In Wellington it is pretty easy to get a good cup of coffee, so I think it counts for something that out of all the outstanding coffees i have had in this city I can pinpoint the best one. actually, you know what? I’m just going to go ahead and say it was the best damn cuppa Joe I’ve had in the world.
It was from Peoples Coffee in Newtown. It was a sunny day. I ordered a latte; it came in a solid white mug with a handle I could put all four fingers through and it was perfection embodied. The milk had its own natural sweetness, the coffee was strong and I sat outside with my bestie. We sipped coffee in silence, the way friends of over a decade can do, read the paper and I slowly came to the realisation that this was the best coffee I’d ever had. A slight smile formed on my face, I took it all in, stored it in the best part of my brain and basked in that perfect moment, my friend oblivious to my caffeinated nirvana.
M People asked us once to ‘search for a hero inside yourselves’. Peoples have taken their namesake's advice* and have been certified organic and fair trade since 2005 - and from the start made it their mission to bridge that gap between farmer and espresso drinker. It is obvious that roaster Rene Macaulay feels very passionate about this cause, an ever so slight quiver in his voice when he mentions his coffee origin visits. We sat down over another very good cup of coffee in their roastery in Newtown one Friday afternoon.
Feeling a bit self-conscious when asked how I have my coffee, I asked...
Can you judge someone on the type of coffee they drink?
Yeah you can. The people who work at cafes are more skilled at doing it and it is more along the lines of whether they will be a fluffy cappuccino with sugar rather than a flat white drinker.
Do you have milk in your coffee?
I do, but I also drink black coffee. Milk in espresso coffee is gorgeous, it adds so much sweetness and body. I always have a flat white for breakfast. But I never have milk in filter coffee.
Do you feel like we are forming our own coffee culture in New Zealand?
In the last 20 years, the roasteries in New Zealand have created something that is very unique to New Zealand. But now there is espresso culture building up in Melbourne and the States that is a lot more sophisticated. So we all look to each other.
How did you get into roasting coffee?
Matthew Lamason was roasting and running the company and was flat out so needed someone to roast. I would often come to the roastery for lunch to hang out and watch him roast. I was always really interested in coffee; I was roasting at home and honing myself as a coffee geek. I am a very hands-on person, so I didn’t come from a barista background, which is fairly unusual.
What did you do in your previous life?
I was a tradie, a locksmith. I was working on safes and breaking into cars (LEGALLY).
What do you love most about Peoples Coffee?
The guiding philosophy behind the business. In my years on the planet I have travelled a bit and lived in places where people have very different lives to NZ; I lived in India for a year and have made harvest trips visiting farmers in coffee origins. Coffee shows a lot of the inequality in the world. But through fair trade and other simple mechanisms you can apply, people will be better off. So I find it very satisfying to be part of that mechanism, trying to present that to the public and giving people that option to make a difference.
What makes a good roaster?
Attention to detail, the belief that you always want to make it better, love of craft, love of machinery and of course a good sensory palate. You must have a good enough palate to know what is good and what isn’t. Smell plays a big part in that, too. We have far more smell receptors; we can only taste five different flavours but we can smell thousands. When we are drinking coffee, a lot of that experience is smell and aroma. Which helps because coffee is so… smelly.
Who taught you everything you know?
Obviously Matt taught me a lot when we transitioned. But roasting is very much about doing a roast, noting all the variables, tasting it, changing it, tasting again, noting the changes. So there is a big learning curve at the start, but it never peaks. You are always learning. There is no formal training outside of the States, but there are some courses that the Roasting Association will be running soon. So there are only half a dozen roasters in New Zealand that have any formal training, out of the 160-odd roasting companies.
Is there an advantage to having formal training?
Absolutely - you can compress years of trial and error and experience into a two-week course. The thing about coffee is that there is good coffee and average coffee. You can produce average coffee by putting beans into a machine and waiting for it to turn dark brown, and a lot of roasters do that. But then there is that next level.
