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New Zealand Coffee Culture

New Zealand is a part of the British Commonwealth so up until a couple of decades ago, we were predominantly a tea drinking nation. Many Kiwis will still ask if you’d like to join them for a “cuppa tea” when you visit their home, but there’s a good chance they’ve already had their caffeine hit that morning at their local café or possibly from a home espresso machine gleaming on the granite bench (that’s Kiwi for countertop, by the way).

New Zealand Coffee

We don’t see many Italians down our way (unless they’re playing rugby or racing us in yachts), but I think it would be fair to say it’s probably the Italians who inspired the coffee craze in New Zealand. For one thing, despite the overwhelming number of cafes in New Zealand these days, you can’t get a cup of drip coffee in this country if your life depended on it. It’s something that confuses our friends from North America – sorry, but we really don’t have coffee brewing in a big pot out back somewhere, honest, we’re just not into that type of coffee. Us Kiwis, like our Italian friends, like our daily fix from an espresso machine.

Having said that, you can order a long black or an Americano and… who are we kidding, it probably won’t be anything like what you’re expecting. So, perhaps it’s the perfect opportunity to discover a new favourite drink, eh? 

Making Sense of a Coffee Menu in New Zealand

Some of these terms will be familiar; others may be New Zealand new. Coffee

Short black: This is simply a shot of espresso served in a demi-tasse cup. Look for a rich velvety layer on top of the almost black liquid.

Ristretto: For those who would opt to mainline their caffeine, this is the next best thing. The barista changes the pressure on the machine and uses the same amount of ground beans and half the water so you end up with a high-octane half shot of espresso. I’m shaking just thinking about it!

Long black: A shot of espresso served over hot water. It’s quite common for fussy types to ask for a small jug of hot water on the side so they can water down their own espresso, saving their barista the heartache. Sometimes people will ask for milk with this, as a kind of DIY Flat White (see below).

Americano: This is a cheat’s version of drip coffee (which, as I mentioned, is simply not an option), and is kind of a long black made in reverse. It starts with a double shot of espresso in a big mug and then hot water is poured into it. It’s way stronger than drip, but it’ll at least look familiar.

Macchiato: A single shot of espresso with just a dollop of frothed milk. Ask for a “double machiatto” if you’d like two shots.

Cappuccino: This should be familiar, made up of a shot of espresso with equal parts steamed milk and a generous cap of foam to top it off.

Flat white: Probably the most common coffee ordered in NZ. This is the size of a cappuccino but more milky. It’s made up of one-third espresso, two-thirds steamed milk and just a touch of swirled froth on top, hence the name.

Latte: For those who prefer a touch of coffee with their milk, rather than the other way around, this will get you a shot of espresso in lots of hot milk with little or no froth.

Mochaccino: A chocolaty version of a cappuccino made with espresso, steamed milk and cocoa with froth on top.

Mocha: Basically a hot chocolate with a shot of espresso, whipped cream optional, for a nod to a childhood favourite with a more grown-up kick.

Chai latte: Not technically an espresso drink, but this alternative for non-coffee drinkers has become so ubiquitous it warranted a mention. Originally made with a strong brew of black tea, cloves, cinnamon and cardamom topped with steamed milk, these days all but the best cafes cheat by using a powdered mix or add a shot of chai-flavoured syrup to steamed milk (often soy). Oddly, chai means ‘tea’ in several languages and latte means ‘milk’ in Italian, so chai latte is simply tea with milk!

Fluffy: A demi-tasse cup filled with steamed milk and froth, sprinkled with chocolate and served with a marshmallow on the side – just the thing to keep a sophisticated tot amused while mummy sips her drink. An ingenious idea that has been surprisingly slow to take off in other parts of the world as it’s quite common here to see a toddler dragging mum into a café demanding their daily fluffy fix!

Milk Options:
Ask for “trim milk” or a “skinny [name of drink]” if you want low-fat milk, although don’t be surprised if it’s not available off the beaten track in places like the GYC café in Glenorchy. (If this is important, check that your barista is pouring milk from a jug with a green lid, full-fat milk usually has a blue lid.) Same holds for soy milk and decaf – readily available in tourist centres and urban areas but hit or miss otherwise.

Visiting Your 'Local'

For Kiwis, the café where you buy your daily fix from is nearly as important as the coffee itself. Whether it be retro décor, funky tunes playing in the background, or the café owner who remembers your name, even if you’re only able to make it in once a month (yes, we’re talking about you, Steve, from Refuel café in Queenstown).

Kiwis are staunch supporters of mom n’ pop establishments and are still resisting the trend toward chains. So I was shocked to discover there are currently 40 Starbucks stores operating throughout the country where a homesick tourist can order a venti gingerbread latte with sprinkles and extra whipped cream. I hope you don’t mind if we give it a miss. (Flavoured coffees are not the norm around here, although some local cafes that get lots of tourist traffic are starting to stock some syrups.)
As the story goes, when CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, was pitching the idea of setting up coffee shops in the U.S to investors in the late 80′s, he didn’t focus on the coffee. He said this instead: “We’re going to build a 3rd place between work and home.” Well it seems they built a 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th place between work and home as well - and their coffee is average in all of them!  

Favourite local Queenstown haunts:
Vudu Café and Larder (or if you’re reading this, Steve) Refuel Café

Thinking of coming to New Zealand?

If you're not sure of your plans just yet, a good place to start is our free New Zealand brochure. With a full fold-out map of New Zealand, information on our hiking and adventure trips, as well as lots of cool photos, it's a great place to begin your research.

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Or, if you want to have a chat with a local about your plans, feel free to give Miri, Fiona or Matty a call on 1 800 661 9073 (USA/Canada), 0808 234 7780 (UK) or +64 3 450 0414 (worldwide).

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