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How did New Zealand become such a coffee-mad nation?

New Zealand is known as the No 8 wire nation. This innovative streak extends to the art of reconstructing the coffee bean, where a kiwi from Invercargill, David Strang, is reported to have invented the world’s first instant coffee. Another kiwi, Derek Townsend, also lays claim to having given the world its first flat white (but the Aussies say it is theirs too).

Such is the kiwi obsession with coffee most can’t function without one in the morning, accounting for employees spending a fair bit of time around the coffee machine at work.  New Zealand’s per capita consumption ranks among top 20 in the world, at 0.94 cup per day, according to statistics portal, Statista.com. This is ahead of US per capita consumption (at 0.93 cup) but below the Netherlands, at 2.41 cups, and Finland, at 1.85 cups per day.

Coffee innovation is happening right at the plantations, where producers are working closely with buyers to produce the best-in-field crops that are then processed into high-price beans.

In keeping with the tradition of a coffee-mad nation, the festival of coffee, Caffeination 2015, will hit Wellington at the TSB Bank Arena, on March 21-22, with a bigger dose.

Idealog catches up with Al Keating, managing director of specialty coffee roaster, Coffee Supreme, who can sniff a good bean from a bad one, to talk, all things coffee. Coffee Supreme is an exhibitor and a sponsor of Caffeination 2015.

Coffee Supreme managing director Al Keating

Q: Can you tell you a bit more about NZ’s obsession with coffee? When did we become such a coffee-crazy nation?

A: We are a fanatical bunch aren’t we. Beer, milk, wine, coffee.

I don’t know when we became obsessed with coffee, but I discovered coffee as a teenager, in the early 90’s. More importantly, I discovered that the cool kids were drinking coffee. Bowls full, of the stuff, at chipped formica tables, down backstreets, listening to Flying Nun records, and kids putting camembert on their pizza. 

Being so young, and so far away from the rest of the world, we took what our European grandparents introduced us to, and made it our own. The result, you might argue, was our obsession with coffee – the common ground around which we met each other. 

This left our homes, and settled into cafe spaces that served egg sandwiches and eccles cakes alongside drip coffee that tasted like a dark-brown version of last week. We met our friends in these places, our mums, our girlfriend’s mum – and we all ordered coffee. 

Then we ordered espresso.

Then we ordered flat whites, and we’ve never really looked back.

Q: Given that every country thinks it has the ‘best’ coffee, tell us a bit about what are the star qualities of a good coffee?

A: What is a good coffee? What is a good painting? It’s such a subjective thing. A ‘good coffee’ really is a coffee that you enjoy, right?

But, in order to answer this question, here are a few things that might help.

A good coffee is one that tastes like it is supposed to. It tastes like where it came from, not where it died. It should taste like a seed that grew inside a cherry on a tree in the ground, and was then dried, and roasted, and ground, and brewed somehow. 

Then, if you add milk, it should taste like all of that, with milk added.

If it tastes like it was burnt, then it most likely was. 

If it tastes old and stale, then it is probably old and stale. 

No wordy description or flashy fit-out or awkwardly-stylish bearded kid will be able to mask any of that.

It should be served in a cup that suits the style of the brew. It should be served with hospitable and generous attentiveness. If you’re buying it, it should be a reasonable price for a hand-made beverage in pleasant surroundings, all that stuff.

If you’re drinking it at the kitchen bench, or at your desk at work, it should be enjoyed from the very beginning of the process to the end.

Few of these things are how you’d expect a ‘good coffee’ to be described to you, but now you’re reading this, you’re thinking about about your coffee, and nodding, and smiling. Coffees good like that.

Fraser Lovell of Coffee Supreme roasting on their vintage Probat UG22 roaster

Q: How did NZ end up being a sort of coffee heaven, being named as a having among the world’s best coffee?

A: As I said earlier, we found ourselves down here, at the arse of the world. When it came to coffee, history and tradition seemed to have forgotten about us here in NZ – like an old remote in a drawer we no longer use. 

As a result, we were able to make things up a bit. We decided we didn’t want to roast coffee until it resembled sundried sheep shit any more, like our Italian and Greek grandparents. And we didn’t want to drink big frothy drinks that we didn’t know how to spell on our blackboard menus. So Derek Townsend stepped up and invented the flat white – from right here in Auckland, at Newmarket’s Cafe X-treme. 

The world couldn’t get enough of it. Cafes in London took on its name, kiwis set off like coffee missionaries to every corner of the globe – mostly Australia though – and spread the good news about our favourite brew.

Now Starbucks are serving them. We did it!

Q: How much coffee does NZ consume?

NZ is ranked the 13th highest consumer of coffee in the world. Higher than the USA and Australia. We drink on average 2.5 cups per week. Or, just less than half a cup a day each. I know I often struggle to finish a cup, because I get busy doing something else, and it goes cold.

Q: Robusta or Arabica? Or something else? What do kiwis drink mostly?

A: This may come as a surprise to many, but kiwi’s mostly drink Robusta. About 70% of coffee consumed in NZ is done so as instant coffee – which is predominately Robusta.  If you drink fresh, ground coffee, you’re in the minority. 

Q: What innovations have you seen in the coffee industry locally? Ie, what do kiwis do well in this industry? And what do they need to do better?

A: Innovation and coffee go together like steak and cheese, or Jono and Ben. Whenever you see someone innovating, in any industry, coffee can be seen sitting somewhere on the workbench. Our industry is no different. There are so many new gadgets, pieces of brewing equipment, bean-cooling grinders, under-bench espresso machines – the list goes on – and that’s just our end of the process.

I would say however that the most radical and exciting innovation in our industry is happening at origin – at the source. Growers of coffee, or, ‘producers’ as we like to say, are really steaming ahead in the ways they are growing and processing coffee. When people think of coffee growers, they tend to think of humble, third-world workers with wooden rakes wearing worn Valvoline trucker caps harvesting coffee the same way they have for generations. 

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Nowadays, we work closely with our producer friends as they grow, pick and process our coffees in innovative ways on par with wine-growing and farming. The technology may not be as impressive, but the thinking and subtle differences in process are light years ahead of how we all did it even a decade ago.

Loves peanut sauce, tennis, taichi, stockmarkets, and cool entrepreneurs – not necessarily in that order. In her previous reincarnations, she was an intranet worker bee at Mercer HR Consulting, a Reuters worker ant, and a NZ Herald mule.

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