We were tea drinkers in our family, English stock who warmed teapots and used knitted tea cosies - a dash of milk in first, never afterwards. On holiday, my parents packed their prized Thermette in the boot of the Valiant and drove north from Wellington, pulling in on the side of the highway at various intervals to collect twigs and light the billy for a cuppa.

In our household, coffee was a mystery. There was always a jar of Nescafe for those who insisted and, when special dinner guests came, the aluminium coffee percolator sat on the stove, making squirting, gurgling noises like a drain being cleared with a high-pressure hose. The coffee seemed to take forever to be "done".

Mum would serve it and, 15 minutes later, shoot back into the kitchen looking alarmed. Some of the guests wanted seconds, causing a dilemma because a) there were no coffee grounds left and b) even if there were, Mum and the percolator were over it. So, well out of sight of the visitors in the lounge, she'd scoop several spoonfuls of instant coffee into the percolator, add boiling water and Bob's your uncle. Mysteriously, no one seemed to notice or, if they did, they were too polite to say. The whole process fascinated me. It still does. I've never understood what it is about coffee that makes people drive across town to get one particular brew from one particular barista. I set out to find out.

Somehow, while I've been busy jiggling my Earl Grey teabag, New Zealand's coffee culture has become as complex, competitive and creative as the wine industry. Coffee, one of the highest-traded commodities in the world, has developed a life of its own, spurred on by big-bucks advertising - think George Clooney and Nespresso. Watch television or a movie and invariably someone walks into an office carrying a coffee, never a cup of tea - unless it's Downton Abbey. Espresso coffee is, it seems, the new cigarette in terms of cool.


Coffee even has its own language. "Drop by for a coffee" means "come round and visit me, even if we end up drinking wine". And "I need a coffee" doesn't mean you're thirsty. It means you're fed-up, tired or bored, and urgently need a caffeine pick-me-up.

From the mums in activewear waiting outside schools - iPhone in one hand and a coffee in the other - to office workers in lifts juggling mass takeaway coffee orders for colleagues, there's no doubt the humble little bean is here to stay, giving the likes of Twinings a run for their money.

Now, as if the tea industry is not up against enough, new research from the United States shows people who drink between three and five cups of coffee a day are less likely to die prematurely from heart disease, Parkinson's, suicide or diabetes.

And there's the social aspect. Kiwis use their local cafe much like the photocopier or the pub, a place to meet and gossip. For the past 20 years the same group of Glendowie locals has met at Tower Bakers in St Heliers, run by Tony Swanson, to have a Supreme coffee on Saturday mornings. They've become such good friends that they go out to dinner together and meet up when travelling overseas.

Coffee aficionados follow their beans and baristas like faithful disciples, passing on where-to-get-a-good-coffee advice as earnestly as share market tips. Where once baristas worked in cafes because they didn't know what else to do, now for many it's a calling. Start chatting to a barista and it's not unusual to find he or she has a university degree in economics, business or social geography. Learning about coffee and how to serve it is simply more interesting, they say.

And it's an important job, the end link in a long chain of people who handle coffee, starting with the farmers who grow the coffee "cherries", each fruit with two precious beans inside. In a competitive and unforgiving industry, there is no room for mistakes. One slip-up by a barista having an off day, one burned coffee too many, and the punters are gone.

The specialty coffee industry in New Zealand began in the now espresso-soaked capital, Wellington, in the early 1990s. Photo / Jason Oxenham
The specialty coffee industry in New Zealand began in the now espresso-soaked capital, Wellington, in the early 1990s. Photo / Jason Oxenham

By all accounts the specialty coffee industry in New Zealand began in the now espresso-soaked capital, Wellington, in the early 1990s. A small group of coffee enthusiasts began sourcing and roasting their own beans. One of the founding fathers, Jeff Kennedy, opened Cafe L'affare, later selling the cafe, the artisan roastery and the brand to Cerebos Gregg's in 2006 for a reported $25 million. Kennedy is back on the scene, opening Prefab cafe in Wellington two years ago with partner Bridget Dunn, roasting speciality coffee under the Acme brand.

Ironically, some in the industry credit Starbucks with giving coffee a shot in the demitasse when it opened its first cafe in Parnell in 1998. Here was a cafe, with comfy armchairs and low tables, where you could meet and be in no hurry to leave. And if plain coffee, with or without milk, wasn't your thing, there was a comfortingly long list of alternatives - mochas, cappuccinos, lattes, hot chocolates and their signature frappuccinos. Now it, too, is eyeing the specialty market with the opening of Starbucks Reserve - a roastery and tasting room - in Seattle, and more planned around the world.

McDonald's has also put a toe in the specialty cafe-and-coffee pond, opening The Corner in Sydney, a cafe serving quinoa salads and chipotle pulled pork with not a fry or burger in sight. Lattes come out with heart-shaped foam and the coffee, including cold drip, is, by most accounts, very good. With staff wearing button-down denim shirts and khaki aprons, the McDonald's connection is hard to spot.

McDonald's in New Zealand has no immediate plans to do the same but is redoing its McCafe in Greenlane, Auckland, to give it a hip look - including barstools on which to sit and sip barista coffee while waiting for your gourmet burger to be made.

