Guide to New Zealand’s Coffee Culture

shona hore

By Shona Hore

6 minute read

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Since that first recorded sip of this aromatic brown liquid in the fourteenth century, through to today’s café culture, coffee has become a staple (and for some a necessity) in many pantries around the world, and New Zealand is no exception.

Coffee has become a huge part of daily life in New Zealand and no trip here would be complete without experiencing the joy of a flat white or long black in one of our many incredible local cafes. Trying new things is always a memorable part of any adventure and our New Zealand hiking tours are no exception. We love sharing our favourite local drops with our guests as well as other distinctly New Zealand delicacies as we explore the best of our beautiful country. 

A short history of New Zealand coffee culture

No one seems to know exactly where coffee originated in Africa, but many believe it was Ethiopia, which is still a major player on the coffee producing circuit (around 384,000 metric tons or 846,575,000 pounds produced annually). Coffee has exploded on a global scale since its introduction to Europe in the mid-1600’s.

Coffee has been in New Zealand since Europeans first arrived, but being so far away from everywhere we had to get a little inventive. And while instant coffee wasn’t a new concept, New Zealander David Strang from Invercargill, invented the first truly instant or soluble coffee in 1890.

New Zealand was a little late to the coffee culture scene and, taking inspiration from our espresso-drinking Italian friends, these machines started popping up in cafés and tearooms across the country from about the mid-1980’s. But as with many things, we took it and ran with it, and now we are known as one of the best coffee making countries in the world.

Fun New Zealand coffee facts

  • Our capital city, Wellington, has more cafés per capita than New York City.
  • You won’t find a drip coffee in New Zealand - sorry about that!
  • Most kiwi homes will sport a French press/plunger if they don’t have an espresso machine.
  • The method of making espresso results in a stronger coffee with bolder flavours than drip coffee – this can offer a real kick for anyone unaccustomed to drinking espresso, be warned!
  • All New Zealand coffee starts with the exact same espresso shot (quite often a double shot); this means that you will be getting the same amount of caffeine regardless of what style of coffee you order unless you specify otherwise.
  • Reusable cups are encouraged in New Zealand, with most takeaway cups globally unable to be recycled.
  • Per capita, our coffee consumption rate is in the top 20 in the world, just ahead of the USA.
  • New Zealand has a coffee festival, held in Auckland during March every year.
  • Latte art has found a foothold across the globe with creative baristas showcasing their skills. New Zealand loves the fern design, to represent the iconic Silver Fern.
Latte art on a New Zealand coffee

The Silver Fern, a latte art staple in cafes around New Zealand.

What constitutes a great coffee?

What constitutes great art? Coffee is subjective and as such, if it tastes great to you, it’s a great coffee.

Coffee should taste like coffee; fresh and aromatic, like it came from a bean off a tree. If your coffee tastes burnt, it probably is, likewise if your coffee tastes stale. Everything else is to the taste of the individual, so don’t let the self-professed coffee connoisseurs tell you your favourite brew is no good – if you love it, that’s all that matters.

Disseminating New Zealand’s coffee menu

Not sure what to order from our range? Have a look over the menu below to get an idea of what you might like, or have fun and try them all – just maybe not all at once!

coffee infographic

The difference between an Americano and a Long Black

While these two drinks may seem the same at first glance, there are some discernible differences. Pouring twice the amount of hot water over a shot of espresso makes an Americano, while a Long Black is produced in the opposite way. It is very important in the making of a Long Black that the espresso (or ristretto) is poured over the hot water. This retains the crema and makes the coffee less voluminous and therefore stronger in flavour.

Espresso coffee New Zealand

The base of all New Zealand coffees, a decent shot of espresso!

If you want your coffee a little more like what you would have at home, you can order either an Americano or Long Black with milk on the side. This is a great option for those who aren't so keen on foamy and/or warm milk.

The world famous Flat White

Just like the Pavlova dessert, there are arguments between Australia and New Zealand regarding who invented the Flat White – nothing like a little trans-Tasman rivalry to get the blood pumping.

With arguments and ‘proof’ on both sides, it’s hard to decide. Australian Alan Preston claims that in 1985 he invented the Flat White at his Sydney café, the Moors Espresso Bar, claiming his inspiration was from Queensland cafés that in the 60’s and 70’s advertised White Coffee – Flat.