What is your favourite way to drink coffee?
Cupping. A strict amount of ground coffee in, the right amount of water at the right temperature, you let it brew for 4 minutes, scrape it off and drink it like that. It is the professional way of appraising a coffee. Evaluating flavours and defects. It is a technique that produces the truest flavours that coffee has. Other techniques for brewing create a certain flavour.
Who do you admire in the industry?
I admire James Hoffman from Square Mile Coffee Roasters in London and coffee scientist Shawn Steinman. Tadesse Maskela from OCFCU co-op in Ethiopia is my hero. Over the last 10-15 years he has brought his farmers out of poverty; he has changed the income of his farmers dramatically so I think he is incredible.
What is the biggest challenge you face?
I’ll go big. The biggest challenge is how much coffee farmers get paid. There is commodity coffee, that is traded as paper, and then there is high-grade coffee that most roasteries in New Zealand buy. But the world market is totally influenced by this commodity coffee. The price of coffee in the last four years has spiked hugely, then dropped down from $3.50 to $1.50 and it has no relationship to the cost of producing coffee. Every time we visit farmers, it is always so shocking to see what their lives are like. So I wrestle with how to raise the income of those famers.
What are your thoughts on instant coffee?
Most of the coffee consumed in the world is instant coffee; it is made from robusta beans, has high caffeine content and tastes foul. Instant coffee could taste pretty good if it was made with high quality coffee, but it never is.
What is the lastest trend in coffee?
Sourcing coffee that has unique features, instead of blending beans for a more well-rounded flavour. The upper end of that are micro lots. Normally you would buy a whole container of coffee, which is 285 sacks or 18 tonnes of coffee. Every sack tastes the same. But sometimes we also want one or two sacks from this one farm, from the best plants, at the top of the lot. Just like wine, coffee can be great one year and bad the next, also different soil and growing conditions affect the taste. So I imagine in the future, they will be cloning special trees and seeing more scientific research into these factors, but that will be such a niche part of the market that I imagine very few people in the world will get exposed to it.
Making the perfect coffee at home?
Coffee is like baking; to get the best product you need to use scales and you want to use ratios, so that your coffee is going to taste right and it doesn’t taste bad one day and good the next. So whatever brew method you are doing, hopefully your roaster will have told you what ratios you need. Every piece of equipment will have its own set of brewing rules. With plunger the ratio of coffee to water is 1:16. You don’t want boiling water, so boil your jug then let it sit for three minutes, weigh your coffee and put that in first, then weigh your water and add it, then let it sit for three minutes.
Do you have a favourite gadget?
My laser pointer that measures temperature.
What is the weirdest thing you have found in the bean sacks?
Bullets and belt buckles.
What do you think is overrated in the coffee industry?
Traditions. I try to squash the history of Italian espresso - while they pioneered it all, we have moved on from their traditions. The Italian market is based around the fact that the price of a short black can never go above a certain amount, so they use cheaper beans to keep the espresso below the price. They roast darker, and they run their shots differently.
What do you make for yourself on a day off?
I have espresso and pancakes.
How many coffees a day do you drink?
Five. I may not drink them all though.
What would you have for your last supper?
A plum crumble.
Do you have a vivid childhood memory around coffee?
I would have instant coffee and Milo when I was 10 years old. My son has been drinking short blacks from the age of six!
Where do you like to eat and drink in Wellington?
Satay village – Roti Chenai. It is addictive; it has been for ten years.
And if I'm out for a drink - Matterhorn or Havana bar.
What is happening in the future for Peoples Coffee?
We are doing an ice-cream collaboration with Wooden Spoon - we have done a cold brew Vietnamese coffee with sweetened condensed milk.
*oh that is such a lie! Take no notice of me.
Peoples Coffee Shop, 12 Constable Street, Newtown, Wellington
(04) 389 6776