It's not until I reach the airport on my way out of Wellington that I realise just how high I am. My hands shake as I fill my bottle at the water fountain; sitting in the lounge I hear the whoomp of my heart furiously pumping blood around my body; I fuss and fidget and my mind chimpanzees from one thought to another. Ahh, I remember this feeling. This sweaty-palmed, anxiety-riddled feeling that is precisely why I decided to give coffee up for Lent 14 years ago. Until today, that is, when the brews offered up in New Zealand's coffee capital proved too much for me to resist.
It all started at Mojo Coffee three hours ago. I'd entered the Lambton Quay cafe – one of 22 outlets the company owns in Wellington, all sexy chrome and glass and expensive-looking machines – thinking a sniff of Wellington's world-famous coffee is as far as I'd go for research purposes. But then, I met the barista Elliott, a tattooed, bearded hipster in a starched white shirt and denim apron who confessed to drinking seven coffees a day, and everything changed. He'd wooed me with his coffee bean descriptions. The Costa Rican bean which he dubbed "juicy, crisp-bodied, with nice dried apricot notes"; the naturally processed Ethiopian bean with its "strawberry and raspberry notes" and "creamy milk chocolate finish"; and the "caramelised flavours and nice round full body" of the Guatemalan bean.
The wooing continued while Elliott showed me Mojo's Alpha Dominche "SteamPunk" coffee machine, looking like something out of a science lab and using steam to get a more precise brew temperature, and their $30,000 Synesso hand-built espresso machine.
Poetry and pomp, how could I say no? He slid the steaming cup across the bench, the rich aromas filled my nostrils, and I found myself not only sniffing but sipping, too. And as the deliciously nutty, fruity liquid slid down my throat, I couldn't stop sipping. Even when Elliott explained that what makes Wellington's coffee so good is that they serve standard double shots – meaning that by the time I'd finished that first cup, I'd actually had two strong hits of caffeine.
I vibrated out along the street past a seemingly endless parade of cafes, across the City to Sea Bridge and into Nikau Cafe, attached to the Wellington City Art Gallery. Pulling up a wooden chair in the light, airy space I ordered one of their home-baked scones – and a flat white. I needed to, I told myself, to get to the bottom of last year's internationally publicised debate about whether the flat white was really invented in Sydney or in Wellington in the '80s. Never mind the fact I hadn't drunk a flat white in Sydney for 14 years, and therefore had nothing to compare it to. Or that Wellington's flat whites being better than Sydney's would go no way to proving which city invented it, anyway. When you're in the clutches of a drug, reasoning goes straight out the window.
"We use Supreme Coffee, a blend of three Brazilian beans roasted here in Wellington, very rich," said the waiter, placing the cup reverently in front of me. Another coffee nerd whose passion was infectious, and whose barista skills were nothing short of spectacular. I was looking at the bottom of the cup in three minutes flat.
By the time I got to the award-winning Ti Kouka Cafe in Wellington Central, I was a caffeine convert. Flying high, I buzzed through the nondescript doorway and up the stairs following the heady scent of espresso, ordered my next fix of the magical elixir from the brusque, bearded owner Jesse (a latte made with beans from renowned Wellington Red Rabbit Coffee Company) and, because the hip cafe was crammed full of loyal coffee-drinking enthusiasts, took it to go.
Cradling the smooth, light-roasted brew in my quivering hands as I wove amongst the caffeinated crowds, I decided that whatever coffee come down was waiting for me around the corner, it would be worth it.
This wasn't just coffee. This was art.
Air New Zealand operates multiple daily flights between Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Wellington; see airnewzealand.com.au.
Zest run food, coffee and wine discovery walking tours through Wellington, from $105 a person, with a minimum of two guests a tour. See zestfoodtours.co.nz.
Nina Karnikowski travelled to Wellington as a guest of Air New Zealand and Positively Wellington Tourism.
FIVE OTHER GREAT WELLINGTON COFFEE SHOPS
FLIGHT COFFEE HANGAR
The flagship cafe of Flight Coffee sits right in the centre of the city, offering rustic decor, traditional roasting techniques, and coffee flights where you can get your caffeine hit three ways. 119 Dixon Street, Te Aro; flightcoffee.co.nz.
PEOPLES COFFEE ESPRESSO BAR
The flagship outpost of another of Wellingon's favourite beans, with a strong ethical awareness and a choice of different brewing methods. 12 Constable Street, Newtown; peoplescoffee.co.nz.
MEMPHIS BELLE COFFEE HOUSE
Take a seat on one of the op-shop couches out front and sink into the community atmosphere of this inner-city caffeinistas retreat. 38 Dixon Street, Te Aro.
LAMASON BREW BAR
With a choice of fair trade organic beans from destinations including Guatemala and Mexico, coffee snobs can sit and watch the siphon bulb do its thing. Don't miss their deconstructed flat white. Corner Bond and Lombard streets.
This sophisticated Wellington institution uses coffee from Coffee Supreme roasters, served alongside tasty seasonal food from local and national producers. 161 Cuba Street; floriditas.co.nz.