With the recent passing of Wellington café legend Suzy van der Kwast, history curator Stephanie Gibson delves into the history of café culture and coffee in Aotearoa New Zealand.
This photograph of Suzy’s Coffee Lounge shows coffee, relaxation, socialising, and business all rolled into one – check out the huge pile of letters below the smoking patron.
Coffee began its climb to ascendancy in New Zealand with the arrival of American servicemen in the Second World War and European immigrants and refugees who brought different coffee drinking habits and café sociability with them.
New Zealand’s café culture boomed in the 1950s, along with world-wide post-war recovery, the rise of youth culture, increasing affluence and leisure, and very importantly, espresso technology.
Previously, New Zealanders had found refreshment in tearooms, milk bars, or pubs. Until 1950, ‘coffee’ to most people meant ‘coffee essence’ – liquid coffee and chicory served in hot milk.
The new coffee bars filled a social gap – opening during the day for shoppers and workers, and remaining open during the night and early hours of the morning. They were relaxed places to read or talk, listen to music, meet friends. The coffee was usually filter or Cona drip coffee.
Only a few cafes had Italian espresso machines which tended to be unreliable but with impressive sound effects. Parts became hard to obtain after the government’s ‘black budget’ of 1958 restricting imports. So simpler styles of coffee such as Cona remained popular.
From the early 1970s café culture suffered a decline in New Zealand and around the world for reasons including the rise of television, the growing importance of processed foods (particularly instant coffee), and the change in liquor laws in New Zealand which allowed pubs to stay open longer.
However, some café cultures thrived during this period. Carmen’s Coffee Lounge and Chrissy Witoko’s Evergreen Coffee House in Wellington provided safe and welcoming spaces for the Rainbow community.
The current café culture boom emerged in the 1980s, with cafes and coffee carts spilling out onto pavements and city streets in the early 1990s. Increased international travel, breaking down of trade barriers, deregulation of business, and globalisation all contributed to the rebirth of public coffee drinking.