Hard News by Russell Brown

One for the road ...

Righto. This is it: no more coffee posts after today's 4000-odd words. Apart from anything else, editing up your celebrations and laments keeps taking me over my two-cups-a-day limit. But damn, it's been a thing, hasn't it? So, once more to the big shiny machine …

When Paul Litterick came here from Britain in the 1990s, he was, he says, surprised by "how much New Zealanders care about coffee: not just how discerning they are about taste and variety, but also how much the cafe matters. It is an experience, not just a drink."

He likes that, and further observes that it is "becoming increasingly apparent from the discussion of coffee that New Zealand is the only place in the English-speaking world where you can get a decent cup. I don't think New Zealanders generally realise this, so you have done a service to the nation."

And yet, still we can learn, as this wonderful story from Louise Gardiner shows:

The best coffee experiences I've had is at my friend's council flat in Wellington.

I learnt that if an Ethiopian invites you to pop round for coffee you should allow a couple of hours!

First she sets up a low stool and a small metal brazier. Then she heats up some charcoal and places it in the brazier. Green coffee beans are then very skillfully roasted over the coals until she is satisfied they're just right. Everyone present gets to smell the wonderful aroma before she grinds the beans.

When I first met her she ground the beans by hand with an improvised mortar and pestle, but the neighbours complained about the banging so she got an electric grinder from Briscoes!

Once ground she puts the coffee in the palm of her hand and deftly swirls her fingers as though making a spell and the coffee disappears down the tiny opening of the spout on the earthenware coffee pot. Water is added and the pot placed on the hot coals. Little ceramic cups with pretty floral decorations are washed and lined up and sugar added according to the taste of each guest.

Once the coffee is ready it is poured carefully into the little cups, more water added to the pot and then returned to the coals. The coffee is delicious - not at all bitter, but very hot and strong. It was usually accompanied by copious amounts of unseasoned popcorn.

My friend has teflon fingers and will pick up offending pieces of charcoal from the brazier and throw them in the sink. Towards the end of the coffee session she puts a couple of small pieces of charcoal in a wee bowl with some eucalyptus leaves and it smells great. If you're lucky you get three or so little cups of coffee.

After a very enjoyable couple of hours sitting in a room full of people where the conversation is mostly in Amharic and everyone is friendly, courteous and charming you go home contended and with a huge coffee buzz. I haven't had my friend's coffee for over three years (having lived in London recently) but her daughter lives down the road from me in Auckland and she makes a pretty choice brew too.

Faaaantastic. As is this contribution from Vibeke:

When in Maputo, Mozambique (since someone was asking about Africa), there was fine strong, good espresso to be had at the local Nando's for us every morning, without milk better than with. Why Nando's you may ask, well we lived upstairs from them. The BICA coffeecups were a 1960's classic. Costa do Sol, Wimbi's and not to forget Estoril on
Avenida Mao Tse Tung are good places to sit, order a coffee and take in the streetlife. Waiters are pretty fast and wear classic black and white, Estoril is a good one for listening in to dodgy dealings of the more affluent but not too upright few. The quality of the coffee, wel eh, trust me, if you've come this far, Kiwi coffee is long forgotten and would seem achingly out of place between the men repairing watches on the pavement and amputees (war/lepra) asking for some coins. Milk? Milk is for babies.

but then, if you ever



make it to Cuba.... you'll find (again) that capitalism isn't a prerequisite for good coffee (it's a prerequisite for good service maybe).

There's a tiny, roadside, beachside shack on the south east end of Cuba, in the province of Guantanamo, yes THE Guantanamo, it must have been close to Punto Imias if I remember it right. Me and Francisco stopped for a quick coffee as we had been driving all day and wanted to make it back to Baracoa. He ran in and came back with two tiny cups of sweet espresso, not unlike what we'd been drinking at our breakfast table all over Cuba.

We drank it in the hot mugginess of a Cuban August afternoon looking at a wild sea. But somehow, I don't know what it was ... there must have been a secret ingredient. I still don't know WHAT WE WERE TASTING IN THAT COFFEE that day, but we had FOUR more of these espressos EACH within the space of an hour, because they were just so damn good. Syrupy strong, brewed with the sugar in it from the start and well... voodoo, what can i say. Victory in the battle against de IMPERIALISTS! take that ya Starbucks blegh. and americans get out of Guantanamo.

