Hard News by Russell Brown

Crema da Crop

Thank you for all your thoughtful responses on the subject of the mentally ill in the community. But it's a Friday in December, so I'm going with the coffee thing. Several thousand words have flooded to attest that, yes, we New Zealanders are fussy about the stuff, wherever we happen to be.

Our European correspondents have provided particular insight. Heather Gaye offered advice for those stranded in the blasted terrain of London:

Not that it's much help to you now I guess, but when I was there (after establishing that Bar Italia coffee wasn't all that, disappointing given their history) a couple of coffee-snob friends discovered Monmouth Coffee Company just off Seven Dials. Tiny place mainly for buying beans, but they provided limited seating, a small number of pastries & chocolate-covered coffee beans sold by the dozen. Granted it seemed to be pretty consistently frequented by, and staffed by, Kiwis. Spent more than a few afternoons there playing some caffeine-saturated chess.

Jarrod Wright had further intelligence …

Oh yes indeed, 'tis very, very hard to find a decent coffee in this ol' town.

After 9 months of living here, I realise how bloody spoilt for coffee I was in Auckland. Here, it's either thin black or hot milk that some coffee ran past. It seems this sub-NZ coffee not confined to UK however, as the coffees I have experienced in Berlin & Paris were much the same, maybe it was just bad luck ...

But after some dedicated research from my main man Jubt "Short Black" Avery (I gave up and have homemade short blacks with some coffee my good lady bought me back from Italy), any London-based coffee addicts should head to Monmouth coffee stall at the Borough Markets Friday & Saturday. Cor blimey, it's the best I've had here by far. They even know what a "flat white" is too ... wow.

So yeah, it's not all bleak on the coffee front up here, but as for the November weather...

"Monmouth" was also the name on the lips of Nic Newnham:

I just read your article about Coffee & Culture - which inspired me to respond (due to my passion for good coffee).

I agree that making an espresso at home can be much more enjoyable than what cafes are serving.

The cafe scene in London was disappointing although I'd like to plug 'Monmouth coffee' and the fantastic markets (cant remember the name) where you could wonder, sip great coffee & sample a fantastic array of foods.

Nic then offered what he described as "a positive coffee note":

Auckland has the fantastic 'Altezano' roastery on Symonds St & I've managed to find some damn fine coffee in Chch.
I'm a fan of supporting the local guys so Vivace, C4 & Underground coffee rate. Depends on who makes it though, so I've a few cafes that I frequent that are consistent.

The Press wrote an embarrassing article on Chch cafes last week. Some people have no idea.

I could go on.

Thanks for the chance to release some coffee angst.

Meanwhile, Craig Lucinsky pronounced thus on the London brew:

Oh, yes, Russell ... it does suck.

But another oasis worth noting is 'Flat White' in Berwick St, Soho. Long Blacks & Flat Whites ... people here do not even know what they are! Savages.

The white coffees even have a froth fern on the top.

I must admit, that I almost ... nah, I think I had something in my eye ...

The recently-returned Chris had this to offer:

I love my coffee and would like to add my experiences of the Devil's drink here and abroad.

I have recently returned to NZ after 5 years in the UK, very reluctantly I might add. Working for the biggest Telco in UK took me all over Europe and into Asia. And do you know what? Yes, Italy is the best place to buy coffee...

In London, if you ignore places like Starbucks, coffee is generally very good - around the same strength of the Italian cuppa. Milk can be a bit hit and miss but, once again, if you avoid Starbucks you should be OK.

NZ coffee is different from any that I had in Europe. On the negative side, it is often made far too strong and is frequently burnt. On the positive side, the milk froths well...

I guess it is a matter of experience. A Kiwi going to London would naturally notice the milk foam, and definitely notice the lower strength.

Andrew filed this report from sundry locations:

I live in Melbourne, cruised various first and third world countries in 2004/05 and on my return to NZ shot straight to the far north. Needless to say it shit all over everywhere else I had been.

I bought a vac pack of organic coffee for the camp stove top espresso in Maunganui. FROM Maunganui, know what I mean. The coffee wanker virus has spread throughout the north of the North Island. I drank superior coffees from Pukekohe, to Kaitaia - ohh, yes we lead the world baby, its just the world don't know what our coffee style is all about. We are the new coffee world, goodnight Italy. And Melbourne coffee … well it's nice but without fail it is more likely to be made by a tattooed NZer.

Peter Todd reckons we're getting it a bit wrong about the Italian style:

Russell, There is no such thing as a standard Italian coffee. Go to Trieste, Milan, Rome, Naples, or Catania and try! I am lucky to be familiar with the coffee capital of the World, Trieste, over my more than 50 years, so have been fortunate to have been brought up with the best coffee (very similar to what NZers have only just discovered over the last 5-10 years). Make a trip to Trieste, find out and only pay $1.50 for a shot.

And as for expecting to find a decent coffee in the UK …

Philip Mair reported from fried-Mars-Bar-land:

I'm living in Aberdeen, Scotland and have yet to find a half decent coffee. How hard can it be? There is a business opportunity here, but I'm concerned that the locals wouldn't know a good coffee from a bad one!

