It hasn't always been this way. It used to be tea and lamingtons; a slice of ham and a smear of mustard within two sad, soft white slices of bread. But as we enter the third decade of the 21st century, coffee and its attendant foodie culture is enmeshed in our national psyche. It shows no sign of budging.

Starting in the early '80s, with pioneering cafes such as DKD in Auckland and Atomic on Ponsonby Rd, a few years later, coffee consumption has reached a critical mass and now there's a cool cafe in every cranny.

There's a type of mania to the way in which we consume coffee. But why? What makes coffee such a tantalising treat? Why are we so bonkers about the bean?

This is the question posed by Emma Felton, a senior lecturer at the University of Queensland, in her recent book Filtered: Coffee, the Cafe and the 21st Century City. The book explores the rise of cafe culture and looks at how technology, changing work patterns, and the rise of foodie culture has made the cafe experience so ubiquitous.


Although her experience is based in Australia, much of what she's uncovered has relevance in New Zealand as well.

Cities have been cleaned up; the moneyed flock to them. And much of the popularity of cafes is down to the increased amenity in cities; the attendant gentrification process.

You can see this in Auckland: the boom in building and changing face of fored both the numbers and the physical spaces needed for food and coffee culture to thrive.

"Cities are in the business of attracting tourists and people to live," she says. "So many local authorities get behind urban renewal and the result is more places to eat, drink and shop."

This is "big picture" stuff, but there are more personal reasons why coffee culture thrives.

Felton says that for women in particular, cafes provide a space in which to engage socially and without fear. Bars can be threatening, but as daylight meeting spaces, cafes offer an attractive alternative.

"I [also] joke that the cafe's popularity might be tracked to the rise in online dating. The time it takes to have a cup of coffee, can be enough time to assess a stranger, and leave with everyone's dignity intact," laughs Felton.

We've also moved out of the shadow of colonialism.


Our formerly stodgy "meat and three veg" British-influenced diet has been transformed by the rise of innovative chefs who marry the best international food with their own Kiwi sensibility.

Cafe culture has risen alongside this new foodie culture. Coffee connoisseurs (like their craft beer counterparts) are serious beasts; the provenance of the bean, the roasting technique and temperatures analysed with scrutiny.

"There's a connoisseur/foodie element to the type of cafes that have emerged," says Felton.

"The specialty of a 'third wave' cafe, where the emphasis is on the craft of coffee and coffee making, which is regarded as artisan."

She says that this plays into people's sense of identity, especially when ethical issues come into play.

"It's also about community, feeling that you are part of a group of people who value similar things — for example ethically sourced, quality food and drink."


These "hipster" cafes are the playgrounds of the bearded and the tattooed; places in which you feel you need a doctorate in design just to be allowed entry. But even the most intimidatingly cool cafes offer a space in which to gather, take a breath, and restore flagging spirits.

"Other demographic influences are the fragmentation of traditional social bonds, encouraging us to forge different types of relationships. And in our busy urban lives, the cafe can be a place for respite, to read or just relax for a short while," says Felton.

The latte-sipping millennial is likely vying for their next gig so they can pay the rent; and the cafe provides an inexpensive workspace from which to do it

Another aspect of cafes' ubiquitous appeal is their usefulness as a workspace. The Mac on the table is a fixture, and while this may seem to the deskbound a delightful way in which to work, there's a darker reality behind it.

"Two influences are driving [the rise in cafes as a workplace]: technology and the rise of contract work or the 'gig' economy, where people aren't tethered to a workplace and can bring a laptop to the cafe."

The precariat (those who move from job to job without fixed employment) is an outworking of our late capitalist economic model. The latte-sipping millennial is likely vying for their next gig so they can pay the rent; and the cafe provides an inexpensive workspace from which to do it.

Back in the day, eateries were stolid affairs: stodgy sausage rolls served with a lash of tomato sauce, chocolate eclairs the most exotic dish in the display cabinet. Daytime leisure activities were limited to what you'd create for yourself — picnics in local parks, or a bit of sport.


Night saw the cities and towns open up; live music being a major drawcard for many from the late 1960s onwards. The rise of cafes in New Zealand has a direct correlation with the death of nightlife. The days of waiting until after dark to get your fix of entertainment have gone; it's early morning caffeine fixes instead of dancing until dawn.

According to a new report Living After Midnight, there are fewer bars and clubs now than in 2008, when there were 600,000 less of us. Maybe we are more puritanical these days, or maybe we are so heavily regulated that people can no longer afford to set up nightspots.

Whatever the case, the action has moved from 12am to 12pm and wine and song replaced with long blacks and espressos. It's a culture shift that's jarring for those of us who preferred to hide in the shadows.

But coffee culture, like all trends, will undoubtedly ebb and flow. Which may be hard to imagine given the all conglomeration of cafes that proliferate our fair city. The tentacles of gentrification keep spreading, and with them, the cafes.

That vacant petrol station is likely to be transformed into a boutique roastery in the near future. Watch this space.