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  • Mei Anne Foo

Life In NZ: Best Cafés in Hamilton According To New Zealand's Best Barista

Hamilton, New Zealand, is a coffee capital gaining ground, thanks to a few impassioned café owners who dare to offer more than just espresso blends.

Hamilton is home to Dove Chen, 2019’s winner of the New Zealand Barista Championship. It’s his second time clinching the title, too. Originally from Shenzhen, Dove Chen left the Chinese metropolis to pursue a degree in economics at the University of Waikato. After learning that economics was not his cup of tea, he switched flavours to help build café businesses here.

Dove Chen’s love affair with coffee began when he was just a kid, saving up his allowance for a weekend treat of a canned coffee drink. It was the sugar that pulled him in but the flavour that kept him coming back for more.

He chose to stay in Hamilton for its geographic and vast demographic potential. “Hamilton is a small market. In fact, the whole of New Zealand is small, in terms of population. The number of people in this whole country is probably the same as my suburb in Shenzhen!” Chen quips. “But it’s definitely growing here. And people care more about coffee now. Whereas back in the day, they didn’t really care. There were more focused on the food.”

Many baristas, including Dove Chen, continue to point to the boys at Rocket Coffee Roasters, an industry pioneer who’s been operating in Hamilton since 1995, for continuing to offer high-standard and trendy coffee. Hamilton’s strategic central location in the Waikato region likewise makes beans from other regional specialty roasters easily accessible, including Raglan Roast from the nearby namesake beach town and Coffee Supreme from Wellington. Each roaster has their unique coffee characteristics, which makes the café scene in Hamilton a smorgasbord of different interesting flavors.

Though according to Dove Chen, some cafés in Hamilton still stick to just what their customers like: Chocolatey and strong. Nothing wrong with that. But if you are thirsty for something different and you are not afraid to ask a friendly barista, you could be in for a real treat. Dove Chen recommends a few of his favourite cafés in Hamilton that offer true caffeinated delights to try.

Grey Street Kitchen

Grey Street Kitchen cafes in Hamilton New Zealand

Dove Chen has owned a few Hamiltonian coffee joints in the past, but Grey Street Kitchen, first opened in 2007 and then bought by Chen in 2013, is his dream café. The interior bursts with natural light, and wood furnishings are contrasted by indoor greenery against white walls. To stay on top of his game, Dove Chen constantly experiments with different blends and styles. During last year's World Barista Championship in Boston, Dove Chen presented an anaerobic fermented Gesha coffee variety from Finca Nuguo, Panama. Some of his coffee concoctions, like the fruity Gesha espresso, pop up on the menu for a limited time, so you can expect the unexpected with each visit. Pair your latte, typically made with beans from popular kiwi brand Coffee Supreme, with a selection of scones, cakes or something from the brunch menu, which includes buttermilk fried chicken waffles and bread and butter pudding French toast.

Rocket Coffee Roasters

Rocket Coffee Roasters cafes in Hamilton New Zealand

As owners of one of the most established modern roasters in the country, Rocket’s Glen Crompton and Glen Woodcock often collaborate with other cafés in the region as the go-to partner to roast specialty beans. “They’re the best humans on the planet,” says Dove Chen. “Very knowledgeable and humble. Rocket coffee is consistently good and high- quality, and at my café, I sometimes use their beans for limited-time offers”. Rocket’s own café area is filled with trinkets and memorabilia from coffee-making’s yesteryears. At the back, the massive rocket-like roaster sits proudly as the brand’s symbol, from which the aroma of freshly roasting beans permeates every nook and cranny of the store. You can bring home a bag of their grind to prepare a shot of your own, or watch the roasting process while sipping on drinks prepared by one of the Glens.

Café Agora

Agora cafes in Hamilton New Zealand

Agora, which means marketplace in Greek, is a café that values community, and not just its own neighborhood in Frankton. One of Dove Chen’s favourite beans from Agora is the La Mai from Northern Thailand, which supports Hill Tribe Hope, a New Zealand charity project that helps to provide water, sanitation, irrigation, health and education to two villages near Chiang Mai. The café’s charitable journey is spray-painted on the venue’s interior and exterior walls via NZ-based aerosol artist Cracked Ink, and head barista Takashi Ueno, who specialises in pour-overs and latte art, will happily chat to customers about the coffee-central cause.

CallumBrae Family Golf & Café

CallumBrae cafes in Hamilton New Zealand

It takes a lot of balls to operate a putt putt place but to pull off the perfect shot, it takes bigger balls. We’re talking about pulling off good espresso shots here, and it’s surprisingly found at Hamilton’s only pitch and putt green. Don’t’ let barista and owner John Sung’s chill surfer-dude vibe fool you. He knows how to brew a good batch of the brown beverage so you can sip on smooth coffee before teeing off. Beans used are from local roasters, including the Laroma Coffee Company, which specialises in nutty yet fruity flavour profiles. “My favourite coffee from CallumBrae is their Ethiopian filter. It’s super floral and has a great balance of sweetness and acidity,” Dove Chen says. John Sung’s true talent, however, is creating softly textured milk: The primed canvas to form his flawlessly shaped Rosetta.


Camarosa cafes in Hamilton New Zealand

Camarosa is one of the the newer destinations in the city to grab some perfectly brewed coffee, as well as an on-trend range of modern food. The menu was created by award-winning chef Andrew Clarke, while the best baristas, including Jassher Clayton from Grey Street Kitchen, were brought in to front the coffee-making process. In the Scandi-style, naturally furnished space, try the single-origin batch brew from Rwanda, roasted by Wellington coffee company Flight Coffee, while taking in the strawberry field view out front.

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