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March 1, 2015 | by  | in Features Homepage | [ssba]

Can the Hipster Survive in Wellington?

No “hipster” ever admits that they are one. To do so would conflict with the innate desire to be non-conformist, and disagrees with the informed belief that people shouldn’t be put in metaphorical boxes. Or so those who scorn the subculture say. Let the paisley sock, bucket hat and moustache combo speak for itself. Wellington is, however, explicitly hailed as our country’s “hipster capital”. With a flourishing café scene, exponential increase in craft beer and an edgy style, it is New Zealand’s equivalent of New York’s Brooklyn and London’s East Side.

Wellington is world renowned for being “hip”. In 2011 Lonely Planet declared it to be the fourth Top City to visit as the “coolest little capital in the world”, and last year American Vogue described the city as having “budding coffee, food and cocktail scenes to rival that other hipster capital (Portland, Oregon)”.

In a 2012 campaign, Air New Zealand glorified Wellington’s “hipsterness” to draw in unwilling Australians who felt a sheep-dominated country wasn’t quite cool enough to visit. Rhys Darby narrated the video, describing the hipster as “wearer of the ironic tee and wearer of the ironic tattoo”. The spots highlighted in the video including Duke Carvell’s, Mighty Mighty and Good As Gold caused sincere outrage at the time that some of the more unique and special local haunts were exposed for a commercial campaign. Positively Wellington Tourism describes the cafés on its website as a “diverse bunch, from urban hubs to hipster hangouts”. The catch-all phrase is still irresistible with Stuff’s headline announcing the Laneway 2015 sideshows in Wellington, including Little Dragon, as “Hipster Heaven”.

However, there is talk that the “hipster” has become irrelevant. Knocked off its subcultural pedestal by other subversive fads such as normcore, and no longer an insult what with the rise of the “basics”, the “hipster” is arguably dying out. With the streets dazzled by newly exposed chins and jammed with wider boyfriend jean legs, plaid shirts are out and bland turtlenecks are in. DJs at parties, overrun by red wine in jam jars, are finally conceding that Animal Collective just doesn’t quite create the raving atmosphere everyone secretly desires and only Drake can provide.

The term has been sickeningly overused and is losing its ironic seduction, having become a matter of bought taste rather than a subcultural questioning of the status quo. The Vogue article, for example, picked out establishments such as Six Barrel Soda Co., Museum Art Hotel and Loretta, which operate around very distinctive and interesting styles, rather than a fleeting adherence to a current trend. In sum, being classified as a hipster in Wellington no longer quite feels like it has anything to do with the stereotype of only shopping at second-hand stores.

I was once, very sincerely, asked “when did you decide to become a hipster?”, as if it were a lifestyle choice on par with becoming gluten free. Simply roll up some op-shop skinny jeans, never dare to stoop so low as to listen to the Top 40 and only ever order Ethiopian single origin coffee. Supposed hipster success. Use words in a situation no other person typically would: “I’ve been feeling very pensive about my essay”, or when really craving a snack say “man am I esurient” in line for the vending machine. Buy records when MP3s are crushing every other musical art form. Then buy cassettes when the price of records double as your dreaded peers catch on. Shun public transport and use a bike. Never wear socks with your brogues unless they are a statement item. Obviously grow a beard. Know exactly what temperature makes the perfect cup of filter coffee. Deem all of those who sit outside the mainstream pretentious, yet master your own home brew and take your dates to the courtyard at Golding’s.

Easy? Highly criticised as a movement for appropriating anything cultured for the sake of personal identity without the requisite informed understanding, it has become mainstream and the “sub” culture has transformed into an easily bought and appropriated commercial aesthetic. With a notable increase of standard Nikes matched with Happy Socks, our city is hardly immune to its hipster edge slowly fading away.

Yet analysing the hipsterness of our “cultural capital” in particular poses a chicken and egg conundrum. Wellington’s proud identity has long revolved around niche coffee brewing methods and specialised bars down alleyways with bartenders sporting beards (although the consistently shit weather does necessitate this facial protection) well before the word started appearing on billboards or on Urban Dictionary. The question is whether “hipster” has become a convenient marketing and disdainful label for a thriving culture that has been rooted in the very essence of the city’s identity for a long time already.


In line with the presumption that all hipsters are ethically well-informed, the Green Party’s 2014 election campaign was described as aiming to elect the country’s first “hipster prime minister”, because Russell Norman knows Milk Crate is where you get a good flat white. Wellington is not short of cafés, many with a pared-back Scandinavian aesthetic and food still served on chopping boards by waiters in aprons. However, it is a city in which demographics far from the stereotypical “hipster” enjoy sharing their lives over a coffee created with locally roasted beans.

Whether you go to Prefab for the metallic chairs and minimalist atmosphere, or Caffe L’affare for a classic experience, or Hangar for Flight Coffee, or Fidel’s for Havana, or Coffee Supreme at Customs, or to drink Peoples Coffee at Vic Books on the Kelburn campus, or boutique coffee at Aro Café, or even at the chain Mojo, each business promotes in its own way a feel for a facet of the local community.

