Hard News by Russell Brown

Double Shot

The Kiwi dollar on the precipice and looking at a hard landing. A cabinet minister on the ropes. Chilling tales of torture. But what gets the email flowing? Coffee. So grind it fresh, warm the cup and settle down for another three thousand-odd words from anguished expats and locals who don't know how good they've got it.

In the interests of gravity and credibility, we'll turn straight to the man from The Economist. Conrad Heine reports:

On the subject of where to get a decent coffee in London town ... I'm generally loth to do the give 'em a taste of kiwi, mite thing, but Flat White, a new NZ-run joint in one of Soho's more vibrant parts is indeed very good in a Wellington kind of way - even the FT likes it. Friendly, reasonable prices and the air full of Kiwi twang.

But for something completely different, visit Scooterworks on Lower Marsh, alongside Waterloo station it's actually a classic scooter shop with an Italianate cafe attached, run by Craig O'Dwyer, ex-RNZAF and coffee madman. The coffee is fantastic, the atmosphere brilliant (here the air crackles with Italian accents mainly, a good sign if there ever was one) and the prices unbelievable, in a good way.

Good God man, stop it before you drive Tracey Henton right over the edge. She sends this desperate plea for help from Lala Land:

Crema! ... excuse my tardiness in response to the coffee blogging but I'm in California and the lethargy is catching...

if you would enjoy being smacked repeatedly over the head with a old damp fish, or perhaps being trapped in a Disneyland boat ride for days on end, then you might be able to cope with the experience of trying to find good espresso in Los Angeles ... it's not just disappointing...it makes you angry...

I do now have a Starbucks card in my wallet, and yes, I apologise to all of my fellow countrymen, I'm dumbing down ... but someone pleeeeeeeease come over and help us ... I beg of you ...

Somewhere in America, a little girl (well, an increasingly desperate grown-up) waits …

But from Moscow Jim Cathcart has harsh words for "people who say they never go to Starbucks":

The Sham: The idea that your principles and moral righteousness could be defined by your loudly-announced, selective boycott of a chain like Starbuck's was pure 90s, as if it was somehow worse than any other chain, as if it was really a moral principle and not old-fashioned snobbism.

Most didn't avoid 'bucks because it did something wrong, like abuse its workers, make shitty coffee or buy beans from Guatemalan uber-plantations, but only because it was on every street corner in NY and in every food court in Denver.

These poor disaffected-yet-well-off Starbucks-boycotters were furious that the rabble now had access to the things that used to be hard to access, like gourmet coffee. When they bitched about the homogenization of the American city, what they really were whining about was too little feis kontrol.

No, really, that's not it at all. It's the product, dammit. Although I must say that the last time I went to London, playing count-the-Starbucks on Oxford Street was a fairly bizarre experience. Nearly as bizarre as actually visiting one of said establishments and finding it to have taken the whole crappy don't-actually-give-a-toss ethos to a new level. I found myself thinking it would be a good idea if they sold one of their shops and used the money to clean the friggin' toilets at the others. But I digress …

Martin Lambert says:

Agree with most about European coffee (and big ups to the guy who put in a word for Toasted Espresso, Barry's Point Rd, Takapuna (my current fave - best on the Shore by far). Best coffee in Europe - Portugal - little coffee bars which serve STRONG black coffee (long blacks) in small thin glasses with an awesome selection of sweets & tarts.

Bianca chimed in:

I needed to add my 5p to the conversation on coffee. I have to admit I am a terrible coffee snob and made it my duty to find good coffee in London. Monmouth coffee is definitely what you want in this city - they have two stores, one on Monmouth St in Covent Garden and another at Borough Markets. The BEST place to go though is to Providores (on Marylebone High St) who use Monmouth Coffee. A fantastic restaurant with very friendly kiwi staff. You can even order a boiled egg with vegemite soldiers to nibble on while sipping your creamy flat white.

Mmmmmm. Anton Angelo was also on the Monmouth tip, and not only for the taste:

I'm another Kiwi who can claim the best coffee in London was to be got from Monmouth Coffee. The reason I bought my supplies there was twofold - one you have already mentioned: the quality. Another was they provided coffee from single providers, and claimed that it was not picked, or otherwise processed by slaves: something I cannot confirm with any coffee I buy in New Zealand other than fair trade. This bothers me greatly, but is yet another compromise I have to make for living in GodZone, as we are too poor here to choose. You can of course do the fair trade thing for home brewed stuff: its the cafe supplies, which I assume to be bought on commercial rather than political imperatives.