Aidan, on the other hand, leads us away from the sublime:

Two of the worst cups of coffee I have EVER had were obtained on the west coast of the South Island. Sure this was 10 years ago, but don't be too sure that places like this don't still exist.

First one was at a cafe on the State Highway, nearish to Fox Glacier IIRC. The lass making the coffee was super quick, partly because she didn't have to fiddle with any coffee. They just filled the wee chamber with coffee once in a while and just kept pushing the button. I was amazed it came out brown at all. I don't need to tell you how awful it was. We were there for 20 minutes and I didn't see her put "fresh" coffee in once. Ugh!

On the same trip I had an expresso (sic) at a cafe in Greymouth. After the Fox experience I made sure to ask for it to be strong. The bloke making it gave me a conspiratorial wink and put in *two* heaped teaspoons of coffee. Hard to say which was worse, as more bitter oils came out of the small amount of relatively fresh coffee.

Could be worse I guess. A mate of mine once asked for a cappuccino in Tasmania. After a lengthy pause the lass behind the counter said that she could make one. It involved useing a microwave, a milkshake machine a couple of teaspoons of Nescafe instant. My mate was quite impressed with the ingenuity.

Simon Bidwell also has regional reports:

I agree that across most of Europe and N.America the coffee is not up to the standard set in NZ, particularly in the main NZ centres. I've also spent quite a bit of time in S.America and, despite being a major coffee-exporting zone, things aren't much good there either.

In Peru and Chile you only find espresso in a few places in the bigger cities, and it's often sans crema. In even moderately expensive restaurants, "coffee" means a cup of hot water served with a tube-like packet of nescafe. Or it's a strong liquid concentrate in a little jug, which you pour into the water.

Colombia is better-brewed: coffee there is called "tinto" and is de rigeur with most meals As in (fellow coffee-producing) Guatemala, it's also quite fresh tasting. Most small bars have espresso.

Again, though, you just want to order the basic espresso--no one really knows how to make coffee with milk.

Only in Italy or places with direct Italian influence do you find the full range of espresso styles. In Italy itself, while coffee is the fuel of life, there's somewhat less preciousness about it than there is in NZ.

Cappucinos are normally made with lukewarm milk because people don't piss about drinking them--they go into a stand-up breakfast bar and toss one down on the way to work. Also, they understand even better than NZers not to add too much water to an espresso--in your standard short black there's usually not much more than a tablespoon of liquid.

There's one coffee experience, however, you won't find in Italy or NZ. This is "cafe cubano", which I discovered in Sth Florida a few years ago.

Cuban-stye coffee is made by expressing a quadruple-shot coffee directly into a cup containing several spoonfuls of raw sugar. It's served in a "colada", a (usually polystyrene) cup about the size of a small takeaway coffee cup, and you also get several thimble-sized little cups. You then drink it in "shots', sharing with two or three people.

They call cafe cubano "liquid cocaine", and if you try it you will see why. Nex time you're in Miami, find a little neigbourhood Cuban place, order yourself a colada, and prepare to have your socks knocked directly off.

WRT Starbucks--when In Peru, I lived in Arequipa, and on a trip to Lima my Arequipan girlfriend insisted on going to Starbucks, as she was nostalgic for when she spent time in the US. Not only was the milky coffee I ordered the most execrable, burnt, soapy thing I have ever tasted, but it cost more than it would have in NZ (in Peru, most consumables are two or even three times cheaper). My girlfriend didn't care -- for her simply being in Starbucks was fulfilling her aspirations.

I recall a similar experience in Istanbul when I was kicking around with a couple of Americans and came upon the McDonald's I swear, they just about kissed the ground at the front door.

Sebastian stuck up for the big guys though. Sort of:

Well, look, in Berlin we only got Starbucks as a smoke-free place where you can sit down and have a coffee. So whatever is being said about Starbucks, I must note this. All other places are so smoky that you can hardly enjoy your coffee and you will smell like fresh out of the smokehouse.

Apart from this, Starbucks coffee really is much better than what you get in the majority of coffee places in Berlin. Whatever all the Part-Time- and New-Berliners wrote here before.

And a final smack around the chop for the 'bucks: this from Heather Gaye:

While we're still on the subject of coffee then ... my ex-husband was forced into a Starbucks job when they bought out his (quite good) cafe on Piccadilly. He lasted a month, had nothing good to say about the place except for the other staff members united in their misery. He showed me the first page of his orientation booklet. The first two bullet points on their mission statement are:

# Provide a great work environment and treat each other with respect and dignity.
# Embrace diversity as an essential component in the way we do business.

