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A History of London Coffee - Part 4 of 5

A History of London Coffee - Part 4 of 5

Main photo - Prufrock as at 2016

In our history of London speciality coffee, we’ve reached part 4. If you missed anything, you should read part one covering pre-millennial cafes, part two which leads up to 2007, and part three describing the birth of Square Mile and the years 2007 and 2008. 

Part 4   2009 - Expansion across London and another World Barista Championship Win

In 2009 London speciality coffee was still a small scene where everyone pretty much knew everyone else and new enthusiasts were welcomed to a London coffee community that was still fairly dominated by Australians and New Zealanders. It was a time when you could discover speciality coffee and then go and visit all the key cafes in a week or two. Filter coffee was rare – Monmouth did pourovers and Dose did an Aeropress but otherwise it was espresso all the way, and during 2009 Square Mile came to dominate London quality cafes in a way that Monmouth had previously. In those pre-Red Brick days, when Square Mile changed from Spring to Summer espresso, you knew you’d be drinking that blend most days for months.

Ben Townsend (of the London School of Coffee) opened The Espresso Room that year in a quiet street opposite Great Ormond Street children’s hospital. Ben was an experienced barista trainer when he opened this tiny cafe which has consistently produced fine coffee ever since. Ben has been a truly positive force on the coffee scene. At the time he opened Espresso Room I was fairly new to the scene and he gave me a list of cafes to visit and suggested I create a London coffee map. I started writing about coffee in March 2009 thanks to Ben’s influence; and many great baristas have come through the Espresso Room over the years. The Espresso Room now owned by Tom Mullings who has three cafes under that name.

In April, Look Mum No Hands opened, one of the first to combine the passions of cycling and coffee. Look Mum No Hands was also licensed to serve alcohol and opened later into the evenings. Combining a cafe with a cycling resource ensured that the coffee found a wider audience and the cafe was sustainable. 2009 was also the year that Neil LeBihan (ex-Monmouth) and Lynsey Harley set up the Exchange Coffee stall in Lewisham, Neil later teaming with roaster Lawrence Sinclair and forming Dark Fluid in March 2011.

Meanwhile, the 2009 World Barista Championship was held in Atlanta, Georgia. Remarkably, this was the third year in succession that the WBC was won by someone working in London, using coffee roasted by Anette Moldvaer, and someone associated with Square Mile. This all pointed to the coming ascendancy of London speciality coffee.

The 2009 WBC champion, the UK’s  Gwilym Davies, was passionate and ever keen to learn, but also remarkably humble and personable and the London coffee community has been all the more pleasant a place to be involved in because of people like Gwilym.

In August that year, Gwilym installed his Nuova Simonelli piston espresso machine in Present, a men’s clothing store in Shoreditch in a new venture to be christened Prufrock. Mattias Björklund, the reigning Danish barista champion was often found pulling superb espresso shots there until settling full-time on his photography. Here’s a New York Times article on Prufrock from the time. It was certainly a productive year for Gwilym and it was also the year he launched his famous ‘Disloyalty Card’ which gave you a list of East End cafes and carts to visit and get stamped. I’m sure many, like myself kept the card rather than traded it in for a free coffee. Listed on the card were Climpson and Sons’ two sites (including their pop-up on Margaret Street), Dose, The Espresso Room, Taylor St Baristas, Taste of Bitter Love, Tina We Salute You, Pitch 42 on Whitecross Street and Prufrock at Present.

While the disloyalty card focussed on East London, then considered the epicenter of London coffee, an important speciality cafe was about to open in Fitzrovia where many others followed, Peter Dore Smith from Melbourne had worked in hospitality and at Lords Cricket Ground. He and his wife found decent coffee hard to come by in London and deciding to open their own café, Peter took inspiration from Lantana and especially Flat White. Opening Kaffeine (in August) involved a huge amount of work and Peter has written about this brilliantly on Kaffeine’s blog. Kaffeine captured our hearts straight away and Peter has ensured it has always been about great hospitality, quality of coffee and food, and simplicity. He has also employed some of London’s best baristas: including Catherine Seay and Estelle Bright among others. Catherine, played a key role in the development and establishment of Kaffeine.

In September 2009 I created an online coffee map on Google which proved popular over the years, especially at a time smartphones were a rarity. It was a lot easier to keep track of new places then. One newcomer I added back then was Tina We Salute You which brought decent coffee, a focus on art and tasty cafe food on a large communal table in Dalston. This was a time when new coffee enthusiasts used mostly word of mouth, or occasionally my map or Young & Foodish’s top ten coffee list to find new places to explore. Another source was Coffee Forums UK which had been founded in 2008 by Glenn Watson and was beginning to grow. One place we all visited in those days was Scootercaffe near Waterloo run by Kiwi Craig O’Dwyer using a vintage Gaggia and an old school approach to espresso. When Craig was on, you could expect a quality coffee but when he wasn’t behind the counter we took to making our excuses and leaving.

Browns of Brockley opened in October 2009. Owner Ross Brown brought great coffee to his cafe, perhaps the ultimate neighbourhood cafe, as a south-east London pioneer London now had speciality coffee as far afield as Richmond, Ealing, Brockley and Lewisham. Still, places like Brixton, Kings Cross, almost all of West London had nothing much resembling good coffee.

By the end of 2009 we had just over 20 coffeeshops, including Monmouth, Fernandez and Wells, Flat White, Milk Bar, Climpson & Sons, Nude, Taylor St, Prufrock at Present, Colombia Road, Pitch 42, Taste of Bitter Love, Lantana, Flat Cap, Electric Coffee, Pavilion, Dose, The Espresso Room, the Exchange stall, Look Mum No Hands, Kaffeine, Tina We Salute You and Browns of Brockley; this alongside a handful of less consistent others such as the charming LJ Coffee House.

2010 was finally to see a greater presence of filter coffee in London – this was the era of the siphon and the ‘woodneck’. 2010 also saw the birth of London’s Best Coffee app and the London hosting of the WBC. It saw the arrival of Allpress from New Zealand, the launch of Notes, Caravan and Tapped and Packed. Influentially, 2010 was also the year of Penny University, Square Mile’s exciting pop-up.

by Phil Wain, Former Editor

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