There is never really a question of calibre when it comes to picking a coffee spot. Instead your choice depends on whether you can get your bum onto a seat and if the cake on offer suits your dietary needs. Compared to other biggish cities there seems to be only one, lonely Starbucks. By shunning automatic espresso machines and having access to some of the best cows on the planet, Wellington’s simple consideration to the quality of the coffee it produces has been caught up in the hipster hype.

At Lamason Brew Bar, a cafe that specialises in filter and siphon coffee, the wonderful barista Dan comments that “when Wellington coffee and its culture is described as ‘hipster’, I think the describers may be focusing on a particular experience of café and barista and applying it across the board. Whatever the original meaning of ‘hipster’, how I hear it used now is synonymous with ‘poser’, always derogatively.”

But refusing to buy Budget instant coffee doesn’t equate to being pretentious any more than refusing to use public transport when you own a car. Or buying any wine other than Fat Bird. Having fostered an interest in coffee for over ten years, Dan denies any possibility of lighter brewing methods including siphon and filter coffee disappearing. They make the whole coffee experience undeniably very interesting plus avoid “smashing people in the mouth with unbalanced lemon levels of tartness,” which sometimes a poorly crafted espresso can certainly do.

Coffee in Wellington, like craft beer, has been long considered a science to be mastered on par with wine and has created an intensely competitive market with a long-lasting appeal. It has also attracted global recognition, with CNN naming it one of the eight top coffee cities in the world last year.

Frequenting cafes has been a notable part of Wellington for decades, with the first modern café opening in the 1950s. It has also always been popular. Entire history books can and have been written about Wellington and its obsession with coffee (a city-wide caffeine addiction perhaps explains the continuous buzz and atmosphere). Published in 1994, a book called Character Cafés of New Zealand (found in Milk Crate) muses over the new burst of popularity in cafes and coffee at the time. “Coffee is the beer of the 1990s, a symbol not only of changed tastes in what New Zealanders are drinking, but more importantly the surroundings in which they choose to enjoy it.”

Craft beer

Wellington hosts thriving breweries that create substances which easily rival the sophistication of a cabernet-merlot. Deemed the Craft Beer Capital of New Zealand, breweries including Garage Project, ParrotDog, Tuatara and Panhead each have a distinct flavour and can be found on tap at over sixteen craft beer devoted bars including Hashigo Zake, Golding’s Free Dive and Little Beer Quarter. Malthouse has been running for over 20 years and offers 29 different beers on tap.

This beer devotion, like coffee, has attracted global attention. VICE has unsurprisingly picked up on the quirky appeal of Garage Project, with a feature published on the brewery’s unique brewing methods, including the use of volcanic rock and a protected type of seaweed. At a micro level, the beer community feels intimate and supportive of a local passion.

A decent appreciation of craft beer can tend to instantly categorise you as a hipster (especially if female because an interest in beer still occasionally attracts amused surprise). Request multiple tastings of what’s on tap at Little Beer Quarter, mull over the fact that you want something less “hoppy” than a pilsner and a mark of hipsterism is successfully gained with a graduation from drinking Jim Beams.

The appeal of craft beer has not escaped the attention of bigger brands. With the presence of brews such as Boundary Road and Good George, there are various options which provide a crafty alternative to paying an hour’s worth of wages for one bottle, yet still maintains a superiority to drinking DB. They’re also easily bought from any New World, which host some of the most impressive craft beer collections (Thorndon boasts over 600 different types).

Yet upon attending Beervana (Wellington’s annual beer festival), which was dripping with enthusiasts for carefully crafted beer, there was a distinct lack of the stereotyped “hipsters”. Being by far one of the youngest in the crowds and definitely fitting in with no facial hair, the event demonstrated that craft beer in Wellington maintains an appeal far beyond what the media and beer marketing might have us believe. Although a truffle-infused 11 per cent porter might not last, the reality might actually be that New Zealanders are relishing the freedom to order a pale ale on a classy date, having always preferred beer in the first place.

Complaints about hipsters are now heard more often than any sightings of the archetypal hipsters themselves. The “hipster” is lovingly hated for being pretentiously fake, yet the term itself no longer adheres to its original meaning. The authentic non-conformists (reluctantly in keeping with the stereotype) are always slyly moving onto something new, like drinking single malt whisky instead of craft beer. However, it is exactly this artificial nature that makes the current application of the “hipster” to Wellington a bit of a fallacy. Yes, there are some who frequent places like Garage Project for a flagon of beer and poetry slams at Meow for the sake of image manipulation. But generally the people creating and appreciating the coffee and craft beer fuel it with passion for an art form, rather than any desire for a short-lived fashion.

The city has historically always been noted for its cultured population, with an ever flourishing culinary scene and coffee drinking a lifestyle choice since the 1960s. Its geography fosters a naturally concentrated vibrancy in the centre city, making it easy to experience and embrace the cultural elements that would be later associated with the hyper-ironic phenomenon of the hipster. In its “hip” video, Air New Zealand included promotions of the Wellington waterfront and the Wellington film scene (aka Peter Jackson’s Roxy Cinema), which logic suggests will last beyond any hipster fad.

“Wellington is small and resourceful, that’s what makes it so creative,” Darby harps. Which is exactly the point. The global reluctant fascination with the “hipster” simply exacerbated very human elements of Wellington that were already there, and will survive indefinitely beyond the current sneer towards all things cultural.


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