On the opposite side of the Tasman here in little old New Zealand, kiwi barista Frank McInnes claims to have invented the Flat White after botching a cappuccino at Wellington’s Café Bodega in 1989. Not able to get the milk to froth, McInnes apologised to his customer, saying ‘sorry – it’s a Flat White’.

Since the 90’s the Flat White from ‘down under’ has become a staple in cafés around the UK and USA, including Starbucks – who inadvertently began this origin war by calling it an Australian coffee.

Regardless of the origin, the Flat White continues to be a fan favourite in New Zealand. Offering up a drink that is stronger than a latte and smoother than a cappuccino, this middle ground is what has made it so incredibly popular both in Australia and New Zealand, as well as across the globe.   

How to fit in – the social situation

New Zealand still has a few traditions retained from our days as a British colony, and having ‘tea breaks’ in the morning and afternoon (fondly known as morning or afternoon tea) is one of them. These days, busy workers in cities throughout New Zealand throng to cafés lining the streets to get their caffeine fix. This is a very social occasion, catching up with friends or co-workers and as such the idea of Wi-Fi in a café hasn’t caught on here, it’s more of an afterthought. So, if you visit New Zealand and wonder about the slower internet speeds, just know that it hasn’t become as much of a social necessity in New Zealand as it has in other countries. Maybe it’s time to strike up a conversation with that stranger next to you… just another very kiwi quirk, so don’t be surprised if someone does try to start a conversation over a ‘cuppa’ while you are here.

Coffee culture New Zealand

Cafe culture in New Zealand is a social time, catching up with friends or co-workers over a coffee.

So, if you want to jump right into New Zealand’s café culture, there are a few things to remember:

  • You won't find drip coffee here
  • Be prepared that the Wifi speed may not blow your socks off
  • Cafés are a great place to make new friends
  • Bring your reusable cup (optional)
  • Savour your coffee for the best experience
  • The only place you will get a triple, venti, half-sweet, non-fat, caramel macchiato is Starbucks (they sell flat whites there too – just saying)

So, if you plan to travel to New Zealand or are already here, head down to a local café and enjoy a delicious cup of coffee, and soak up the relaxed and social nature of our Kiwi Coffee Culture.

Let our guides show you their favourite New Zealand coffee haunts. Check our trip schedules and availability on our availability page. To work out which trip suits you best, check out Which Trip is Right For Me.

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Let’s talk – we’d love to hear what you think. Pop your details in below and have your say.

  • Linc, New Zealand July 2023

    Please add to the page Coffee trails that instant (freeze dried) coffee was invented in Invercargill, I know that real coffee coniseiurs aren't into instant coffee but it's an interesting fact and especially for Invercargill to help keep it on the tourist map and the house where it was invented is still standing and a listed building for that reason, instant coffee is important in the story of coffee

    • Ziggy Dukes, July 2023

      Linc, thank you for checking out our article. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Certainly instant coffee is a big part of coffee history and could be a good addition to this article or perhaps future posts. Thanks for reading :)

  • Rachael, NZ September 2021

    Hi there, just wondering if you please have a link to this information? *Per capita, our coffee consumption rate is in the top 20 in the world, just ahead of the USA.

  • Melissa, New Zealand December 2020

    I was just reading your guide to New Zealand's Coffee Culture - interesting facts! you learn something new everyday. I love coffee, but gave it up once - stigma around caffeine and all, but a few months later my Asthma was so bad until my doctor suggested I start drinking coffee again - and wham, it did the trick! Apparently back in the day coffee was the solution for Asthmatics it opened up the airwaves or something, either way never giving up coffee ever again. Great article thanks.

  • Colin Ross, Canada March 2020

    Third visit to NZ coming up in April. First two - I had to learn about the differences in coffee terminology between NZ and Canada. BTW - you CAN find drip coffee but only in Starbucks and, you have to ask for it and endure their slightly patronizing yet compassionate look. Ha! Just sayin...

  • Colleen Ferguson-Smith, Canada August 2019

    I absolutely love this. Being a Kiwi living in Canada and trying to explain what our cafes are like in NZ is and can be a little trying lol. You have put this succinctly and I had a few chuckles reading it with the kiwi humour and upfront. LOVE IT LOVE IT.

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