Jim Kayes gets some jive java on a North Island road trip.

It shouldn't be hard. It's coffee. A flat white. It's bog standard.

It's the instant coffee of proper coffee, the Big Mac of burgers, the Lion Red of beer.

There is nothing flash about it. It's 60ml of coffee and 120ml of heated milk. We're not talking a decaf soy latte here — surely the most reprehensible coffee you can order. A flat white is extremely simple but some people can't get it right. And nothing brings that message home more clearly than sampling the coffees on a road trip through New Zealand.

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Too hot is a crime on a par with a pie that burns the top of your mouth. Too weak and you should automatically get your money back.

At the Hot Bread Cafe in Opotiki, which is also a bus transit stop, business seemed good.

That's often an encouraging sign because a busy barista is surely well practiced and should be in good form.

Perhaps the young woman who served me was having a bad day because she was as surly as a driver stuck behind a ute towing a trailer with 20 surfboards on it through the Waioeka Gorge (sorry folks, I did try to pull over). And the coffee was so hot it would've melted tar seal. It took 22 minutes to drink it.

I have a theory that the quality of the coffee is directly linked to the number of tattoos and body piercings the barista has. The more ink and holes in ears, eyebrows and noses the better the coffee. At least that's how it is in Auckland and Wellington.

There's a low ratio of tattoos and nose rings in the regions, so on my road trip to Gisborne via Whangamata returning with a stopover at The Mount I was forced to revise my theory.

On the highways and at the beaches good coffee was found in caravans and converted containers, served by relaxed folks ... surfer-type dudes.

On the road out to Wainui Beach from Gisborne, Raglan Roast faces out to an unappealing carpark but the coffee is supreme. Perfect temperature and strength — and it cost just $3.50.

Yes, you Auckland cafes with your rip-off prices ... $3.50!

At Tolaga Bay, tucked into the back of the carpark, was a truck converted to a cafe where for $4 I hit the jackpot. Maybe it was because it was a bleak old day with lots of rain and wind, but the flat white was pretty near perfect.

Not all surfing centres have the coffee vibe though. Whangamata was good but not great, while The Mount is a mixed bag. Sandbank, a caravan parked up on the grass, was great, but at Le Marie cafe under The Pacific apartments a block from the beach I waited 15 minutes for a $4 flat white that was weak and cold. Good grief.

Perhaps I need to take heed from the Drift Cafe, a converted container on the road to Matata. Having blasted along the straights with the windows down and stereo pumping, I got a great cup of java for $4.20. They sell cheese rolls and iceblocks too.

And the coffee comes in a cup with a message. "Relax," it says, "it's just coffee".

It is, but why is it so hard to get right?