September 7, 2021

Coffee culture in New Zealand

Despite the fact that there are only around 5 million people in New Zealand, the country has long since been renowned for its love of coffee. Some 66% of people in the country drink coffee regularly, and a fierce debate rages to this day about whether the flat white originated in Australia or New Zealand some decades ago.

But what does New Zealand’s coffee culture look like today?

To learn more about modern trends in New Zealand’s coffee culture, I spoke with four professionals from across the country: a national champion, a technician, a barista, and an operations manager. Read on to find out what they said.

You may also enjoy a tour of Wellington’s specialty coffee shops.

flat white on table

Specialty in New Zealand: Small, but growing 

Overall, coffee consumption in New Zealand is going strong. Espresso remains the industry standard (as it does in many consumer markets). The flat white continues to be the most popular individual beverage, with the long black not far behind.

Phill Kearney is a barista at Daily Daily and La Marzocco NZ’s technical coordinator. “In New Zealand, we have a really strong favour towards espresso-based beverages,” he says. “You can go anywhere in the country; you can go to a rural town, and you can still have an espresso.”

But while the country retains its vibrant café culture, the presence of third wave coffee shops and roasters is still small. As with many other consuming markets around the world, most of New Zealand’s coffee drinkers still see coffee as a commodity. 

However, Phill says this is slowly starting to change. “[Specialty coffee] is definitely growing,” he tells me.

la marzocco machine

Quality is continually improving

Sam Low was the 2016 New Zealand barista champion, and has since represented New Zealand on the global stage at coffee competitions. He says he’s observed how awareness is gradually shifting towards specialty coffee. 

“The specialty coffee scene in New Zealand is small and slowly growing,” he says. “I have noticed consumers starting to develop more tasteful and sustainable food and beverage choices over the years. 

“Consumers are seeking out better coffee options; they’re more concerned about things like the traceability of the coffee or the expertise of the barista.”

Sam adds that New Zealanders actively choose to support local cafés and roasters, instead of large chains like Starbucks. 

“International chains have a hard time dominating here, which allows room for more progressive small businesses in New Zealand to thrive.”

Coffee roasting in New Zealand

Thanks to this mindset of supporting local businesses, the business environment for smaller roasters is promising. New Zealand actually has more roasters per capita than any other country in the world.

As a part of this, more and more third wave roasters are opening, and the quality and sustainability of roasted coffee is starting to grow.

Phill says: “Small micro roasters are opening up around the country; businesses that care about selling good quality coffee that’s tasty, and care about having a better relationship with farmers.”

Sam agrees with him. He adds: “Here micro roasters have a broad focus on online retail. Many are offering light-roasted, single origin coffees which have good traceability. More consumers are starting to dabble in homebrewing, too.”

Some micro roasters, such as Dear Deer in Auckland, even allow customers to pick and blend coffee themselves. The customer can choose their roast profile, and the beans will be roasted on the spot. 

“With [things like] that comes more education and awareness from the consumer’s side,” Phill says. “More people are asking questions about where it’s coming from and how it’s being made.”

coffee samples for sale

Dairy & plant milk

Sam notes that espresso-based milk beverages (such as the flat white) are still popular in New Zealand.

“Roasters develop coffees to optimise Maillard flavours that are the perfect concentration to dilute with milk via espresso,” he explains.  

Sean Tiernan is a home barista and the creator behind The Drumming Barista. He was the former head barista of Flight Coffee in Wellington, the country’s unofficial coffee capital. A trend he has noted is the exponential rise in alternative milk drinkers. 

“Consumers are becoming aware of the health benefits of plant-based milk, and also the environmental benefits,” he says. “Many are making the switch and drinking more plant milk-based coffees.”

He says that he has seen Kiwis going back and forth to cafés until they find what they believe is the perfect alternative milk for coffee. This trend has correspondingly been picked up by roasters in the country.

A few months ago, Plant Projects, a New Zealand plant milk coffee company, made headlines after announcing the launch of a new coffee blend, roasted specifically to be paired with dairy-free milks. The low-acidity espresso prevents any type of plant milk from curdling, and but the lightness of the roast retains the full flavour profile of the Colombian-Ethiopian blend. 

This is just one example of how the “supporting local” movement has continued. Many are shaping specialty coffee to best suit the local consumer palate. 

