02 January 2020

A Decade-Long Speciality Coffee Journey

I've been writing about coffee since I started this blog in 2007, but it wasn't until the start of the last decade when speciality coffee shop reviews took on a more central role among my posts. In January 2010, I was living in Marylebone and had just taken a new job in King's Cross, which brought my commuting back to Cambridge to an end. As I've discussed before, back then I had to walk 20 minutes on my lunch breaks to get to the nearest speciality coffee shop, the original Espresso Room on Great Ormond Street. And now...well, the speciality coffee scene in King's Cross, London and many other cities throughout the world has changed dramatically.

My tastes have changed too: I used to drink macchiatos almost exclusively (hence the name of this blog), and I still enjoy them (and their slightly larger siblings, the piccolo and the cortado), but these days, I drink a lot more hand-brewed filter coffee, usually light roasts from single origins. I've taken the occasion of a shiny new decade to pick out some of the highlights of my own speciality coffee journey — and my own blogging journey — over the past ten years. What a ride it's been, covering 29 countries on five continents.

2010 and before
I posted my first — very short — shortlist of London speciality coffee shops in 2009, and also wrote mini-reviews of Milkbar and Lantana in London, as well as Joe (pictured above) and Jack's Stir Brew in New York in 2008, all of which are, happily, still going strong. By 2010, I was complaining about Costa's efforts to jump on the flat white bandwagon, and singing the praises of Milkbar and of Fernandez & Wells.

By 2011, I had visited enough speciality coffee shops in London to put together my first proper London coffee guide, with a map and eight highlighted coffee shops, off of which are in the West End and six of which are still open. Later in the year, I enjoyed visits to Tapped & Packed (pictured) on Tottenham Court Road (whose macchiato and repurposed Lyle's tins impressed me), Sensory Lab (now Workshop) and Climpson & Sons on Broadway Market. In New York, I also ventured east, checking out the funky Everyman Espresso, Think Coffee and Blubird (RIP!).

In 2012, I launched my 'caffeine chronicles' series, dedicated to more detailed reviews of speciality coffee shops in London and further afield. I kicked off with reviews of the Department of Coffee & Social Affairs and Prufrock (pictured) in Clerkenwell, my review of the Aeropress, and an updated list of my favourite London espresso bars. The latter included six new entries and highlighted the upcoming rebrand of St Ali and Sensory Lab as Workshop Coffee. In June, I reviewed the Borough Market Monmouth Coffee; their Saturdays-only Bermondsey coffee bar is still my regular post-run Saturday morning coffee destination. In September, I was delighted that King's Cross finally had a speciality coffee spot in the form of Caravan, Granary Square.

This year, it was time for an updated list of my favourite New York espresso bars, eight of which are still going strong. I also began to review more coffee shops outside London and New York. Hot Numbers in Cambridge, a city whose craft coffee options were rather limited when I was studying there, impressed me greatly. Meanwhile, a work trip to Finland saw me producing a two-part guide to the Helsinki speciality coffee scene (including Kaffa, pictured). And I even found good coffee in the middle of the cloud forest in Costa Rica. Back in London, I wrote up my visit to Association, which remains one of my favourite coffee shops, even though its opening hours mean that I only visit very rarely.

I started the year with my latest update of my list of top ten London coffee bars, all of which are still thriving. This year also saw my first visit to the London Coffee Festival; I only attended one session, so it was all a bit of a delightfully caffeinated rush. Some of the notable London coffee shops I reviewed in 2014 include: White Mulberries, Curators Coffee Gallery (RIP), Saint Espresso (the sleek interiors of their original Angel location remains by far my most-pinned photo on Pinterest), Browns of Brockley and The Gentlemen Baristas. On my travels, I checked out the speciality coffee scene in Brighton, Japan, Vancouver and even Saskatoon.

I travelled a lot in 2015, on holiday and for work, finding some really great coffee shops in Mexico City (including BUNA 42 Cafe Rico, pictured below), Washington DC, Copenhagen and Lisbon, among many others. And in Peckham, the wonderful coffee shop, roastery and social enterprise that is Old Spike opened up on Peckham Rye, right next to one of my favourite restaurants, Pedler.

2016 and 2017 were boom years for my speciality coffee write-ups and city guides, in part because I was travelling so much (my day job became a lot more hectic in 2018, which is why my posting has become less frequent since then). With so many great places to choose from, it's hard to pick my favourites, although Second Shot in Bethnal Green (pictured) and Frequency in King's Cross definitely deserve a mention. I've met Julius — who owns the former — and Justo — who owns the latter — many times, and it's hard not to admire their passion and drive. There's even a second Second Shot now, very close to my old flat in Marylebone. It took me until 2016 to first visit Origin Coffee's Shoreditch cafe, and they've since opened coffee bars in King's Cross and Southwark, making it the coffee company whose cafes I frequent the most.

