By Steve Leighton
The deeply etched stereotype that the UK is a nation of tea drinkers has never been more of a cliché than it is today. The UK drinks more coffee per capita than it does tea, and the London coffee scene has long been held up as one of the most vibrant cities worldwide for unique and interesting specialty coffee. Companies like Square Mile, Monmouth Coffee, Tapped and Packed, and Kaffeine have placed a very London-centric focus on the specialty coffee scene.
It comes as a huge shock to most people who visit the UK that there’s anything outside the M25 (the ring road around London). But what happens when a city takes such huge strides forwards in anything? It has a trickle-down effect on all the rest.
The ‘country bumpkins’ quite often visit the golden streets of London and take away the very best parts of what they see in the capital. But outside London they benefit from lower rents, larger spaces, and a more rounded view of what the customer wants, and so they often come up with some of the most amazing experiences.
Let me take you on a magical mystery tour of coffee shops around the UK (purposely avoiding the wonderful capital city, because London gets way too much exposure).
Colonna & Small’s, Bath (southwest)
Any coffee journey outside of London leads to Bath. Bath is a town set in the rolling countryside of southwest England, known for its natural hot springs and eighteenth-century Georgian architecture. It’s also known for Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood, the three-time UK Barista Championship champion and three-time World Barista Championship finalist.
His shop, run in partnership with his wife Lesley, is simple, beautiful, and all about experience and taste. Coffee is the focus for everything, and perfection is in every cup. Their shop can be a fairly intense experience for the coffee ‘newbie’, but the knowledgeable and informed staff will hold the hand leading both the new and seasoned coffee drinker. www.colonnaandsmalls.co.uk
Full Court Press, Bristol (southwest)
Owned by Matt North, Full Court Press (FCP) is a small, single-location haven of amazing coffee. It embraces many local and international roasters through the coffee it offers. One thing you can always expect from FCP is a wide range of delicious, interesting and, challenging coffees, served by some amazingly experienced, motivated, and passionate staff. www.fcpcoffee.com
Waterloo Tea, Cardiff (Wales)
A tea shop in the middle of a housing estate in Cardiff, Wales, doesn’t sound like a spot for specialty coffee. But Kas Ali has taken this tea shop and delivered coffee (and tea) on an amazingly accessible level; so much so that the small shop has grown into a three-location chain shop, with a great food menu to go with its beverage offerings. www.waterlootea.com
Yorks Bakery, Birmingham (Midlands)
Yorks Bakery is located in the UK’s second biggest city, which you might expect to be a hotbed for coffee. Shops like the notable 6/8 Kafe, Urban Coffee Company, Faculty, and the newly-arrived Quarter Horse Coffee mean that Birmingham is catching up, but it’s taking its time. Yorks Bakery is notable because they have brought the pairing of brunch and coffee to the one million plus people of Brum. Their love for food is also expressed in the food they offer, and their shop’s wonderful environment means you have to be there early to get a seat because it’s always packed to the rafters. www.yorksbakerycafe.co.uk
Bold Street Coffee, Liverpool
Starting as a mobile unit called Transition Espresso, traveling to music festivals all over the country, Sam Tawil took over this ‘greasy spoon’, which served mugs of tea and greasy bacon sandwiches in Bold Street, Liverpool. Rather than shoo away the customers, he carried on the tradition of serving bacon sandwiches; just on the finest bread he could source and the best locally-reared bacon he could find. Tawil has turned these people away from their mugs of tea to single origin, brewed-by-the-cup, specialty coffee amazing-ness. He has also created the environment for new shops to begin springing up in this major conurbation, and in the spirit of openness and friendship he encourages many of them to succeed by giving them advice and help. www.boldstreetcoffee.co.uk
Harlequin Coffee & Tea House/The Attic, York (northeast)
Harlequin is a tearoom based on the first floor of a popular tourist destination in York. It’s not where you expect to find great coffee, but it seems the people of York are not deterred by the chain store coffee available on the ground floor, or by the flights of stairs you have to climb to get to this gem in the sky. Once on the first floor you can get your cream teas and afternoon tea sandwiches, mixed in with some of the best brewed coffee in the North. The more mature clientele enjoy freshly-brewed tea, well-brewed espresso, and quality cappuccinos.
Yet another venture up some more stairs takes you to The Attic bar. Here the pure focus is on providing an amazing taste experience; not just in coffee, but also in craft ales and fine gin. It’s like the owner has opened up his house and treats everyone like a guest, spoiling them with food, beer, spirits and fantastic coffee.
Both Harlequin and The Attic are owned by the 2013 Coffee in Good Spirits champion and 2015 Brewers Cup champion, Gordon Howell, but they’re most definitely run by his amazing wife, Marie. This duo continues to show that great coffee will draw people in, regardless of location or your core clientele. www.harlequinyork.com
Flat Caps Coffee, Newcastle (northeast)
Joe Meagher is Flat Cap Joe, owner of the must-visit coffee shop in Newcastle. Despite his love of the black and white of Newcastle United, Meagher isn’t all bad. Unashamedly, he says, ‘it is true, our main priority is coffee, and to serve it at its very best’, which he does every time. His focus is on the quality. Being a UK Barista Championship finalist in 2013 and 2014, Meagher’s built a name for quality and attention to detail, but he’s also built a name for his shop as one of the most comfortable environments in which to drink coffee. www.flatcapscoffee.com
Brew Lab, Edinburgh (Scotland)
Scotland tried to secede the Union, but we convinced them that we love them down here in England. One of the main reasons to love Scotland (apart from their amazing whisky) is Brew Lab. Brew Lab is a specialty coffee shop in Edinburgh, serving a range of single-origin filter, espresso and cold brew coffees, as well as a selection of artisanal food with local provenance. Run by Tom Hyde and Dave Law, Brew Lab is part of a strong growth in the Scottish coffee scene, with Glasgow, Dear Green and Artisan Roast also pushing the boundaries. www.brewlabcoffee.co.uk
Established Coffee, Belfast (Northern Ireland)
It would be remiss not to take a ferry across to the remaining part of these isles and visit the town of Belfast; famous for building a sinking ship in the Titanic, and now known for Established, which is a huge space where hospitality is central to the amazing coffee experience. Although new to the specialty scene, it has become the must-see coffee shop of Belfast, and much of that is due to 2013 Irish AeroPress Champion Mark Ashbridge and partner Bridget Barbour’s hard work. twitter.com/established
So, this was a whistle-stop tour of the UK, taking in all that coffee has to show you outside of London. It’s not to say there are not some amazing places in London, but getting out into the provinces can reap great rewards.
Steve Leighton is head bean browner and owner of Has Bean Coffee, and outgoing National Coordinator for the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe UK Chapter.