The reason that I love reviewing cafes isn’t as much the coffee as it is the excuse to explore new parts of London and to go on an adventure. You could pick almost any type of destination and make it into an urban orienteering adventure.
Small independent cafes are usually hidden away in interesting neighbourhoods so hunting for good coffee is a good way of hunting for the cultural heart of a city. When I travel I always go searching for a flat white. – Even if I fail, the effort leads me down interesting alleyways in new neighbourhoods.
Last weekend I ran to Sacred Cafe in Caledonia Rd (only an hour from Clerkenwell) but a fun way of breaking up a long run. It got me thinking about cafes as “destinations” for exploring. So I did a little research and thought back on my early days in London when we franticly ran around the city trying to visit as many places as possible.
Tim Chester from NME did a multi-day pilgrimage across London in the Great Flat White Hunt. He had some comments, quite rightly, about Taylor Street Baristas and Dose not being places to linger. But when you are coffee orienteering then it doesn’t matter. Tim also made a Google Map of the cafes he visited.
There are several good routes to take around London. For example, Nick Wade’s Disloyalty Card is a great excuse to explore.
For the last couple of months I’ve been working from the Innovation Warehouse co-working space in Farringdon. The Innovation Warehouse provides free filter coffee, 50 pence espresso pods and hot water for members to use in their Aeropress and plungers. Each member of the space has their own coffee routine. One of the startups has a tradition of grinding a whole bag of fresh Monmouth coffee in the morning if they have a particularly big day coming up. But sometimes there is no substitute for going outside for walk and a flat white or a real espresso.
We went to Copenhagen especially to go to Noma but discovered a surprisingly evolved coffee culture. Denmark has lots of coffee shops because it’s so cold and dark in Winter. Going out for coffee with friends seems to be a national pastime because it gives you an excuse to get out of the house. When the weather improves, it’s still nice to have coffee in Copenhagen and the city really comes to life.
Noma was voted as the best restaurant in the world for a few years running. They recently had a food safety issue, but it’s still an amazing restaurant. A real culinary adventure. We thoroughly enjoyed the experience and the creativity was truly inspiring. While in Copenhagen we went exploring to find the best Flat White in Denmark.
Last year I was in New York for a startup investment tour organised by UKTI and VentureOutNY. I was interested to revisit New York and see how the coffee culture has changed. New York is obviously a big city but has it evolved its own coffee culture? And where is the best Flat White in New York?
The New York Times has been waking up to the growth in small independent cafes. I noticed lots of interesting things in the course of my week exploring the cafes of New York. New York coffee is as good as you can get anywhere else in the world, but they still have a lot to learn.
Cafes spread all over the place
In many cities in the world, the best cafes are clustered together around a certain neighbourhood. In New York the best cafes are spread across different neighbourhoods. The geographical spread makes it more fun to explore New York by hunting out the best cafes. Much like London, New York is great for coffee orienteering. I used the New York’s Best Coffee iPhone application to navigate the city.
One of the reasons that the cafes in New York are so spread out is that they are serving such different cultures and groups of people. In many cities in the world high-quality coffee is associated with hipsters and young or creative people. In New York, lots of different demographics including bankers, yummy mummies, hipsters, designers, students and tourists all enjoy high quality coffee.
The price of real estate is also extremely important to how the New York cafes have evolved. In some cities like London, property developers and owners are starting to appreciate the influence of an independent cafe on the local neighbourhood. Therefore, some developers are providing discounted rent to high quality cafes in London. My sense is that in New York this increased property value caused by good coffee not yet been a factor so the New York cafes are paying full market rents and therefore renting much smaller shops in more obscure locations.
Most of the New York cafes that I visited were takeaway only or provided only a very small area for seating. This feels normal for New York as, culturally, most New Yorkers are drinking the coffee on the way to or from work. The New Zealand style of sit down cafe for a lingering brunch still exists in New York, but New Yorkers would associate brunch with a full meal instead of with a coffee and a muffin.
In many cities, hipster grade coffee is associated with particular groups of people and particular lifestyles. In New York everyone drinks coffee. I noticed many people ordering coffee from independent artisanal cafes that you would not expect to see in an independent cafe anywhere else in the world. For example, I waited behind a fire truck load of firemen in one small cafe on a Tuesday morning. Some of this is driven by the American attitude towards service, where anyone that walks in is a good customer. Overall, I found the New York independent cafe scene less cliquey than Berlin, Paris, London, Melbourne and Auckland.
The broader customer demographic does not mean that there is a broader appreciation of high-quality coffee. On the contrary, I found that the clientele of the high-quality cafes did not necessarily appreciate the product they were being served and might have been just as happy with Starbucks.
The average American coffee consumer has been exposed for years to Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts. It is only those who have travelled to Australia, New Zealand or the UK who have experienced modern, high quality coffee. The baristas in the independent cafes are doing their best to provide high quality coffee, but it is hard to keep the quality high when customers don’t appreciate the product. There are an increasing number of discerning customers and I still found some excellent coffee in New York.
Overall, the cafe scene in New York is vibrant and fast growing. The cafes are widely spread out so you have to travel to get to a good coffee, but then maybe that makes you appreciate it more. Once you find a good coffee, there is nowhere to sit and drink it because the cafes are all too small, but then maybe that makes you get out and explore New York. Even if you find an independent cafe there is no guarantee that the coffee will be high quality, but then maybe that’s part of the New York adventure.
One of the challenges I took on this year was to visit every independent cafe in Zone One in London. So far I’ve been to about twenty cafes and filmed little YouTube clips of me talking about the cafes as I go. I’ve been shooting photos of the Flat Whites and taking notes on which cafes are the most chilled out and fun to hang out in.
Because I’m only visiting cafes listed in the London Coffee Map application there haven’t been any bad cafes but I’ve seen a few stressed out customers, some over worked staff and some confusing etiquette around ordering. On the whole, the cafes have been excellent and I’ll be posting more reviews as I get to explore more.
A couple of days into the London Coffee Cups adventure a friend dared me to step it up and go to every independent cafe in Zone One in London. It’s a great challenge and I’ll be blogging and making videos as I go.
There are about sixty cafes listed in the London Coffee Guide and the Independent Coffee Book London that are in Zone 1. I’ll be working my way through all of them. Hopefully I’ll get to meet a lot of baristas and some cafe owners along the way that I can introduce to you.
On the way back from Yorkshire we stopped off in the city of York. We wandered the old town, climbed the city walls and got a little bit lost. But we couldn’t find any good coffee in York. We were about to cave in and go to Costa but I jumped on FourSquare and found The Attic cafe. The ground floor looks like a normal tea rooms (The Harlequin) so we’d ignored it while walking through town. But hidden upstairs is a local focussed cafe where the owner is pulling world-class coffee shots.
I would have been happy enough with a Flat White. But he made a double, ristretto based Flat White that I’m still thinking about days later. Gordon has won a number of barista competitions and we had a good gossip about the London coffee roasting scene. The cafe wasn’t officially open yet but he could tell from the Kiwi accent my pained expression that I was desperate for a real coffee.