Coffee reigns supreme in Wellington

Coffee is no laughing matter in the Capital, in fact we take it very seriously – but that wasn’t always the case, amazingly enough, tea once reigned supreme!

Oriental Bay Kiosk circa 1916.
Oriental Bay Kiosk circa 1916

Although Wellington reportedly has more cafes per capita than anywhere else in the world, and we can debate the merits of the best coffee, best coffee provider, and even best coffee bean for hours, the humble tea has a longer history than its darker and richer compadre.

Let’s start in Blighty, where the United Kingdom had been the largest per capita tea consumer in the world since the 18th century, and by 1840 it controlled tea production in much of the subcontinent. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that tea was the beverage of choice when the settlers arrived in New Zealand around about the same time.

At the turn of the century, tea kiosks popped up in well-frequented leisure spots like Oriental Bay, Miramar, Kelburn, Island Bay, and Days Bay, and by the 1920s the big department stores like Kirkcaldie & Stains, DIC, and James Smiths were replicating the tea rooms of their English counterparts.

Suzy's Coffee House on Willis Street circa 1960.
Suzy's Coffee House on Willis Street circa 1960

Establishments like Harry Seresin’s Coffee Gallery, Suzy’s Coffee Lounge, and Carmen’s International Coffee Lounge were the hip and cool places to hang out for the decade, and are still remembered fondly by Wellingtonians of a certain age!

Similarly, Mary Seddon, granddaughter of Liberal Party premier Richard Seddon, returned from travels overseas and set up the very popular Monde Marie with a very European style, including spaghetti bolognese and chilli con carne – très risqué for the day!

These establishments mostly served filter coffee, as although Italian espresso machines could be found they were hard to operate without proper training, coffee beans were scarce, and getting new parts for them was an arduous affair.

As there were mitigating factors that led to the surge in coffee houses, there were also many that led to its near demise in the 1960s.

Monde Marie on Roxburgh Street circa 1962
Monde Marie on Roxburgh Street circa 1962

The introduction of television to the masses led to many coffee houses closing due to declining customer numbers – the Matterhorn being the only one that still survives today, although in quite a different style!

This situation was exacerbated by changes in the licensing referendum of 1967 which saw the end of the six o’clock swill, and restaurants and hotels being able to serve food and alcohol until 10pm.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that a small American company called Starbucks started spreading the word about coffee, and with hordes of Kiwis going on their OE and American and British TV prevalent on our screens, the trend started to pick up pace here again.

Tim Rose and Geoff Marsland came back from Vancouver inspired by what they saw there and opened Cuba Street’s Midnight Espresso Cafe in 1989 – and soon started roasting their own beans under the Cuba Street inspired name of the Havana label.

French Maid Cafe on Lambton Quay circa 1951. Photo courtesy of the Evening Post.
French Maid Cafe on Lambton Quay circa 1951. Photo courtesy of the Evening Post

Caffe L'affare was quick to follow in 1990, with Coffee Supreme close on its heels selling its own roasted beans in 1993, then came hole-in-the-wall Fuel in 1996, Mojo in 2003, Peoples Coffee in 2004, and latest bad boy on the block Flight Coffee - the Capital even hosts Caffeination, the biggest coffee festival in the country.

And the rest, as they say, is history, although history repeats itself somewhat as there’s an ongoing battle raging about whether the Flat White is a Kiwi or Aussie invention – I say who cares, just make mine a large one!

Images courtesy of Alexander Turnbull Library.

The cafe scene today

We took a short tour of just a few of the wonderful cafes, bars and coffee roasters in Wellington's central city.

Thank you to all the wonderful and happy staff who posed for all the photos.