How does the coffee company you are aligned with respond to this? I'm not trying to point the finger, I'm just interested.

Oh, and if you're down Dunedin way soon, I'd like to plug the Serious Coffee Company for nice coffee, great location and pleasant people. Often my office away from the office!

Good question. Karajoz does sell a specifically organic/fair-trade blend, but as I understand it you can be relatively confident that anything from a premium coffee supplier in New Zealand hasn't been exploitatively produced. It's the freeze-dried corporate giants that will trouble your conscience; and your palate.

Giovanni Tiso, meanwhile, gives his adopted land the thumbs up:

I - a transplanted Italian fairly fond of his coffee - have to agree with your assessment and declare that in no way in New Zealand I have felt deprived of that particular, and viscerally felt, aspect of my native culture.

On my first trip back home I said as much to an old faithful barista friend, remarking that apart from some cosmetic stuff, such as various acts of butchering of our language, the only substantial difference I had noticed is that the coffee here takes way longer to arrive - in Milan you barely get to the end of the word "espresso" and you're already taking the first sip. He responded that it's actually a northern phenomenon, while in the South they still allow you to get to "please" before dishing (cupping?) it out. Be that as it may, I think there was an espresso makers? world cup in Trieste last year, and a New Zealander came second, behind - my memory falters here - perhaps a Swede. I felt a bit let down we didn't even manage to rig the show, for heaven's sake.

As for Derek Townsend's remark that we take our espresso *always* with sugar, however, I believe that the technically correct answer is "I beg your freaking pardon?!."

Hiro Protagonist notes that these days you can get a decent coffee in places where you still can't get TV3:

On a recent trip through Haast and South Westland I stopped for lunch at Whataroa. If you've ever been there in years past, it was one of those little places with the tearooms making up one end of the general store. Hot drink options were 'tea' and 'coffee'.

On this trip I noticed that one can order 4 kinds of coffee, and I got a pretty decent flat white.

When you can get decent coffee in Whataroa, there's just no excuse for London.

But before we go getting all smug, James Tyson reports that all is not necessarily hunky-dory in certain parts of Auckland:

I work in Manukau Rd, and recently a cafe has opened downstairs from my office - it's one of those pretentious places with the giant connect-four game on the wall and the starbucks-esqe couches for all the middle-aged mothers to sit on. I tried their coffee on the first day - it was, I think it's fair to say, undrinkable. When I complained about the over-extracted and burnt brew I was told that it was because my weak Auckland palate wasn't up to the task of appreciating a good Wellington (Supreme) bean.

I have to be fair, they seem to have moderated their tone and the length of their extraction over the last two weeks. At least it's drinkable now - and easier than walking anywhere else!

My all-time favourite brew has to be MAX #1 organic beans roasted by the brother of a good friend up in Kerikeri. For best results use a Bialetti designed 2 Tazze on a very hot element.

Now, if that's not snobbery, I don't know what is.

Heh. Join us now as we cross to Korea, where Stafford has been on a mission:

I couldn't pass up the chance to share my own coffee story from here in Korea. I have lived here for almost 2 years now in something of a small country town (you know like the size of Hamilton - no river though).

Over that time I have sated myself by finding a grinder (one of those old school hand cranked jobbies) and travelling to Seoul every now and again expressly for the purpose of picking up some beans to make up a press like 5 times a day. They're usually Starbucks beans - I've gone off the store made coffees but their beans are quite good if, like me, you like a darker roast.

Anyway I moved crosstown recently and there is a bakery downstairs in my apartment building. I noticed while deciding between the Kimchi loaf and the sweet red bean doughnuts they had an espresso machine. It obviously didn't get much use (people here drink pissy little coffees that come out of vending machines). I tried my luck and got a pretty weak long black with just a hint of crema.

Undaunted, I went back the next day and over the course of about a week got to know the lady behind the counter. When she asked if the coffee was ok. I hummed and ha'd and we exchanged a bit of broken English and Korean (Konglish?) and I managed to convince her to let me have a go on the machine and show her what I wanted in a long black. To cut a long story short I now have a pretty perfect long black every morning (well, made to my specifications anyway), have made a new friend, and more importantly have spread the good word in this little corner of North East Asia.