Though coffee drinkers are becoming more sophisticated, much like wine drinkers, dedicated types in the industry have become almost obsessive. They speak in an earnest language, frequently using words like "passionate," "integrity," "ethical" and "single origin". They travel to the "bean belt" in far-away tropical and sub-tropical countries, sometimes with their baristas, to find the farmers growing the best beans. And they'll talk endlessly about coffee to anyone who will listen.

Christchurch barista Addison Dale, 25, this year's winner of the New Zealand Barista Championship, went to Colombia in November to meet the farmer who grew the coffee he used in his winning brews. Baristas, he says, should know what coffee they're serving and where it comes from. The visit entailed a half-day's climb from the town of Pitalito. "For a guy who's got only a couple of acres of farm, he's producing some awesome coffee," Dale says.

All the up-and-coming baristas have idols they aspire to emulate, like Dale and 23-year-old Kiwi barista Sam Low, who's twice won the Latte Art Championship and was runner-up in the Barista Championships. Low, now working in Melbourne "to push my craft even further", makes smiley faces on top of lattes look like kids' drawings. Like magic, he'll whip up a delicate swan floating on a pond, next to a reflected crescent moon, framed by green reeds. Awesome, his admirers say.

Young baristas start by waiting tables and learning from the experts. Others do formal training; the New Zealand School of Food and Wine in downtown Auckland offers three-day and two-week barista courses where students learn everything from the origin of beans to how to work the espresso machine. Most students starting a recent short course didn't want a career as a barista but saw it as a way of working their way through university.

But some change their minds once they are hooked into the industry. Hannah Cho, barista, trainer and quality controller for Kokako cafe and roastery in Grey Lynn, has a Bachelor of Management but pursued a career in coffee instead. With Kokako owner Mike Murphy (Bachelor of Arts) she travelled to Papua New Guinea this year armed with a mini-roaster and soft-brew coffee-making equipment for farmers who supply Kokako. Says Cho: "They had never drunk their coffee before."

With more than 200 specialty coffee roasteries in New Zealand, over-roasted bitter coffee is now as unacceptable as cask wine.

And the demand for a decent coffee has spread to the homes of the well-heeled where gleaming Italian espresso machines dominate kitchen benches, after-dinner party pieces involving much grinding, squirting, banging and spillage. Milly's Kitchen regularly sells the top-of-the-line Italian Vibiemme model for $3500, with a $1000 grinder - a good grinder is as important as a good knife is to a chef - and plenty of other smaller models.

Murphy suspects that, across Auckland, plenty of espresso machines are gathering dust in homes for no other reason than the time spent cleaning them for the sake of one or two cups of coffee is not worth the effort. He advocates simpler, cheaper, non-pressurised options like the aeropress, V60 and Chemex filter coffee-makers, or a plunger. The secret, he says, is to buy specialty coffee fresh each week, check it has a "roasted on" date, not a "use by," store it in an airtight container, grind it shortly before using and use filtered water, just off the boil.

Murphy encourages his regulars to sample this or that brew, preferably without milk, so they too can detect flavours like blackberry, vanilla and spice. Like others in the industry, Murphy and Cho talk coffee flavours like they're in a lolly store. Coffee importers and roasters take part in "cupping", the equivalent to the wine industry's slurp-and-spit tastings. A flavour wheel helps them navigate their way through subtle tastes like tropical fruit, chocolate, nut, savoury, gooseberry or brown sugar. The flavours change depending on where the beans are grown, how they are roasted and how the coffee is treated by the barista.

Complex stuff; and whether the majority of punters know or care is a moot point. But some do; coffee geeks and, increasingly, cafe-goers who can't help but catch the bug, crossing towns - and in some cases countries - to sample single-origin espressos and talk the lingo of clever drip, cold brew - increasingly with ice and tonic water - soft brew, aeropress and espresso. At $5 a cup, or three, the daily coffee habit of thousands of Kiwis is big business. Coffee vendors have figured out that if customers can't get to a cafe, they'll go to the customers. Mobile vans are increasingly dotted all over Auckland and at weekends they're doing brisker business at sports grounds than Mr Whippy.

The Tinman, John Martin, sells coffee at Okahu Bay from his 1967 Citroen H Van imported from France. Photo / Jason Oxenham
The Tinman, John Martin, sells coffee at Okahu Bay from his 1967 Citroen H Van imported from France. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Auckland engineer John Martin, who is a fan of specialty coffee, imported a 1967 Citroen H French utility van to turn into a mobile coffee shop. What used to be a carpenter's van in Provence arrived in a worse state than he expected, its corrugated iron cladding coated in rust. Ten months of hard work and $150,000 later, the Tinman van hit the road. Armed with specialty coffee from Kokako roastery, Martin's catchphrase is "coffee with heart", a reference to the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. In pride of place on the Tinman's counter is an enormous red $20,000 La Marzocco FB80 espresso machine.

This summer Martin added Kapiti scoop icecream to his offerings, taking Tinman where the coffee-thirsty crowds were. He does sell tea, he tells me, including Earl Grey. But he'd go broke if he relied on tea-drinkers, selling one cup for every 50 coffees.

We're obviously a dying breed. Maybe I should retire my tea bags and join the crowd.