The DKD & Cafe Culture

New Zealand's First Iconic Cafe

Cafe DKD is at the centre of one of Auckland’s most controversial coffee culture contentions – that it is the true home of the now world-popular flat white.

Seeking a local take on the Italian café latte to offer at the venue, we developed a strong blend of espresso and milk, which was subsequently added to the coffee menu by my co-owner Darrell Ahlers, describing it as a ‘flat white’. This term had been used in Australia for various kinds of coffee with hot milk since at least the 1960’s, but the method as later developed by myself – steaming the milk to a rich, velvety consistency at his next café – proved extremely popular in Auckland and became a mainstay of local café offerings.

The DKD was tucked away behind the historic Civic Theatre, before the refurbishments of the mid-90's transformed the entire block into a commercial cineplex.

Due to our venue's bohemian nature and vibrant decor - most notoriously, a wall covered with fish adorned with politician's heads in the bathroom - it quickly took on iconic status and became a platform for the popularisation of European-style coffee in the Auckland.


The Truth Behind The Name 

The meaning of the DKD was always a secret. Really it meant nothing, an esoteric reference to creeping corporatisation of society. I was asked once by a journalist what it stood for. Off the cuff, I said "Decadence Kills Depression". I was watching a music TV channel years later and they were sitting down random people in the street and asking “Does decadence really kill depression?” 

I roped in my partner at the time, Karen, and my best friend Darryl, into my dream of opening a café. All 3 of us put in unbelievable hours to “build” the café. Hence – DKD.

The early 80s was the forefront of the coffee revolution. Remember Starbucks started in Seattle around 1979. These were a couple of enthusiasts who were into coffee (they sold to a corporate type in 1995, who developed Starbucks into what it is today. The original owners weren’t really interested in being part of this).

Coffee Culture 

At the time in Auckland/NZ, burnt filter coffee was king. I remember talking to someone who owned a well-known café, who subsequently went on to become an expert in espresso; he said "espresso, cappuccino will never catch on in New Zealand". I, of course, believed that it would. I believed within 2 years it would be on every corner. That came from naivety of youth, but within 20 years the prediction proved correct.

Coffee-wise, the palette has changed significantly. There is a parallel with wine, 30 years ago the wine offering was very limited and being of very dubious quality. Cold Duck, I remember being a favourite, which was sparkling, extremely sweet and generally horrible. Now I think it would be fair to say that the average New Zealander has a reasonably sophisticated palette.

In the early 80's, the only roasters around were Robert Harris and Old Mill. Initially we sourced from Robert Harris. We didn’t have a grinder (couldn’t afford one), so received the coffee pre-ground. Now we know that coffee loses its character about 3-4 hours after grinding. We loaded the coffee into the handle and tamped it with a soup spoon. After a while we purchased a second hand grinder which improved quality hugely.

Most of the coffee in New Zealand was from New Guinea and just roasted to certain colour level and then labelled Colombian, French, Italian etc etc.

We were approached by a German guy Norbett Eichblatt who had arrived in New Zealand after a spell in South Africa, and set up the first boutique roastery here.

He suggested a pure Kenyan, it was another leap forward. Kenyan is very beautiful tasting coffee, now it would be considered to bitter. It is very high in acidity and flavour. We still use it in our blend but at 10% or less. The impact to the blend is almost the same if you use 45% or 10% (characteristic of this origin) but at 10% the acidity is greatly reduced. Some acidity is essential, too much is unpleasant.

We also thought we were very clever at the time and put all the fresh coffee into the freezer to keep it at absolutely Primo condition.

We know now that that’s one of the worst things you can do, as it flattens out all the flavours. Maybe this helped reduce the sharpness of the Kenyan.

DKD is long gone, but its legacy and that of other pioneers remains in a thriving cafe society.