“Have a nosy,” says the server at Orphan’s Kitchen, pointing past a teal La Marzocco espresso machine to a hidden courtyard lined with a modest herb garden and a few long rustic tables.
Orphan’s Kitchen is one of many busy cafes along chic Ponsonby Road in Auckland, New Zealand. On a hot summer Friday, customers fill the blonde wood community table inside the cozy restaurant, the crowds overflowing into the courtyard and out onto the front sidewalk. Inside, a turntable plays vinyl records next to the cash register. For brunch, the most popular item is toast topped with avocado, kiwifruit chili sauce, and sauerkraut—almost always ordered alongside the country’s unofficial national beverage: the flat white.
Before the drink appeared on Starbucks menus in 2015, most Americans probably would’ve thought of “flat white” as an insult rather than a distinctive espresso drink. It’s more widely known now but still hasn’t made it onto many specialty coffee shop menus in the US. Not to be mistaken with a blonde roast, a flat white is just espresso and steamed milk—basically a smaller and stronger latte.
“We’ve been steaming milk for 25 years, but I’ve never really thought about why we love flat whites. Maybe people just want a stronger milk beverage?” says Jonny Calder, marketing manager at Coffee Supreme.
Although most New Zealand coffee drinkers consider Wellington the nation’s unofficial coffee capital (think Seattle vs. Portland), Auckland’s coffee scene is gaining a reputation for higher quality coffee and design-minded cafes. With a population of 1.5 million, Auckland is the nation’s largest city but typically considered less laid back than Wellington (despite its fair share of beaches and surf spots). Coffee Supreme is one company helping level-up the area’s coffee culture; their beans can be found at Orphan’s Kitchen as well as other popular spots like The Candy Shop and Seabreeze Cafe. Supreme, based in Wellington and with international outposts in Brisbane, Melbourne, and Tokyo, has been a significant player in shifting Aucklanders’ tastes away from largely diluted lattes to smaller flat whites and even single-origin roasts, brewed with trendy manual pour-over methods (referred to under the catch-all term “filter”).
“The cafe industry in Auckland was really bland up until about ten years ago. I used to drive from Wellington to here, and there was only one cafe I liked,” said Calder. “The growth in hospitality has been massive, and the progression in coffee has been really, really rapid.”
Travelers to Auckland will find there's no shortage of friendly places to have a cup, especially on streets like Ponsonby Rd, a luxe shopping and dining district similar to Venice, CA’s Abbot Kinney Blvd. Even the boutiques offer upscale espresso service. At Barkers', a national chain of menswear shops that's a cross between Bonobos and J Crew, their flat whites feature beans from locals Atomic Roasters. It adds a casual element to the shopping experience, transforming the spot into a place to hang out rather than just purchase a polo.
Just a few doors down from Orphan’s Kitchen you'll find Allpress Espresso, another of the city's most established specialty coffee roasters. The tiny shop only has seating for around ten people, with much of the space devoted to retail beans and a counter for coffee education classes. Customers can choose from seven types of beans, described by origin country, roast level, and flavor profile. Allpress' most popular roast is the Rangitoto, a full-bodied blend of Brazilian, Colombian, Guatemalan, and Sumatran coffees. Like with many American companies, they see coffee not just as a drink but a lifestyle, offering a free print publication called Press that features stories ranging from their coffee importer’s diary of a recent trip to Colombia to a tour of cafes along the New South Wales coast of Australia.
Supreme and Allpress aim to appeal to both traditional flat white drinkers and more nuanced palettes, but those looking for an uncompromising specialty coffee experience should visit Catalyst Coffee. Located in the older neighborhood of Remuera (a 15 minute Uber ride from Ponsonby), the shop is owned by a pair of baristas so skilled they were invited to the World Barista Championships in 2014. The unusual neighborhood and industry pedigree also makes Catalyst a destination for coffee nerds. The shop does have plenty of regulars, but since it’s hidden behind a row of other businesses, the lower foot traffic means it can offer a more specific menu.
“We just want to make specialty coffee accessible to everyone and let people understand the different types,” says Catalyst owner Hanna Teramoto. “One of the reasons why we're hidden is that we don't do soy, trim, or decaf. Most people find our place because they're looking for something different.”
That means they offer beans from fetishized international roasters like Tim Wendelboe (Norway) and The Barn (Germany), names that might not be familiar to the average drinker, but have substantial industry reputations. Catalyst varies the brew method for each bean, with some used for espresso drinks and others brewed through filter devices like the Hario V60 or Blue Bottle Dripper. They also make a 24-hour cold brew that tends to sell out within 60 minutes. Be careful if you’re asking for iced coffee elsewhere though, you’re likely to receive an Americano with a scoop of ice cream.
To find another creative take on cold coffee, check the specials board at Little Bird Organics. The self-declared “unbakery” operates two cafes specializing in raw plant-based foods and offer an array of prepackaged products ranging from macaroons to granola. They use organic coffee beans from local roaster Kokako, mixed into luxe drinks like the Super Coffee, which features cold brew plus mushrooms (reishi and cordyceps), mucuna beans, orange, and coco cashew milk.
It may be the furthest thing from a flat white but shows that the Auckland coffee culture is much more than just tiny lattes. The city is so full of delicious and surprising coffee options; it’s enough to give Seattle, let alone Wellington, a run for its money.