Beyond the flat white

21:37, Mar 08 2014
Coffee syphon
The syphon.

You might have noticed them at your local cafe. Skulking in corners, tattooed arms cupping tulip-shaped vessels, faces lighting up as a new aroma wafts through their well-developed nostrils. But then again, these days they're just as likely to blend in and be found beyond the dark confines of a roastery.

They could be your mother, sister, uncle, cousin, your workmate sitting quietly at her desk, your flatmate lugging home what looks like a science experiment. Never fear - they're just part of the third wave.

We used to be a nation of tea drinkers. It was the American servicemen stationed here, combined with the arrival of European refugees and immigrants used to drinking coffee rather than tea, that led to a boost in our coffee consumption from the 1940s onwards. This, for those in the know, was coffee's first wave.

The introduction of the instant stuff in the 60s saw Kiwis drinking more coffee than ever before and by the 80s this was the most common way it was drunk.

At that point, coffee and tea consumption sat at an even keel, but since then coffee has overtaken tea, helped largely by the cafe culture that sprang up in the 90s - bringing with it the big chains like Starbucks and Gloria Jeans, and the second wave.

These establishments popularised coffee like never before in New Zealand and introduced a whole new world of coffee types and flavours, including the much-maligned flavour shots.

cold brew coffee
A cold brew.

The third (current) wave first began to rise and influence Kiwi coffee-drinking habits about 10 years ago. It is generally less ostentatious than the second wave, and significantly more focused on quality.

This time around the beans - sometimes referred to as "specialty" or "single origin" - are critical. Where they come from and the nuanced effects this can have on the taste of the final product takes centre stage.

It is about treating coffee as an artisanal product, much like wine or good cheese - knowing your Ethiopian from your Papua New Guinean and looking to improve the quality at every painstaking step of the roasting, brewing and serving process. It also means appreciating that there is a vast world of brewing methodology beyond the simple espresso.

The phenomenon was first noted in the US in the early 2000s, but New Zealand (and our mates over the ditch) has followed a similar trend. According to Carl Sara, president of the New Zealand Specialty Coffee Association (which represents about half of all the roasters in New Zealand, and about 90 percent of our nation's coffee production), it started with baristas.

"When I started in 1999 as a barista, I learnt how to make a cup of coffee and my depth of knowledge was really just around the coffee machine," he says.


Sam Harvey  Atomic Coffee
MASTER BREWER: Sam Harvey of Atomic Coffee.

"I knew coffee came from Brazil, but that's about it. I knew that it went through a roaster, too. [Basically], all I knew was how to make a cup of coffee."

But there's been a dramatic shift in the past decade or so, he says.

"Now a barista understands the basic principles of roasting, at the very least. They tend to also understand where the coffee comes from and the different types of processing and how that can affect the cup - [plus] some of the science behind the coffee, as well."

This change in focus hasn't been limited to those in the industry, though. Carl says much of the drive to increase coffee knowledge and keep up with international brewing trends comes from a new era of consumer demand.

"People don't always need to know every single detail about their coffee, but they have an expectation that the companies making it do."

mike murphy Kokako
PIONEER: Mike Murphy of Kokako coffee.

Sam Harvey, sales manager at Atomic Coffee, points to a wall of different brewing devices available in the company's Kingsland, Auckland cafe. Some, like the Chemex - a glass flask with a wooden collar - are experiencing something of a renaissance.

The Chemex has been manufactured since the 1940s at a factory in Pittsfield, Massachusetts - one even has a place at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. They are also flying out the door in Auckland.

Alongside the Chemex are Hario V60s - little Japanese ceramic cup-like things designed to hold a filter - and at the odder end, syphons - a glass balloon that sits over a gas burner and underneath a beaker. Tricky to explain, but fire,
plus water, plus coffee equals magical things and a pretty damn spectacular way of making coffee.

The Chemex.
The Chemex.

Each of the techniques has different subtleties, but their purpose, Harvey says, is to allow coffee drinkers to better appreciate the flavours in a cup of coffee.

Often the coffee recommended for use in these devices comes from one origin and is more lightly roasted. It means the flavours are softer, and the texture more syrupy than an espresso, which is put under intense pressure and filled with thousands of micro-bubbles.

The refined taste means coffee is drunk without milk, and mostly without sugar.

Harvey says the cafe, with a roastery and specialist roaster on site, often gets groups of people turning up wanting to learn more about their coffee, try different blends, and get skilled in brewing techniques.

Friends will come and share a siphon and discuss the roaster's latest blend. It's akin to wine tasting and it's catching on because people can do it themselves.

"It started out as a coffee geek thing, but people have figured out they can do these things at home without needing a coffee machine worth thousands," says Harvey.

Third-wave coffee, according to Mike Murphy, general manager of Kokako Organic Coffee in Auckland, is "half art and half science". Kokako was started in 2001 by a couple from West Auckland - Murphy bought the business seven years ago and has transformed the brand.

He has travelled to personally meet coffee growers and his company has been at the forefront of innovation.

Kokako was one of the first to produce a cold brew in New Zealand - a method via which ground coffee is added to a fine mesh diffuser, followed by the slow addition of filtered water.

The coffee is left to "soft brew" for eight hours in a refrigerator and is then served icy cold.

The company roasts beans on its cafe site, a former post office, and when a new batch of beans arrives will hold a "cupping"; a technique used by roasters the world over to check the beans' quality and flavour.

Murphy says the third wave of coffee has something for everyone and follows the rest of the food movement by telling consumers more about what they are imbibing.

"It shouldn't be seen as a pretentious experience. It's an educational experience. There is no right or wrong -
you're [just] picking up the flavours you're tasting."

Liv Doogue, general manager of Peoples Coffee in Wellington, says the third wave is still growing, that the low rumble has reverberated and specialty coffee made by specialty baristas is now the standard in New Zealand, "as opposed to low quality commodity coffee".

Doogue says there has been a shift in perception, so that "coffee is now seen as a high value artisanal product, rather than just a caffeine fix. There is a better understanding of how it is roasted and how it is brewed and a real desire to showcase the unique flavour profile of coffee and every step in the crop-to-cup process."

It is not, she says, about being elitist. "People want to talk about where their coffee was grown and the people that grew it. They're more concerned with how their choices as a coffee drinker impact on the life for coffee farmers around the world. That is really big for us and that was our main vision - to connect people with the people that are growing their coffee."

Doogue says the movement continues to expand as the public gets a taste for single origin, lighter roasted coffee - and grows accustomed to the endless talk of plantations, elevation, variety, fair trade, brewing, flavour and aroma.

All of which can only mean good things for coffee in New Zealand, be it cold brew, Chemex, syphon, or - because old habits die hard - that trusty favourite, the flat white.

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