Seriously! This is a company whose branding just about eclipses its products, and they put push-button coffee machines in their cafes so they don't have to rely on (or train) their staff to make a consistent(ly shit) coffee. Diversity and dignity my eye.

...but on the flipside, when exactly is it that NZ became a coffee culture? Welly already had it when I moved there in '95, long blacks were en vogue and lattes had just become what men in suits that didn't drink coffee drank, but I thought that was just Wellington. I got back from the UK in 2002 to discover even my wee home town had a (seriously) top-notch coffee roastery. That's The Bean in Whakatane. They've since moved to bigger premises; I assume because of the demand.

As below, in my response to Matt Andrews' email from the UK, I'm calling early 90s, with a nod to the 80s pioneers. Matt seems to be suffering a bit of a cringe:

And really this coffee fetishism is interesting, it seemed to come out of the US in the early nineties, passed through Aust in the late 90s and then hit NZ, where, as usual, it may have been behind the times but was taken up with more zeal (or zealotry) than elsewhere.

Not really. I think it has its roots in the early 80s, with DKD and a couple of other places, and really took off in the early 90s, independently of the Seattle/Starbucks thing in the US. I came back to New Zealand in 1991, just before a place called Urbi et Orbi opened in K Road, and that was really all about the coffee (one of the founders now co-owns Brazil on the same street). I remember being surprised even then how crazy people I knew were about espresso - my mates at Incubator Studios seemed to devote as much love and care to their coffee as to their recordings.

Matt further reckons:

NZ coffee is particularly strong compared to Aust and European coffee, and I think that sometimes NZers mistake weaker coffee for bad coffee (the guy saying cafe con leche was good is spot on, even cafe cortado in Spain is really nice and consistently so - also people need to remember the UK is not really a coffee drinking nation).

The espresso blends here tend to contain few or no robusta beans and aren't so darkly roasted, so the coffee does taste more complex and intense, with more sweetness. I agree, coffee doesn't have to be strong to be good - I've occasionally had really nice plunger coffee from beans blended for the purpose - but the thing is that all those places in Britain actually are serving espresso. Really, really bad espresso.

Something I've also noted with friends returning from the UK is that they take a while to adjust to the idea that it's not clever to buy vacuum-packed imported Italian coffee on the assumption that it's better: buy beans roasted here and grind it fresh - it'll taste 10 times better.

Is this all too obsessive, too trivial? Robyn Gallagher doesn't think so:

On the subject of coffee versus those serious, grown-up issues (Iraq, Rumsfeld, etc), if I buy a daily latte, that's about $900 a year. If I'm paying that much for something, I don't think it's at all extravagant to discuss with others the quality of what I'm buying. If I was going to buy a washing machine, I wouldn't blindly buy the first one I came across because of some belief that I should be thinking about Iraq instead.

Gemma Gracewood dropped in after being busy last week:

Sorry for the late addition to your coffee rave, but I've just come off our mad, wonderful, week-long shoot for "Dead Letters", the short film version of a story by Busytown's Jolisa, during which the kind folk of top Welly coffee house Havana Coffee Works donated a huge coffee machine that travelled with us everywhere, and Deluxe threw in the beans. Nothing like decent crema to get a crew working hard for you!.

Aaanyway, for those in search of decent coffee in NYC (and Tracey Henton, I hope you'll be there soon) I actually had a decent Flat White there once!!! In fact, our happy trio - me, Cath from the NZ Music Industry Commission and Calum from Dirty Records - downed three in a row once we made the divine discovery ...

Here's our secret:
Delectica, 564 Third Ave at 38th Street.

Not sure if it's still run by a NZer called Julia but back then it was and she showed her staff how to make a flat white while we practically drooled in front of her (you have to ask for one, it's not on the menu). Throw in other NZ goodies like salmon and sauvignon blanc and it's a Big Apple must-visit.

Unfortunately, it looks like things are now going critical in Montreal. Kirsten files from the frontline:

Could somebody PLEASE come over to Montreal and introduce the population to a decent cup of coffee?

I've been in a state of shock over the coffee situation since I arrived (over two and a half years' ago now). Montreal's a fantastic city -- I'm told it's the most cosmopolitan city in North America (I haven't taken enough of a look around to judge for myself). The live music scene here is amazing, there's plenty of fantastic food to be had, but good lord -- Montrealers wouldn't know a good cup of coffee if it walked up and kicked them in the gnads.