Good lad. Your country is proud of you. But it's not, as Phil Sargent notes, as if there aren't parts of the world where they do their own style very nicely thanks:

My job involves a fair bit of travel , and I'd like to add he following comments:

Monmouth is all very well in London (and certainly a visit when I'm there is always on the cards), but for me the best coffee experiences have actually been in the Middle East, and in Vietnam.

I struggle to understand the differences between my culture and that of my hosts. I am always worried that I will accidentally commit a social gaffe that will end our business. Coffee is something that is a common point between myself and my hosts. Tea? I think not! Coffee is an integral part of doing business in these areas, and I can weigh in with my views on this topic to my hosts without fear of losing face. Return visits are all the more pleasurable. The tradition of hospitalility to guests ensures that anything you have enjoyed before is available again.

That aside, the French influence in Vietnam has left a terrific combination of cuisine : Asian, mixed with French pastry, and locally grown coffee, roasted to the French style. Sweet.

In the Middle East , you can't go wrong with an espresso Turkish style , and cardomon. A worthy trade for alcohol I think. Go to Lebanon and you can get both the superlative local wine and the coffee, but I digress.

Suffice to say that there are other areas of note where coffee is concerned outside of the usual haunts. Anyone been to Africa?

Max Thorne seconded Conrad's endorsement of Scooter Works, noting that Mr O'Dwyer takes his work so seriously that "if the coffee isn't NZ-quality the first time around, chances are his pride would oblige him to make another for you!" And Paul Dowden has kind words for another Kiwi coffee apostle:

Hi Russel, it's true, Kiwis make great coffee. I'm a Dunedin exile living in Newcastle NSW and the coffee at any ten Dunnos cafes would beat the best here. My friend Jason left Dunedin for Melbourne two years ago to "teach them about good coffee" and his cafe 'Batch' in Balaklava gets consistently good reports on the 'Coffeegeek' forum. Also please let Philip Mair know I lived in Aberdeen for 8 months about 8 years ago and found okay coffee from a little Italian place in St Andrew St, I can't recall the name but the owners, Kay and Sergio (from Roma, a good sing!), still send me Christmas cards.

Meanwhile Justin reports that:

A few places in Edinburgh have flat whites but I haven't found a coffee shake like they make at Brazil on K Rd. South East Asia has some good variations on them though.

Perhaps Daniel should pop down to Brazil, for he says:

Yes, yes lots of pats on the back for having some great coffee in NZ.

But one thing that NZ doesn't have and Asia is by far the best at is ICED COFFEE.

When the humidity is high, you need your caffiene iced! Malaysia, Indonesia, some parts of Thailland, and Japan all have GREAT ice coffee cultures.

I have yet to find a decent iced coffee in New Zealand ...

David Lewis offers an angle on the Wananga story. Well, sort of:

In the home of the very lovely Te Wananga o Aotearoa, Te Awamutu, we have Salvador's.

This is owned by an extremely glorious person who was born in Southern Spain before his family moved to France ... and his fierce wife Marilyn. En France he was officially (by the government) recognised as someone who could produce pastry/baguettes to die for ... and he somehow got so confused by the Universe that he now has a tiny cafe in TA (like in LA) where you get great bread and coffee to swim to the moon for. His short black is cool, and hs "cortez" desreves a fridge of its own.

So as you truck on through from Wellytong to Orckland or da otha wayround, stop and try a brioche and a godlike "cortez".

Dubber is dejected:

I haven't had a really good cup of coffee in over a year. Birmingham is a wasteland and I've started drinking tea as a dejected 'when in Rome' strategy. The only people who know how to make anything called a long black are antipodean franchisers Muffin Break. Who make a dreadful long black.

Whenever I go to London, Jubt is my first phonecall.

Roz has a theory:

I have to enter this discussion as the coffee in London (my temporary home) is one of my pet peeves. Why are NZers are so good at making coffee? We typically have a dedicated barista in our cafes, whereas in London anyone who's free works the "big machine" this could go partway to explaining it.

I'm a coffee snob alright and the coffee here is beyond belief. Ugh, my colleagues seem to just drink it for the buzz so I feel this says a lot. I find it tastes even worse at the end of the day, so cleaning the espresso machine regularly must make a huge difference.

