The biggest issue I had with Brew was finding it. About as far north from the centre of Oxford as Quarter Horse is east of it on the Cowley Road, Brew sits on North Parade Avenue between Banbury and Woodstock Road. Not that Google was having any of it, refusing even to acknowledge that Brew existed (the good news is that Brew’s now made it onto Googlemaps!). In the end, I was indebted to Dan of Zappi’s Bike Café for showing me the way.
Brew, however, is well worth finding. Owned by Drew and Will, the people behind The Keen Bean Coffee Club, Brew is a delightful little space, one of the most beautiful settings for a Coffee Spot that I’ve come across. As the name suggests, Brew’s focus is on filter coffee, rather than espresso, although that doesn’t stop it from having an iconic Elektra cylinder espresso machine gracing its counter-top.
Brew acts as a showcase for local Ue Coffee Roasters, carrying a full range of its beans for sale, three of which are available through the V60 filters on the counter. These rotate on a regular basis, a new bean coming on every six weeks or so.
The Keen Bean Coffee Club (aside from possibly having the best-ever name for a Coffee Shop) is just short stroll along Oxford’s Cowley Road from Monday’s Coffee Spot, Quarter Horse Coffee. As well as this close physical proximity, the two coffee shops almost share a birthday, Keen Bean having opened just two weeks before its near neighbour in 2012.
Typical, isn’t it? You wait ages for a decent coffee shop, then two come along at once! A lot like buses…
Keen Bean is one of that new breed, a coffee shop sharing premises with another business, a model pioneered by bookshops. In this respect, it’s like Zappi’s Bike Café, another star of the Oxford coffee scene, although Keen Bean’s inside a record store rather than a bike shop. Whereas Zappi’s was always planned as an integral part of the bike shop, Keen Bean approached the record shop, Truck Store, which was already well-established on the Cowley Road.
Serving coffee from local roasters, Ue Coffee, Keen Bean manages to pack a lot into a relatively small space, with a comprehensive espresso menu, individual pour-over coffee, tea and hot chocolate! Kean Bean is owned by the same people behind the recently-opened Brew.
September 2015: It’s all change on the Cowley Road. I’m aware that Brew no longer owns Kean Bean, which, I believe, is now operated by the Truck Record store itself. I’m hoping to get back for an update before 2017 is out.
When visiting Oxford, don’t be seduced by the colleges’ gleaming spires in the centre. Oxford is a town that rewards exploring, particularly when it comes to coffee. Head east over the river and, after a short stroll, you’ll find yourself on the lively Cowley Road where there are two outstanding Coffee Spots, The Keen Bean Coffee Club and, just before it on the right, Quarter Horse Coffee.
Set up by co-owners, James and Nathan, Quarter Horse has been serving fine coffee to the Cowley Road for just over 18 months. Arriving at a time when Oxford was in danger of becoming a one-roaster town, Quarter Horse brought London’s Square Mile to Oxford (although it now roasts its own beans). Quarter Horse also started doing filter coffee (bulk brew, betraying Nathan’s American origins, and Aeropress) and continues its coffee education/evangelism with regular events such as monthly cupping classes.
In the same vein, Quarter Horse offers a Flight Test, a chance to taste the same bean as a straight espresso and in milk. I wish more places would offer this as an option since I often try an espresso and then wonder what it would taste like in milk (or vice-versa if I had it as a piccolo).
A short stroll down St Michael’s Street, just off Cornmarket Street, Oxford’s central thoroughfare, is the Bike Zone, a bicycle shop. What’s not immediately apparent, except to those in the know, is that it’s also home to Zappi’s Bike Café, one of Oxford’s best-kept secrets. Indeed, even walking past might not give it away, such is the small size of the sign, which advertises the presence (on the first floor) of this lovely little coffee spot.
Zappi’s Bike Café is not quite as well hidden as Newcastle’s Flat Caps Coffee, but it’s in that league. The small sign, well above eye-level, and a menu, painted on the door, are the only real giveaways. Even then you have to negotiate your way up a narrow, switch-back staircase and the make your way through the display room, past all the bikes, before you get to Zappi’s itself.
Zappi’s focus is on coffee, toasted sandwiches and banana bread, of which the staff are rightfully proud. The coffee comes from the local Ue Coffee Roasters, supplemented by a regularly-rotating guest blend. All the cakes, sandwiches and, most importantly, the banana bread, are made in the tiny kitchen behind the counter.
To celebrate the latest issue of Caffeine Magazine, with its feature on the Oxford Coffee scene, I present the Companion Café & Bread Bar, the Natural Bread Company’s retail outlet on Oxford’s Little Clarendon Street. The Natural Bread Company has made its name, naturally enough, through its sourdough bread, which it sells at Oxford Farmers’ Markets and elsewhere. However, luckily for me, it doesn’t stop there, since it also takes its coffee and cake just as seriously.
The coffee, from Has Bean, came highly recommended by various Oxford people. Comments ranged from “the coffee’s very good” to “where I get my coffee on my days off” (this from a barista at Quarter Horse Coffee). With recommendations like that, it’s hard to go wrong! There are a couple of single-origin beans on the espresso machine as well as a bulk-brew filter option. There’s also tea from both Tea Pigs and Cardiff’s Waterloo Tea.
However, it was the cake that really sold it to me (not that it needed much selling if I’m honest). All home-made, the counter was groaning under the weight of the cake. And such a range: pastries, cinnamon buns, brownies, flapjacks, this list goes on… And there’s toast!