To wit -- Montrealers consistently vote Tim Hortons the best coffee the city has to offer. Tim Hortons is a chain -- the Canadian version of Starbucks -- but with even worse coffee. It's watered down. It takes like dirt. It tastes like burnt dirt. In fact, cafes here give me an unsettling sense of d?j? vu, as if I'd stepped in a vortex and and been whisked back in time and place, to be left standing in a coffee shop in Eketahuna mid 1970s. It's filter coffee all the way, baby. I'm not kidding. You remember? The kind in the glass carafe that sits on a hot plate all day long...? The kind that smells bad, tastes bad, costs a buck twenty and is an intenstinal corrosive?

That's the state of the coffee nation in Montreal right now. C'est dommage. There are bakeries galore here (the French influence) and patisseries to die for. And there is good coffee to be had if you know where to look (Java U, L'avenue, Les copains d'abord) but this is by far the exception, rather than the rule.

So: Help! There's a market and a killing to be made, I'm sure. And you know, winter only lasts for about 5 months of the year here...

Christian writes that your recent kind words are not going unnoticed:

I used to work at Tinderbox in Angel, North London, which was pretty good. But the chick who made the best coffee there was my Polish buddy the lovely Agata, who is now a duty manager at the Monmouth Borough everyone's banging on about. I'll pass on the good wishes from across the globe. She's the vertically-challenged one with the black hair, in case this gets broadcast, by the way :)

Tim Harding has further intelligence on Berwick Street's Flat White:

Wholeheartedly agree that Monmouth beans are the best in London but they use them better at Flat White on Berwick St. and they've been hitting up the Edmond's cook book, afgans and ANZAC ... mmm.... tastes like home. Ginger slice too.

Mmmmmmm …

And Bart Janssen throws a lifeline to Tracey Henton:

There is good coffee in the US and it's sold by Peets. They do have stores in LA and they also sell beans etc online - heck, you can even set up a regular delivery of beans.

I also recall getting a half-decent coffee at the café by the Virgin store on Sunset Boulevard …

Anyway, back home and Peter Methven has further recommendations:

Note that Chris Dillon's Coffee Supreme comes in three Fair Trade varieties (Ethiopian's very mellow). It can be ordered by mail - sorry, you'll have to get the address from the Web. And yes, in the UK we always drink tea, when our suitcase supplies of Supreme run out.

Rosanne Simpson revisits the grim-oop-north theme:

You think London is bad. Try getting a coffee in Liverpool. It's ridiculous.

This is the town where the chip shop woman will pinch a few of your chips as she is wrapping them up and then eat them with her gob open in front of you.

Ben Wilson had memories:

My own little plug, on this week's controversy. I think Auckland coffee's generally pretty good, but it's also not bad over in Melbourne too. And the service there is better.

The barista that sticks most in my memory was an italian looking guy in X. This shop served coffee to pretty much everyone in the skyscraper of 10,000 people I worked in. Yet this guy always knew exactly what you wanted without asking, from the merest disdainful glance. He had a knack of throwing a handful of cups down in a sweeping motion that somehow got them all in their saucers. You'd have to wait exactly the amount of time it takes to make a cup of whatever you wanted before you had it in your hand, no matter how many people were being served. And it was always good. Once he overcharged me. Next time I went, he undercharged me the same amount and added a marshmallow as an apology, without a word ever being said.

Robert Harvey takes it back to the 'hood:

Felt I should mention Il Forno in Mackelvie St Grey Lynn. The coffee is quite palatable, thanks very much, and the cakes, filled rolls and breads are bloody fantastic.

Sam offered this:

I think it important to note that often the barista is the most important ingredient. for example, in London my favourite haunt was Hammersmith's Cafe Nero. Not only was the (Italian) barista drop-dead gorgeous, but she made a damn fine brew - and Cafe Nero is a chain.

Best coffee however was ina delightful 'Italian' cafe in Barcelona's old town.

Here in Wellington you should check out any of the Deluxe Cafes, with Fidel's being my favourite.

But honestly, no-one beats my own French-style breakfast latte, carefully assembled every morning on my stove-top, using the finest organic/fair trade beans (Havana). I make a pretty mean triple shot espresso too - with crema!

