The land of the long black and flat white: Coffee culture in Aotearoa

The land of the long black and flat white: Coffee culture in Aotearoa

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.

An overheard photo of two women sitting at a table with a pile of letters
Suzy’s coffee lounge, Willis Street, Wellington, 1968, by John Daley. Gift of John Daley, 2012. Te Papa (O.038877)

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.

A set of blue and white cups and saucers
Coffee set, 1948-1952, by Susie Cooper, United Kingdom. Walter C Cook Decorative Art Collection. Gift of Walter Cook, 1992. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (CG001874)

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.

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Percolator, 1950s-1970s, by Cory Glass Coffee Brewer Corporation, USA, with cord by Kambrook, New Zealand. Gift of Mary Stevens and John Stevens, 2010. Te Papa (GH012710)
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Coffee set comprising one lidded coffee pot, lidded sugar bowl, small jug and four mugs, 1972, by Peter Stichbury. Te Papa (GH012054/1-9)

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.

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This design won Best Entry/Student Design in the Product Design category of the New Zealand Best Design Awards in 1997. “UFO” prototype espresso machine, 1996, by Andrew Rowe. Te Papa (GH006494)

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.

See more coffee objects in Te Papa’s collection

5 Comments

  1. One of my favourite coffee quotes was posted as a billboard somewhere down Tory St. Ian Athfield said something like this (not a direct quote, just my memory of what he said: Coffee has done more for cities over the past 50 years than architecture ever did.

  2. The striped carpet was designed by the architect of Suzy’s Coffee House, Fritz Eisenhofer. It was custom made for Suzy’s by Felt and Textiles of NZ Ltd in Courtenay Place who grew up to become Feltex Carpets. Eisenhofer designed the Mondrian-style window over the entry to the kitchen, the seats and tables and a sleek, steel-framed window onto the street.
    Alfred Fagg had a shop in Cuba Street and Suzy van der Kwast worked with his technicians for six weeks to achieve the blend she wanted for her Cona coffee pots. She ground the beans each morning and added a pinch of salt to the brew.

  3. Suzy’s was special but it was preceded by Mary Seddons coffee bar in Marjoribank Street which was a great place to be in the late 1950s

  4. Hi Suzys was special but it was preceded by Mary Seddon’s coffee bar in
    Marjoribank Street A cool place to hang out listen to guitars and drink coffee

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