Talking with Tom Sobey of Origin Coffee Roasters recently, he explained the rationale behind installing a brew bar at their landmark Shoreditch cafe. Tom told me that visitors from Cornwall often came up to London with an expectation (created in part by writers like us) that they could chat away with baristas. When they arrived they often found busy baristas juggling orders and serving long lines of customers. With that desire to create a space for chat with the barista over coffee, Origin made sure that a brew bar featured in their first London café.
Sitting at the bar, Cheers-style, we can watch the brewing process closely and engage with the baristas (when they have time). We can savour the coffee and the conversation. LT wrote an article for us about the value of that social interaction and the best places to find it. These days, as it becomes more and more difficult to make coffee shops work economically, brew bars are becoming an endangered species. As Chloe Callow (editor of Caffeine magazine) puts it, “Yes, I often lament the lack. It's where I learnt and became inspired by coffee and where I will always sit, be it in a cafe, wine bar, restaurant or cocktail bar.”
Sometimes it’s not just for financial reasons but for design reasons that a sit down brew bar or even lean to espresso bar just doesn’t fit. Of course the high volume coffee shops in the city wouldn’t always allow a structure like this but the question has to be…is the relative monoculture of café design a factor behind the rarity of brew bars like this. Historically, cafes like Mother’s Milk and Penny University pop-up emphasised customer interaction almost to the exclusion of financial motivation. If we consider for a moment the amount of labour necessary for say a v60 pourover versus a batch brew filter or flat white, we could argue that pourover coffee is hugely under-priced and other drinks subsidise it. Perhaps pourover coffee is the loss leader of the progressive coffee scene?
Of course, in reality, most of the time cafes only serve pourover filter if they have the staff or the time, or they expect the customer to wait. It would make sense for relatively busy cafes to have pourovers available only within certain quiet hours. Certainly there are certain places we wouldn’t order a pourover if it was busy, it would be polite to order a batch brew filter or espresso based drink. ‘Have you got time to make me a filter?’ is my usual question when visiting Milk Bar in Soho. They usually do have time to make me a lovely Kalita.
So…our favourite brew bars to sit at…
This delightful space has a great team of staff who are intensely focussed on coffee quality. The bar with a row of Kalita Waves by the sunny window is one of our favourite spots to be. Staff make time to talk and are very knowledgeable, Origin support their staff through competitions and place a high value on staff growing their coffee knowledge. Origin are also roasting some superb coffee these days. John Dunbar Kilburn’s superb mural acts as an effective backdrop.
65 Charlotte Road, EC2A 3PE
Perhaps one of the world’s best brew bars? Sitting here and soaking up the atmosphere or talking with the superb staff is the epitome of brew bar experience. There’s such an emphasis here on the science of coffee and the desire to present great coffee and of course this fits with Prufrock’s role as London’s coffee hub and centre of coffee educational excellence. You might meet coffee drinkers visiting from any part of the world, these days you might taste coffee roasted by any of Europe’s best roasters. In addition, Prufrock present coffee made in a variety of methods – from Chemex to v60 to aeropress to Thermos.
23-25 Leather Lane EC1N 7TE
Not only a Michelin starred restaurant but also a space with a delightful bar to sit at and enjoy coffee. Head of coffee James Low (not to be confused with Lyles chef James Lowe) has a created a superb space for coffee within a top class restaurant – not a pairing we automatically associate, sadly. Sitting at the bar, chatting with James while he brews coffees from all over Europe.
Tea Building, 56 Shoreditch High Street, E1 6JJ
Set inside the Hoxton Hotel (somewhat confusingly near Holborn). Hubbard and Bell is part of the Soho House group and serves great food and drink. The coffeebar is often busy but, at quieter moments, there are a couple of seats at the bar where you can talk to the staff and have a pourover or aeropress of whatever guest roaster they are using. Coffees might be from Climpson and Sons, Origin, Caravan or another roaster but they’ll be extracted just right. Staff at Hubbard and Bell are among the most efficient and hospitable we’ve come across and we always leave Hubbard and Bell feeling our lives have been made that precious bit better.
199-206 High Holborn London, WC1V 7BD
They might be slightly hidden, but this busy Soho branch of TAP has a couple of seats set up by the tiny brew bar near the espresso machine. This is a neat spot to escape the Soho bustle and sample the TAP’s own roast filter coffees.
193 Wardour Street, Soho, W1F 8ZF
At the original Clerkenwell café you can sit at the bar and at their lovely Fitzrovia café, you can lean against it. Both have slimmed down their filter coffee offer from the early days to offer a choice of Aeropress or batch but both are good spots to chat with the staff and take your time. As with most places, we’d advise you to ask for the staff recommendations as to what to drink that day.
27 Clerkenwell Road, EC1M 5RN
Not everyone knows this but there are a few seats by the tiny brew bar in Caravan Kings Cross. Most of the time they are far too busy to make use of this as Caravan serve a huge amount of coffee daily, but turn up at a quiet time, take a spot and chat to a busy barista if you can, as he or she makes you a lovely Chemex filter of one of Caravan’s great roasts. And what a setting, right by the roastery looking out over the stylish restaurant. Look out for David who is the go to coffee guy.
Granary Building, One Granary Square, King's Cross, N1C 4AA
Yes, really. Of course we wouldn’t ask you to choose a multinational chain over an independent but Starbucks Reserve is an experience – especially the brew bar. Grab a seat by the bar and order a Chemex, v60 or siphon and have the barista talk through the process in front of you. Part of the delight is being in a Starbucks and having decent coffee but there is no doubting the quality of some the coffees the chain has chosen for the Reserve stores. They are however roasted a lot darker than you’ll find in any independent UK speciality coffeeshop but not as far gone as you’d find in a regular Starbucks. The staff are enthusiastic and knowledgeable and in a way this is a return to the original Starbucks aesthetic if you know your history. Just don’t ask them about taxes.
99 St Martin's Ln, London WC2N 4AS
Others indies have adapted the brew bar model slightly. At Alchemy in St Pauls, Amoret in Hammersmith, Esters in Stoke Newington, Lundenwic in Aldwych, Taylor St Monument and Lanark, among others, you can sit close enough to the brew station to talk to the barista and at Old Spike in Peckham the structure is inverted with a long seated bar along which customers share space with the espresso machine and filter coffee gear, alongside the barista, ensuring a real opportunity for engagement.
Meanwhile, there is no seating at The Right Roast or Bang & Swirl but both have brought filter coffee to the local market stall scenario, the latter in Putney and the former in Primrose Hill . The Right Roast is particularly focussed on coffee education, serving up samples of filter coffee to market shoppers who may then buy a full serving filter coffee or a sample pack of beans from a variety of roasters.
Alchemy: 8 Ludgate Broadway, EC4V 6DU
Amoret: 11 Beadon Rd, Hammersmith, London W6 0EA
Esters: 55 Kynaston Road, Stoke Newington N16 0EB
Lundenwic: 45 Aldwych, WC2B 4DW
Taylor Street Monument: 2 Botolph Alley London EC3R 8DR
Old Spike Roastery: 54 Peckham Rye, Peckham, SE15 4JR
The Right Roast (Saturdays only): St Pauls School, Primrose Hill Road, NW3 3DS
Bang & Swirl (Saturdays only): Putney Bridge Market, 5 Putney High St, London SW15 1RB
Article by Phil Wain - Editor