Matt Bywater, meanwhile, had advice for European adventurers:

I live in Switzerland and sure here they serve a cream with the espresso so you can decide to tip it in or not, and I do ... but 'normally' an espresso is just a shot of coffee with or without sugar... and if you want milk/cream with your shot, then you should order as in spain a 'quartado' or in Italy a cafe macchiato as opposed to a latte macchiato (warm milk with a shot of coffee) (both of the former are a shot of coffee with a little warm milk tipped in ... but diff strokes for diff folks and all that. What is right anyway etc?

Don't gimme that Swiss neutrality line, pal. It's natural law that's at stake here. Brother Bart Janssen testifies:

Since I shifted to only two real coffees a day (withdrawal symptoms worried me when I was drinking a dozen or more a day) I became much more of a coffee snob. I love NZ coffee and it's true we do much better coffee than there is any reason to expect.

A couple of years ago we did a round the world trip where I got the highs and lows of coffee. We started in Italy and there was some bad coffee I fell in love with the first thing in the morning machiatto con latte - yes with sugar - man what a great way to wake up and start the day. We then went to England where I had the 2nd worst coffee in the world (or at least as much of the world as I've seen). Consistently bad, worse even that that stuff we used to see in small town NZ where the coffee urns were filled once a day, one white and one black. I just couldn't figure out why the English coffee was so bad.

But the worst coffee in the world was in Utah. To be fair given that Mormons apparently don't drink coffee, it is perhaps understandable. But man, for uniformly disgusting coffee I have never been anywhere that compares to Utah.

Since you're asking, the worst coffee I ever had was in Orlando, Florida at the worst large hotel I have ever stayed in, Disney's desperately dysfunctional Swan & Dolphin. There was a coffee cart in the corridor, and I made the mistake of asking for a long black. What I got handed was one of those ridiculous milkshake -container things in which they serve coffee in America, with a piddly wee shot in the bottom topped up with boiling water right to the fscking top. So I'm standing there in a badly overcrowded conference venue trying to hold onto a polystyrene vat of boiling water. I almost cried, really.

But it's not about me, it's about you, the people. People like, say, Matt Simpson:

I feel your pain - Every time I change jobs I have to spend ages tracking down a long black with a decent crema.

On a similar note at a dinner I was at recently I sat next to a senior guy from Robert Harris, coffee came up in the conversation and he told me that they make their long blacks with only a single shot because they are trying to wean their customers off filter coffee.

I guess that whole cafe culture thing has left the Robert Harris blue rinse customer base relatively unscathed ...

Stephen Burgham put the following poser:

Your piece about the long black without crema begs the question - did you take it back and ask for it to be made again? What happened when you did? This raises the wider question: Is it better to return sub-standard food/drinks, or simply tell your friends and/or not go back? Perhaps your answer to this says something about New Zealand culture also?

Complain? Send something back? Are you crazy? This is New Zealand! We don't like to complain. Someone might think I was, y'know, making a fuss …

Ben invokes that crucial arbiter of taste: famous people visiting here from overseas:

I read that John Cleese agrees with you about NZ having better coffee.

Phew. That's alright then. Ben continues:

I actually think it's because we have better milk. European milk licks balls. Hence, their only good coffee is espresso.

Then again, as you say, it could be all down to what you're used to. Milk, butter and water seem to be things people always hate when abroad. I love the taste of Auckland water, but when I drink it fresh off the roof at Waiheke, I find it 'too soft'. Perhaps these things are imprinted on us at a young age.

Are you sure you didn't like the Dutch coffee because it was in a coffeeshop and not a cafe? My rising awareness of the judgement warping effects of our favourite little plant have led me to always have my 'Emergency friday herbals' after my traditional Friday lunch with the lads. If I had it beforehand it led too often to feats of outrageous gluttony on substandard food.

What are you alleging here, Ben? I'll have you know that I could be smashed off my face on Dutch Super Weed and still know a good coffee when I put one in my mouth. (This, however, raises a separate issue: what happened to the real dope? Back when I were a lad, you could wander into an Amsterdam coffeeshop and buy Transkei Super, Durban Poison and Maui Wowie. All legendary, exotic and grown in God's good earth. Now it's all that genetically-engineered stuff from some flouro-lit warehouse secretly owned by Dick Cheney.) But anyway, no, the café in which I found a good drop served nothing stronger than some wicked chocolate pastries.

Robyn Gallagher gets us back on track:

Ah, New Zealand coffee culture. One of my favourite things!

As far as I know, New Zealand is the only country in the world where a caffe latte can commonly be found served in a large bowl.

Traditionally it's served in a glass, but somehow the bowl has become a de facto standard in Aotearoa.

A friend once told me it's because an early cafe pioneer had had a cafe au lait when he was in Europe and was very impressed with coffee in a bowl, but had mistaken the milky French coffee for the not-quite-idenitical Italian coffee, and so when he got back to NZ, he started serving a lattes in bowls.

I'm sure there must be more to the story than this. I'd love to get to the frothy bottom of it.