John Hutton had this very sad story to relate:

Take pity on me. Five years ago I worked out that coffee, combined with stress, triggered migraines. I couldn't give up stress, so I had to give up the bean. Now I am forced to sit with other coffee drinkers, smelling the brew, which I love, but enjoying a "refreshing tea" to get a soft caffeine hit and to maintain the illusion of coffee sociability. At this rate I am likely to end up as an anorak wearing freak, forever standing outside roasting joints, tears in my eyes. Every so often, I take a sip of coffee ... and the bright lights start to shine in my peripheral vision, sure sign that the head-ache is on its way. Groan.

Java Joe has been thinking big since this all got rolling:

Here's a 'Modest Proposal'... Given that New Zealand is the nirvana of great coffee, at least in the minds of all those expat Kiwis, and given that we've just been harangued to increase our export performance, why not create a world-wide fast food brand called Give Em a Cup of Kiwi (or some such inanity). We can run it out of our international headquarters on a Ponsonby sidewalk, buy coffee cheap from everywhere in the Third World, pass it through NZ and do a 1000% markup, then bundle it off to all those deprived parts of the world so well described by your many correspondents. And why not go whole hog, since the government is trying desperately to attract expats back to Godzone. They can all go to work for the Firm, continue to enjoy their OE, and show everyone just how good they are at steaming milk and tamping a handpiece at the sorts of low wages they pay cafe staff in places like the US and the UK. Gee, I wish all our problems were so easy to fix!

Dude, I like the fact that you're thinking outside the square … but it needs work.

And, finally, there's always one. And that one is Duncan:

Without a doubt the best coffee served in the UK (or Europe for that matter) is at Pete's Eats in Llanberis, North Wales. It is most certainly instant, boiling hot, and comes in a nice, half litre, metal mug. Best drunk with a large fried breakfast. That, my latte friends, is culture.

Personally, I've always found mugs of highly stewed black tea to be a good little grease-cutter when it's fry-up time, but that's just me.

Did I say "finally"? Rod Snowdon chimed in from Germany to try and take this thing to a whole other place:

May one mention beer and culture in the same sentence in a New Zealand sense? It occurred to me while enjoying the coffee thread that more or less the same arguments could be had about beer.

Of course instead of "Coffee snobs" you'd have to say "Beer connoisseurs", but the parallels are striking: Inter- and intra-national differences in the products, the local tastes, the strengths, the production techniques, the presence or absence of additives, major differences in quality, and regarding the latter an emerging "culture" in New Zealand of small breweries with excellent products that just weren't there fifteen or twenty years ago when the country thought that - depending on what camp you were in or what rugby team you supported - a particular mass-produced DB or Lion product (the "instant coffees" of the NZ beer landscape) was God's gift to the palate!

Many will point us to their favourite Kiwi microbrewer, and of course everyone (?) will agree that on the whole American beer is crap! Germany of course would be the beer equivalent of coffee's Italy, one might argue where one can get a good beer in Paris for less than $10 (fat chance!), some may attempt to argue the merits of a warm flat British ale or a sickly strong Belgian Trappiste. A few tea-drinkers may even dare to mention cider...

On the other hand maybe it's best to stick to coffee after all?

Heh. I hear you, Rod, on the German beer - although I have to say that my most memorable fine beer experience was at this place in Amsterdam. But let's not get into that …

This blog post by Dan Savage about Ford and the religious lunatics who have spooked it is bracingly frank. This is the best bit:

So what can you do? Gay or straight, you should at least pick up the phone and let local Ford dealers know that you won't even consider buying a Ford after this. Why should straight people care? Because the same AFA fucks that have successfully intimidated Ford on the gay issue are also attacking straight rights - they’re the same assholes who have successfully intimidated retailers like Target into denying women access to morning-after pills. They’re the same assholes trying to convince the Feds not to release a vaccine for two strains of HPV, the virus that can cause cervical cancer in women. The HPV vaccine - already tested and 100% effective! - could save thousands of women’s lives every year. The AFA is fighting it.

And Richard Naylor has posted video of The Great Blend in Wellington. It's a Windows Media .asx stream, and the best I can get from it on a Mac is the 56k version, but it came through nicely at 755k on the household PC. We'll have the video of the Auckland event up soon, honest we will …

And really finally, before you go and read those crazy stories in Damian's blog, some priceless stuff from The Daily Show and the Colbert Report. There's a clip on the White House's bewildering incompetence on the Homeland Security job (it shouldn't be funny but it's ROTFL). And also Stewart and Colbert on the alleged "War on Christmas".

Hahahahaha …