However, as well as roasters, baristas are taking proactive approaches to further enhance specialty coffee in New Zealand. 

coffee shop in new zealand

Engagement, awareness, & information

One of the key characteristics of modern specialty coffee culture is a focus on education and awareness. For many baristas, the job is no longer about just selling coffee as a drink, but rather engaging the customer in a wider conversation about coffee. 

Daniel Ling is the Operations Manager of Red Rabbit Coffee. Red Rabbit only offers single origin coffees. 

“[This] allows us to begin a conversation with each customer,” Daniel explains. “We offer them a choice between origins; as part of our service, we tell them a little about the coffee they’re consuming that day, where it comes from, which flavours they can expect, and so on. 

“This way, it becomes part of that natural and daily conversation.”

In time, Daniel says customers start to appreciate coffee in a different way when they visit other shops or roasters.

As in key specialty coffee markets around the world, some baristas in New Zealand are looking for opportunities elevate and challenge the customer’s expectations. This, Daniel says, helps them learn more about coffee. 

For example, customers may order short macchiatos, but at Red Rabbit, they might not encourage it, depending on the coffee they’ve chosen..

Daniel adds: “We try to give them a little more information so they can make a more informed decision. Macchiatos are designed for dark Italian espresso. [The milk foam] cuts the bitterness of the strong espresso. 

“The coffee we would recommend for a macchiato is not predominantly bitter, but it contains quite a lot of acidity. However, when we add just a small amount of dairy, it can actually emphasise the acidic notes instead of muting the bitterness.” 

Daniel says that while customer freedom is important, he wants his customers to experience something they enjoy. For example, he suggests alternatives that the customer might like, and suggests what would taste best with their beans. 

“We want to be able to challenge [the customers] and ask them to trust us to make a coffee that is delicious.”

bags of coffee

A focus on education

However, despite this focus on engagement and education within specialty coffee in New Zealand, it is still a small, niche market segment. As such, it can be difficult for everyday consumers to access.

All of my interviewees agree that more accessible education is the right direction for specialty coffee in New Zealand to move in.

“Hopefully, the specialty scene starts trending towards educating their customers more, and I feel like it is,” Phill says. “A lot of coffee companies are talking about what makes their coffee special.

“You can pick up a bag of coffee now from pretty much any specialty coffee roaster, see where it’s from, see the process; a lot of places even do little story blurbs about the farm it came from.”

Phill says that he hopes more people will start to understand, appreciate and value specialty coffee the way they do with wine and craft beer more widely across the country.

Daniel agrees. He says he’d like to see more education on how much work farmers, baristas and roasters are doing, so people are willing to pay more for better coffee, just as they do for alcohol. 

Thankfully, the New Zealand Specialty Coffee Association is doing what it can to move in this direction. Alongside specialty coffee shops across the country, it regularly organises latte art throwdowns, cupping sessions, and barista workshops. Most of these events are open to the public, with no prior experience in coffee needed to attend.

two flat whites

How should things change?

Sean says that going forward, he wants industry players in New Zealand to think of new, more effective ways to connect with consumers on a deeper level. This, he says, should be the case for both seasoned coffee lovers and newbies alike. 

He says social media will continue to become more and more prominent in the country’s coffee sector. “More people [are] working from home and enjoying coffee from home,” he says. “Brewing equipment sales have gone up, and coffee subscriptions have gone up. This is where social media has a big part to play. I strongly believe in it.” 

Sean also wants to encourage New Zealand’s coffee companies and professionals to create more fun, engaging and easy-to-understand content – like brewing guides, for instance. It’s crucial to make the more intimidating aspects of specialty coffee simpler and more approachable for everyone. 

coffee warehouse

New Zealand still has a lot of space for growth and improvement when it comes to specialty coffee. The scene, despite being small, is moving in the right direction.

Sam concludes: “We are adopting a lot of the right trends that are emerging from countries that have a significantly larger population.” 

Across the country’s coffee sector, there are widespread hopes that better quality coffee can become enjoyable and accessible for Kiwis across the country. In the future, many even hope that specialty coffee can become the industry standard for New Zealand’s consumers. Just how long this will take, however, remains to be seen.

You might enjoy reading about how to introduce customers to third wave coffee.

Photo credits: Sean Yew

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