And then there's the matter of the flat white and the long black. Apparently those are an Australian creation when the post-WWII Italian migrants had to quickly come up with a version of black coffee and white coffee to please white Australians who didn't know what all those fancy "cappuccino" and "espresso" things were.

Interestingly, when Starbucks first opened in New Zealand, they didn't have long blacks or flat whites on the menu, but eventually added them, I assume, as a result of constantly having orders placed by customers used to two those being standard cafe menu items.

Don't get me started on Starbucks. Oh, all right, get me started then. Sarah says what needs to be said about that dickhead from Starbucks who visited a while back.

I've never thought of myself as a coffee snob but your comment made me reflect a little, and I AM much more definite in my views on what makes a decent cuppa than on what qualifies as good food/ wine/ entertainment, so perhaps I am one!

I'm certainly not your obnoxious vocal critic that dispatches offerings back to the kitchen because they're not up to my discerning standard, but I DO recall being quite scandalised at disparaging comments about NZ coffee culture made by that American tosser who runs Starbucks when he came over to open the first stores here - ESPECIALLY after I tried the place and, having ordered a flat white, was presented with a giant vat of lukewarm, odourless, flavourless (not TOTALLY flavourless - kind of soapy) beige fluid.

But I was MAINLY offended because (I realised) I'm proud of our coffee culture. I think it has moved beyond pretentiousness to genuine appreciation; and I like the inimitable kiwi way in which we've taken (yet another) great tradition and decided it could do with some improvement. Bottoms up!

Tom sent in a free ad for himself:

I run a mobile espresso van: Dr. Mocha We make shit-hot espresso ( Supreme) out the back of a Mercedes van

I spent last saturday making some sweeet espresso for the bands backstage at Southern Amp. My first rock 'n roll concert gig. I have now discovered that rock 'n' rollers are some of the hardest core coffee drinkers I've ever met and they know their espresso.

I only served about 100 different people over 8 hours, yet made around 400 coffees.

I figure it must be all the hard drinking that leads to the hardcore coffee attitude.

Meanwhile, Ben (a different one) has found a good drop in the most unlikely location:

Hi Russell, good to hear there are others who get seriously pissed off when served crap coffee.

Anyhows, next time you're over the bridge it's well-worth checking out a cafe called Toasted on Barry's Point Rd.

No, I'm serious, Barry's Point Road.

Situated in amongst motorcycle/radiator repair shops and panel beaters is a funky little cafe, an oasis in the heart of industrial filter-coffee country, that serves absolutely brilliant coffee.

Cremas to Africa.

Brian, on the other hand, found nirvana in Royal Oak:

Good to read your coffee comment. As a traveller, it's the big decision of the day, the brand, the staff, checking the wand, cup or glass. I feel it's a indication of the coffee culture that so many are okay with cutting down trees and filling landfill to spoil what may be a good coffee and do they serve 1/2 coffees or full shot. Anyway my favourite is in Royal Oak Icoco: it's not sharp like Italian, but still good, full flavour ,no bitter aftertaste and a full shot. Not sure I'd recommend the short black unless it's the beginning of very long day.

Life is not quite so simple for Jacob

As somewhat of a coffee obssessor I have been delicately picking my way through the landscape of hot caffeinated beverages in New Zealand for a few years now. My standard is a triple shot short black (apologies - but with sugar). In Auckland, where I live and work, I can count the number of cafes on my fingers that could take my order without some level of incredulity or inconvenience.

The most regular responses are:

"Sorry, a trim what?", "Sorry they don't come in threes", and "Do you want some extra water with that?"

Often I will change my order to something cold in these cases because the experience probably won't be worth the $3-5.50 (yes I got charged $5.50 once!) or the IBS symptoms it may help induce. On one particularly bad day I was having I went so far as to explain exactly how the coffee could be made using their equipment - I wouldn't usually be that much of an arse!

My experience in Wellington has generally been the inverse, so sad to hear about your terrible cup or two down there. I have yet to find a cafe in NZ that uses Supreme beans that is a write-off. Seems their training/support program is quite good.

As for the rest of the world, I was also surprised to hear and experience how bad the coffee is in UK, USA and parts of Europe where you might expect to find better. If in doubt, a turkish coffee at a reasonable kebab shop does the trick.

And, finally, Joanna posted this from the aptly-named hubris.co.nz:

No one in Wellington refers to Astoria as The Astoria. Get that bit right and maybe then we'll tell you where the good coffee is at ...

Oh, get over yourself, girl. Or we stop sending the money down from Auckland, 'kay?

Some Friday bandwidth-eaters. Matt suffered insomnia as a result of a wedding buffet (que?) and thus spent the wee smalls surfing Fox News an on Prime and BBC World. He found a Fox News media panel discussion about Jon Stewart and the Daily Show, and wondered if "it really is the driest and most perfectly executed piece of satire ever screened on television." The panel discussion, that is, not the Daily Show. He saved and posted it as a 10MB .avi file for y'all to enjoy.

Stephen Colbert clears up any confusion about the victory strategy for Iraq. And a freaky little news report from the new Washington: interns as religious hysterics.