Coffee on the Road: Auckland, New Zealand

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I found coffee paradise. My new favorite coffee city is Auckland, New Zealand. And it wasn't just one cafe that served me the perfect brew; every coffee house had excellent espresso-based creations. These drinks were better than anything that I've had in the United States. Alas, I was lost in translation and unable to crack the code due to the differences in Kiwi coffee terminology. No matter, I was lost in paradise!

New Zealand Map
New Zealand Map

Esquires Coffee

I was groggy from the long airplane flight and I had to get used to driving on the opposite side of the car. Attempting to concentrate without sufficient caffeine levels, I managed to drive from the airport into downtown Auckland's waterfront on Quay street. Eventually, I decided to pull over at Esquires Coffee to get my wits about me. Like an automaton, I ordered a latte. Tasting my first sip my tastebuds were instantly awoken! What a treat this was... but the menu was very confusing. There were lattes, and cappuccinos, macchiatos, but there was also a drink called a flat white and another called a long black. It was all a little overwhelming, but I ordered the drink to go and was so impressed by the latte that I was ready to learn.

Latte Art Feather
Esquires Coffee - Latte Art Feather

Latte Art Heart
Esquires Coffee - Latte Art Rosetta

Divan Cafe

The next cafe that I tried was Divan Cafe at 95 Queen Street, Auckland. I ordered a flat white and this drink came out like a fine piece of art. It was served in a china cup, had a beautiful foam, and came served with a dusting of chocolate powder. What a drink! I was in awe. But the barista couldn't really tell me the definitive difference between the latte and the flat white. A little less milk was the answer that I got, but after several drinks at several restaurants I found that flat whites often get served in ceramic cups and a tiny sweet is often served along side the drink, while lattes in New Zealand often get served in glass or paper cups.

Divan Cafe
Divan Cafe

Sable & Bean

Just a door or two down the same alley, you'll find Sable & Bean. Yep, you read correctly: in Auckland, you'll find two excellent cafes practically side by side. They serve little mini brownie bites included in the price of their drinks. Did I mention that this was heaven?

Sable & Bean
Sable & Bean

Vulcan Cafe

On Vulcan Street, an excellent cafe is the Vulcan Cafe. It has a wonderful atmosphere; the food is fantastic, and they also offer wine. In addition to the coffee drinks being fantastic, their hot cocoa is amazing.... and you'll find the cocoa drinks are emblazoned with latte art and dusted with coffee.

Vulcan Cafe
Vulcan Cafe

Outside Auckland

In case you think that I was just on a vacation high, let me tell you that not every place had fantastic coffee. Once you get out of Auckland, you'll find that cafes are hit-or-miss. Here are a few cafes that get a marginal rating, in my book:

  • The Long Black Cafe at the Waitomo Glowworm Caves - very watery drinks
  • Brew Juice, Tea & Espresso Bar in Taupo - bitter coffee and the staff was equally bitter

New Zealand Countryside
New Zealand Countryside

After a few day's jaunt to the North Island's countryside, I returned to Auckland prior to flying back to California. Still trying to crack the code, I broke it down to the fundamentals and found that there were too many variables in play -- all of which make for excellent coffee in NZ.

Coffee Appliances

Every single cafe that I visited in Auckland had a full sized commercial, high quality espresso machine that was in perfect working order. All of the machines in NZ were fine pieces of stainless steel with gleaming chrome group heads. In fact all of the coffee appliances were high quality: there wasn't an orange-handled coffee pot to be found; and if you wanted drip coffee, you got a press pot to call your own.

Trained Baristas

Most American coffee shops are staffed by laborers who only know how to push buttons and assemble frozen desserts, I mean drinks. New Zealand coffee bar workers are actual baristas. They measure and tamp the espresso, they pour, steam, pre-heat, and generally know what the heck they are doing! And the latte art comes in lots of shapes and sizes... both free pouring latte art and etching (using powders and stencils.)

Latte Art
Latte Art

Water

Auckland's tap water seems to have just about the perfect balance of minerals for optimum coffee brewing. And if you think that water doesn't matter, think again. It seems to me that Auckland's tap water is not as "hard" as the water that comes out of my faucet in Southern California. Nearby volcanic rock, limestone caves, and a healthy amount of natural rainflow makes for abundant, clean aquifers.

Need Espresso
Need Espresso

Good Milk

If you live in America and you've only ever purchased milk from the supermarket, you haven't tasted milk from a grass fed cow. Grass fed cow milk is definitely better tasting. If you want a treat, see if your health food store carries milk from grass fed cattle.

Beans

Many of the cafes that I visited served espresso that was roasted a little lighter than the Seattle-style espresso favored stateside. One barista that I spoke to said that the blend was mostly Colombian. I was impressed by the seriousness with which the Kiwi people approach their coffee blends. Gaze in wonder as every shot comes out with a velvety blanket of perfect crema.

Summary

For the coffee lover, Auckland New Zealand should be at the top of the list of must-see locations in the world. Perhaps if you stay longer than a week, you'll be able to crack the code and you won't be lost in translation. The good news is that even if you do get lost, you'll be lost in a heavenly cloud of yummy microfoam, delicious crema, skilled baristas, and succulent dessert bites.

Published: November 2006, Last Modified: March 2014