The cool coffee houses of London

With impressively good timing, Alex Evans’ guide to independent coffee shops in London has arrived just as the gift shopping season gets under way. This is a truly pocket-sized small book, at 6in x 4in, yet it crams in 150 pages of café guides and good feature stories on such aspects as roasting, brewing methods, and ethical sourcing.

The list of acknowledgements shows that some remarkably influential names in the coffee field were involved, and it has to be said that the photography, by Vic Frankowski of the Tapped and Packed coffee house, is extremely imaginative – atmospheric, and mercifully light on the usual old shots of dripping espresso. A lot of ‘coffee photography’ has got stuck in the same kind of rut that coffee companies’ corporate videos have done… we all know what customers in coffee houses look like, and we know what pouring espresso looks like, and we don’t want to see them ad nauseam. Vic, however, has the photographer’s knack of looking at things from an entirely different viewpoint, and has shot from up in the rafters, or deep in a remote corner of a roastery or coffee-house.

Some of the shots of the interiors of certain well-known London coffee-houses here are the best, and most accurately atmospheric, that we’ve seen (and, to our joy, he shot the same thing that we photographed in the rear of the St Ali café – the giant poster of a young Chairman Mao giving ‘the finger’!

But what of the featured coffee-houses? In what has become the accepted format, the guide divides central London into five parts, and looks at a dozen in the west end, and half a dozen in the other sectors. To a degree, it would be fair to say that it covers the expected ones… well, of course it does. You can’t miss out the really great cafes! But there are some delightfully unexpected entries – typically, the Giddy Up coffee cart.

The book does not attempt to cover every decent coffee venue in the capital, with about three dozen being reviewed, but it is well written, and in meaningful terms… we ourselves once fell out with a very big beverage trade organisation for criticising their annual café guide as being too full of clichés and worn-out phrases to actually mean anything (what on earth is ‘a delicious selection of mouth-watering sandwiches’ supposed to tell the customer, we asked? They never spoke to us again!) In this Guide, we found the term ‘mouth-watering’ used only once, and thankfully, there is very little of the usual sycophantic pandering to Antipodean influences. Here, the brief reviews of each venue actually do give some worthwhile information, and a reasonable pen-picture of the ambience of each business.

There are some interesting observations here and there. One is that London’s baristas are ‘privileged’ to work with a product which has involved so much effort by people in remote places, and that a single lapse of concentration ‘can ruin the coffee that has travelled so far’. It would be a good idea if more baristas realised that… indeed, one of the most illuminating things we ever heard from a barista was from our first world champ, James Hoffman, some years ago when he very honestly recalled to us that in the very early days of his career, he was under the impression that it was his talent which turned the base bean into a drink… and that was before he developed understanding of, and respect for, the bean. Today, his Square Mile roastery has a short, respectful, feature to itself in this Guide.

The additional chapters are worthwhile, too. OK, a history of London coffee houses is predictable and perfectly good, but there is an interesting piece by Steven Macatonia of Union Hand-Roasted on why he finds Fairtrade a ‘limited’ method of buying ethically, there is a good piece on general roasting by Lawrence Sinclair of Dark Fluid, and there is a pretty decent run-down of the various brewing methods.

It all makes up a very nicely rounded volume.

For a tenner, this certainly is a very good buy.

– Ian Boughton, Boughton’s Coffee House magazine
The Independent Coffee Book, London.
Published Vespertine Press, ISBN 978-0-9566582-2-7.