As a Vancouverite, I like to think that I live in one of Canada's premier caffeine hubs. Any city that has 50-plus Starbucks outlets, however, can't pretend to know great espresso.
By comparison, there are only three Starbucks stores in Wellington, N.Z. (two others shuttered in 2012). If you ask the locals where you can get a caramel frappuccino, you'll consequently get an amused eye roll.
Wellingtonians, by all appearances, prefer their caffeine fixes from non-chain coffee haunts. And they have plenty to choose from.
The first stop on my own coffee crawl through the city recently – do not try this at home unless you have a wind-down day scheduled afterward – is the grungy little Deluxe Café on Kent Terrace. During my visit, a chatty gaggle of bespectacled coolsters are perched at Formica tables, while a skinny, tattoo-slathered barista talks up the brews, all made with locally roasted beans.
I know, of course, about flat whites – the Kiwi-invented milky espresso has percolated around the world since the 1980s – but Americano-style long blacks, steamed-milk fluffies for kids and naughty affogatos (hot coffee over ice cream) are all new to me.
In Vancouver, a place like this would be crammed with loners hunched over their keyboards. At Deluxe Café, though, the barista puts down his tools for extended tête-à-têtes with visitors. I could easily curl up here for the day, but instead I peel off to Customs Brew Bar.
From the outside, the Ghuznee Street café looks intimidating – the sort of achingly trendy place I would avoid back home for fear of wearing the wrong plaid. But Wellingtonians have mastered an approach some Vancouverites will never grasp: the ability to look hip and still be friendly.
The interior resembles a 1950s beatnik bar, complete with vinyl albums and Italian coffee-making paraphernalia. Despite the potential pretentiousness, I'm greeted with smiles and a hearty hello from both servers. But it's not just about social niceties here: They're also deadly serious coffee crafters.
"We focus on single-origin beans and non-pressurized brewing so people can really taste the coffee," manager Tim Norris tells me, adding that preparation is limited to French presses and mesh and paper filters rather than "violent" steam-based methods. "Instead of the same taste every time, we're celebrating the inconsistencies."
But while the approach is popular today – the café is jam-packed – this wasn't always the case. "It was quiet here for at least two years, so now I like to tell people that we were ahead of our time," chuckles Norris, who insists that I should also visit a new spot just opened around the corner.
Along a darkened laneway, the tiny Red Rabbit roaster-café is staffed by two impressively bearded owners. Still surfing the adrenalin rush required to launch the place a mere two days earlier, a tired but twinkle-eyed Steve Barrett is thankful for the encouragement of locals.
The café, he says, has been humming with curious quaffers since its launch. "We're just trying to be open and honest about making a tasty cup," Barrett says. "My dream is to help people understand good coffee without ever feeling intimidated."
By now I'm on a caffeine high, so intimidation is the least of my worries: I am vibrating slightly, and my eyes are darting around like free-playing pinballs. After some water and a fresh-air stroll, I feel ready for a final drink, although it isn't exactly the quiet nightcap I'm anticipating.
Flight Coffee Hangar on Willis Street serves java, beer and coffee-based cocktails at its candlelit wooden booths and pub-like counter. After I slide onto a high stool and rapidly guzzle a Coffee & Cigarettes (made with Maker's Mark), the room falls silent and a guest speaker is introduced. I suddenly learn that the New Zealand Specialty Coffee Symposium has just concluded in Auckland and that U.S.-based Jordan Michelman, co-founder of the coffee-news website sprudge.com, flew in to attend. Before returning home, he has detoured to the capital. His speech is full of praise for the local scene and I spot many of the baristas I've seen today around the room.
After the applause, I collar Michelman while he's puffing on a cigarette outside. "People have been telling me for years that Wellington is like Portland when it comes to coffee, so I felt I had to come," he says, adding that he's already planning a return. "While Starbucks was taking off in the States, this great scene was developing here – now it's richer and deeper than almost anywhere else in the world."
I eventually leave him and slip back inside. I have overdosed on great coffee today, but there's always room for one more – and the espresso martini has my name on it.