Thoughts of a coffee maestro

23:05, Dec 13 2012
Chris Dillon
Chris Dillon: "I haven't drunk instant in many years. That's my polite response."

Coffee Supreme owner Chris Dillon about Wellington's coffee culture, the filter/ espresso debate and semi-retirement.

How did you get into the coffee business?

I worked in the film industry and was sick of it. My partner, Maggie, worked in hospitality. She worked for a cafe here in Wellington for a year and we thought we could do things better ourselves, so we gave it a go. We opened a cafe called Reds in Willis St and it was really successful. She was really good behind the counter and behind the coffee machine. We started Supreme less than a year later.

What was the cafe culture like in 1992?

There weren't really a lot of modern cafes in Wellington. It was really fledgling. The food hasn't changed nearly as much as the coffee, though. I don't think egg dishes will ever go out of fashion. We knew very little about the coffee we were buying and roasting back then. We took what we could get.

What has changed in the coffee industry in the past decade?


Ten years ago, roasting companies had to rely on selling blends of coffee to go in espresso machines. It was very difficult to buy individual lots of coffee. Now, we talk about a coffee coming from a particular country and area. We can tell the story of the coffee and where it came from and how it should taste. So instead of people going into a cafe and saying, "I'll have a cup of Supreme", they'll ask for an Ethiopian coffee or a Kenyan coffee. It will really change the way discerning people drink and talk about coffee.

What are growers like?

Growers are sharp businessmen. They're not impoverished peasants. They realised that if they could offer first-world buyers consistent processing standards and quality control, they could get a whole lot more money for their beans. There's a competition called the Cup of Excellence to decide the best growers. The top 20 are ranked and they will then sell for five times the price of ordinary coffee. Even those who don't enter or win the competition benefit. They look at the success of the winner and want that, so they try to do better the next year. They produce a better quality product and get a better return. In the end the whole industry is lifted up.

Why is coffee so big in Wellington?

Apparently about 70 per cent of people in New Zealand still drink instant coffee. They say a coffee's a coffee. What drove the Wellington coffee culture is that three companies competed vigorously in the 90s: Caffe L'affare, Havana and Supreme. We developed our own styles and gave each other a huge amount of s***, but got on together as well. People from overseas rave about the standard of coffee here now. The competition here has also spawned a new generation of coffee roasters, like Flight and Mojo. People are coming in and having a go and some are making a real success of it.

Do you like instant coffee?

I haven't drunk instant in many years. That's my polite response.

Where is the coffee industry heading?

For the overwhelming majority of people, what they term a real coffee comes out of an espresso machine. They tend to think that coffee out of a plunger or through a filter is nana coffee.That's only partly true. It's nana coffee if the plunger or filter is dirty and it's not made with any care.

But I think there'll be a move away from espresso coffees to filter coffees. It's a much easier way to make coffee and it's very clean. In an espresso machine the coffee is always affected by the process. The machine has to be working properly and the people behind it have to know what they are doing. The coffee has to run the gauntlet and try to survive and end up OK in the cup. It doesn't have to run the same gauntlet with a filter.

How do you have your coffee?

I have black filtered coffee with breakfast. I use a little Swiss Gold filter, which is just a little one-cup filter that sits on top of your cup. I put about three dessertspoons of filtered grind in and fill it up to the line with not quite boiling water. I normally add a couple of spoons of cold water to the jug after it's boiled. A few minutes later it has all drained through. It's very easy. I can't screw it up, whereas with an espresso machine I normally take three or four tries to get a coffee I can drink.

Do you have a favourite coffee?

I don't, actually. I have some countries I like the coffee from, but there are too many to choose one favourite.

Are you enjoying semi- retirement?

Semi-retirement is a bit of a myth. I spend less time at work now than before, but I'm just as busy. I get time to do a lot more of the things I enjoy doing outside work, so of course I do them. We live out in the country, so there's always work to be done out there. I do more travel and read. We spend more time at our bach.

The Wellingtonian