in the direction of the 21st century. Outside of London, things can be even worse, as I discovered on a recent trip to my homeland, my first since I first left for New Zealand two years ago. (Blimey, has it really been that long?)
I recall one particular occasion the morning after a good friend’s wedding, when Holly and I, having shamefully slept through the newlyweds’ breakfast banquet, departed the rural venue in search of a hangover-curing fry up and, of course, a good cup of coffee. Arriving in the historic market town of Newark, I probably should have known better than to be lured in by the offbeat exterior of an independent coffee shop in the main square, rather than opt for the neighbouring Starbucks, where we would at least have been guaranteed a vaguely palatable brew. Sadly, this bastion of sovereignty in a mush of clone stores and shops proved to be an almighty disappointment. Not only did the coffee taste like it had been made with freeze-dried powder, but my so desperately needed sausage sandwich, having taken a good twenty-five minutes to arrive, resembled a char-grilled finger in a cardboard banana skin.
There were many wonderful things about being back home and surrounded by familiar sights and sounds, but the dearth of decent coffee was definitely not one of them. Of course, I have been spoiled rotten by the New Zealand coffee scene, which I venture must be one of the world’s finest. France and Italy might deliver a fist class espresso, but New Zealand is the first place I’ve been where my favoured strong black coffee is served close to perfection wherever I go. From the hippest Auckland café bar to the dirtiest roadside cafe, the coffee is of an exceptionally high quality here, and it’s made by people who clearly care about what they’re handing out to their patrons.
Rather than being jobbing students (as they often seem to be in the UK), the staff who make your coffee in a typical New Zealand café are more than likely trained baristas who take a professional pride in their craft. I don’t ever order Flat Whites for myself, but I always enjoy watching a skilled barista making one as I wait for my Long Black. Ah yes, the Long Black, a coffee option that is inexplicably absent from UK café menus. A Long Black is exactly what I want my coffee to be: a strong, dark espresso shot topped up with a modicum of freshly boiled water. Takeaway versions can sometimes disappoint as the volume of added water is dictated by the barista rather than the customer, but when sitting in, the water is usually provided separately in a metal jug, allowing you to strike the balance required by your tastes.
When back home, I was so frustrated by bland, over-diluted black coffees that I took it upon myself to dictate the composition of the cup I was handing over unfavorably converted British Pounds for, requesting ‘an espresso with a little top of water’ to multiple raised eyebrows. If and when I am living back in Britain again permanently, I plan to make it my mission to bring decent coffee to the masses. For a nation practically weaned on the stuff, we appear to be frustratingly apathetic when it comes to demanding quality in exchange for our hard-earned cash. In the same way that over the past decade we have insisted on better food in our pubs, a greater choice of fruit and vegetables in our supermarkets, and more top end restaurants in our cities, we should say a collective “good riddance” to the scourge of bad coffee in our country and start a Long Black revolution. Who’s with me?
To conclude this blog, here are 5 of my favourite Auckland cafes, notable, in particular, for their expert takes on the dark stuff:
1. Marcello’s, College Hill. ‘Service with a smile’ is putting it mildly. Marcello the Italian is one of the friendliest café proprietors I have encountered anywhere and his coffee is every bit as good as his behind-the-counter patter.
2. Queenies, Spring Street. Royalty themed oddity, tucked away on a side street behind Victoria Park. The Long Blacks are so good here I usually order two when I’m having breakfast (the Egg & Bacon Sammie is to die for).
3. One 2 One, Ponsonby Road. A great spot for an afternoon tea. Coffee + homemade muffin + courtyard seating = heaven.
4. Atomic, New North Road. These guys roast on site and you can smell the goodness of the beans a mile away. Sit in, drink and marvel at the bedazzling array of coffee roasting tech, surrounded with hessian bags over-spilling with beans.
5. The Pah Homestead, Monte Cecilia Park. Auckland’s best kept secret: fine coffee and food in the glorious surroundings of an old colonial manor house converted into a café / art gallery in the middle of gorgeous undulating parkland.