I also produced speciality coffee city guides for my hometown, Oxford, and Manchester, Stockholm, Reykjavik, Paris, Portland, OR, where I took a third wave coffee tour (pictured below), and Vietnam, among the other destinations.

This was a very busy year of coffee travels for me, both locally and abroad. In London, I reviewed Catalyst, H.R. Higgins and Redemption Roasters, and ventured north to Velasquez and Van Wezel and east to TAB x TAB (pictured). I also finally managed to organise a return visit to Bath and the impeccable Colonna & Small's, reviewed cafes in Leicester, and produced a comprehensive London speciality coffee guide, including well over 100 coffee spots.

In the US, I produced a comprehensive and regularly updated guide to and map of New York speciality coffee shops (there are 84 currently on the list), and reviewed coffee shops in New England: Boston and Cambridge, MA (including Broadsheet; pictured), Little Wolf in Ipswich, MA, and several spots in Portland, ME.

I made short, but well-caffeinated, trips to Prague and Oslo. But the tour de force was my one-month sabbatical, which I spent in Australia and New Zealand, visiting a total of 51 speciality coffee shops in Melbourne (including Proud Mary; pictured), Sydney, Wellington and Auckland. Yes, I did sleep, although not excessively, given the packed nature of my itinerary.

After starting the year with my thoughts on disposable coffee cups and the now sidelined 'latte levy'. Two years later, although waste from single-use coffee cups is still a huge problem, I have been heartened to see more and more people trying to avoid using them, when at all possible/practical. My family are all from the West Midlands and I spent a lot of time in Lichfield growing up, so I was over the moon to discover Melbourne in Lichfield (pictured), a wonderful coffee spot run by Deb Pease, where the sense of community is just as central as the coffee. They've now expanded to a cafe on Bird Street, and are roasting their own coffee in characteristically funky packaging too.

Elsewhere in the UK, my visits to Curve in Margate and Rosslyn in London were other coffee high points of the year. In 2018, I also produced coffee city guides to Krakow, Budapest, Berlin, Amsterdam, Austin (including Merit Coffee, pictured) and Lima.

London's speciality coffee scene stepped up yet another notch last year, with the rightly fêted openings of Le Café Alain Ducasse in King's Cross, Omotesando Koffee near Oxford Street and a new branch of Kiss the Hippo, on the site of the former Curators Coffee Gallery just north of Oxford Circus. Just up the road from the latter is the delightful Kafi (pictured), on Cleveland Street, where I met and chatted coffee and travel with Yatish. Meanwhile, in Borough Market, new opening Flor combines fine dining with very fine coffee — go hungry (and uncaffeinated)! And to the amazement of my 2010 self, the King's Cross speciality coffee scene had developed so rapidly that I needed to produce a second, updated coffee guide.

In 2019, my coffee travels took me back to Berlin, as well as to Tallinn, Lausanne, Ljubljana, Seville, Chicago, Malaysia (KL and George Town) and Singapore (including Populus Coffee, pictured).

2020 and beyond...
Given how much change there has been in the speciality coffee decade, it's hard to predict what things will be like by 2029, especially with the ever-growing issues of climate change, wreaking havoc on coffee farms, and of increased rent prices in some inner-city areas. On my most recent visit to New York, it felt as though the number of new openings had levelled off, with other, mainly independent, cafes shutting down.

I'd like to think that openings like Le Café Alain Ducasse highlight that it is possible for the industry to adapt again, serving coffee that might be more expensive than some customers are used to paying, but that is high-quality and highly sustainable. Multifunctional coffee shops — that also serve food, reupholster, sell bikes or cut hair, for example — are becoming increasingly common as diversification offers a more secure future.

In closing, I'd like to say a big thank you to all of my readers, especially those who have followed since the early days of this blog, where the content was more diverse and also more #unfiltered. Even though I only occupy a tiny space within the speciality coffee community, I love being a part of it: meeting and connecting with other passionate coffee-lovers and, of course, drinking a lot of delicious coffee.

Still hungry for more coffee content? Check out my comprehensive speciality coffee guides to London and New York, browse my other coffee and coffee travel posts, and head over to my Flickr for a decade of London, New York and global speciality coffee photos.

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