I drink espressos and when you drink coffee without sugar or milk you for sure can taste whether it's quality or not. Here I make do with the best of the worst. The one exception to dire state of the English coffee situation are Monmouth at the Borough Markets; I just wish they had a cae? near my work in Victoria.

It goes without saying the Italians make the best (the French are not far behind). When in Rome visit La Casa Del Caff? Tazza D?Oro. Outstanding coffee in a little, old shop where you have to stand leaning against the bar. It's tucked away (on Via Degli Orfani) around the corner from the Pantheon. Forget the rest of Europe, it's just as miserable as London, although sometimes Spain surprises.
At least the English know how to make tea!

But according to Sally, a lot of New Zealand establishments don't:

People go to such lengths to make good coffees in many flash cafes etc in NZ, but when it comes to getting a decent pot of tea, the same places havent a clue.
For someone who likes a good brew of tea, this is the equivalent of serving up instant coffee in a mug and charging $3.50.

Have a look at these instructions from the website of a tea-caddy collector!!!!

Tim was brief:

Find me one of those pompously titled `baristas' who can make a proper pot of tea...

Carol Green, meanwhile, takes a straightforward approach:

I am a Pom living in Aotearoa. When I go back to the UK I drink tea. Simple.

Trevor Hunter, on the other hand, feels like a stranger in his own land:

The first cup of coffee I ever drank was earlier this year in Barcelona (at the tender age of 25) - a cafe con leche. A lovely drop of sweet milkyness that never varied in the four establishments I tried. I am yet to find anything as satisfying in Auckland.

Does this mean that the Spanish have it all wrong? or that New Zealanders have developed their own style and it just happens to be unique to our island? Maybe people need to accept that countries have developed preferences in taste and texture different to our own relatively young culture, and if they wanted coffee to taste the same all over the world then they should just buy it at McDonalds or Starbucks, after all isn't that the point of coffee chains "same shit different country". So I shall persevere with my coffee trialling until I develop a taste for our local brew.

Dave Lane was thinking along the same lines:

What peculiar reading your coffee correspondence makes. Coffee has been internationalized for so long that one imagines the endless local preferences would elicit little comment apart from "like", "dislike" or "interesting". Why would anyone expect London (of all places), or anywhere outside NZ, to be home to the coffee tastes of kiwis? No visitor to NZ is surprised to find that NZ restaurants don't feel like European ones.

One gets the impression of kiwis still in the phase of pride in a recently acquired cultural entity. A sort of reverse culture cringe, culture strut let's say, and very welcome for that.

But it's not just the style, it's the quality. If you go anywhere in the world and order a cup out of some big, shiny espresso machine it ought to taste like espresso, not like burnt water.

Andi attempted haul us back around to the big issues:

I'm sorry if I sound dismissive but it's only coffee. I only hope that you've received this number of passionate emails about Iraq, or US elections, or Rumsfeld.

Short answer, no. I haven't. But even Andi fell prey:

And to continue the coffee culture thing, Italian espresso is fine by me, especially with sugar. Anywhere I can get an espresso fast is alright by me. It inflames indecent passions in me to wait 5 minutes through the preparation of trim lattes and fluffies to receive a short black.

And, finally, Steve Reeves invoked the name of the Devil:

I'd love to know---have you heard from Steve Braunias? I'm sure he'd have some entertaining things to say about all those quotes from coffee-lovers on your latest---I recall he particularly treasures the old-style "coffee shop" and particularly hates the "new" coffee culture. Perhaps you should ask him for a response ...

That bastard? What could Braunias, with his devil-may-care similes, his inverted snobbery and his fulminating left-foot screamers tell me that I could possibly want to know? Although he has a point about Lamingtons. Bring those back.

Phew. A couple of shouts out. I had a good time (possibly a little too good, etc.) at the launch last night of Idealog magazine, the new title for "commercial creatives" cooked up by Vincent Heeringa, Martin Bell and David McGregor, for which I've written a story about independent music labels. Hope it goes well.

Last night's festive fling made it really hard to drag myself out of bed and into TVNZ for my final commentary slot on Breakfast with Kerre Woodham for this year. I've actually enjoyed that gig a lot more than I thought I would (apart from the getting up early and driving into town part) and it's been nice getting to know Kerre (about whom I was once rather rude in this here blog; with her being extremely sporting about it). Cheers to Kay, Paul and Erica too. And that's one more job out of the way before Christmas, which truly can't come soon enough …