Workhouse Coffee, King Street: Update

Workhouse Coffee Company on the ground floor of the George Hotel in ReadingLet’s get 2014 underway with a Saturday Supplement. I visited the King Street branch of Reading’s Workhouse Coffee at the end of August, just before it was due to undergo a re-modelling of the counter/serving area. Prior to the re-modelling, the front part of the store was conventionally laid-out, with the counter on the right and a small seating area on the left. The espresso machines were tucked away in a corner at the end of the counter, with grinders and the filter-rack (Workhouse’s owner, Greg Costello, refuses to use the term “brew bar”) behind the counter itself. It was all very self-contained and had a certain logic/flow to it, but idea behind the re-modelling was to open it all up to the customers.

I went back in December to see the new layout; this Coffee Spot Update is partly about what I found on my return. It’s also about the reasons why Workhouse went to such lengths to re-model an already successful coffee shop. This speaks volumes about its passion for great (and accessible) coffee and was one of the main reasons why Workhouse won the 2013 Coffee Spot Award for “Most Passionate About Coffee”.

You can see what I found after the gallery.

  • From the outside (and in the dark) Workhouse Coffee doesn't look too different!
  • However, look more closely and you can see the filter-rack in the window.
  • You can stand out in the cold watching the barista at work. Hang on, why am I outside?
  • Stepping inside, where it's warm, the counter has been extensively re-modelled.
  • A different view of the counter. It looks a lot less cluttered than before!
  • How it looked before. The only advantage to this layout was that the cake was more obvious!
  • The filter-rack's gone from behind the counter. It's now where the espresso machines were.
  • The filter rack in its new location in the window. Much easier to see what's going on.
  • The coffee beans are still on display in the window, but now laid out in sequence (left to right): beans, scales, grinder, filter-rack.
  • This is how the beans were displayed in the summer.
  • The filter-rack in action. First weigh the beans...
  • ... then grind straight into the filter paper (no pre-rinsing filter papers here).
  • Then add water. Who needs fancy pouring kettles anyway?
  • And leave to filter, straight into the mug.
  • Poetry in motion.
  • The grinders, between the coffee beans & espresso machines (they were behind the counter).
  • And here are the machines, out in the open for all to see.
  • The externally-mounted pumps.
  • And before, on the opposite side of the room.
  • And in action. Manager Eva makes coffee.
  • And steams the mlik.
  • The latte art is as good as ever.
  • As seen from the other side.
  • The team while I was there: Eva, Louis, Sean and Flori. Greg was in hiding.
  • Neat gift idea. The Don, Workhouse's exclusive Dominican Republic coffee, & filter cone with papers.
  • Oh look! Coffee Spot Calendars!
  • Nice festive takeaway cups.
  • The innovation doesn't stop with the coffee. It makes all its own food. Here's a mince pie.
  • But not just any old mince pie. This is a Workhouse mince pie! Look at that! Lovely...
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Workhouse Coffee’s new layout is the result of a vision to bring coffee-making out in the open, where everyone can see their coffee being prepared. So now, instead of the filter-rack being hidden away behind the counter, it’s in the window where the espresso machines were and much more visible as a result. Before, if you wanted to watch your filter coffee being made, you had to stand in front of the counter, getting in the way of the other customers.

In fairness, many Coffee Spots have this accessible approach to filter coffee: the various TAP branches and FreeState Coffee in London spring to mind, while the original Workhouse Coffee on Oxford Road also has its filter-rack in the window. However, the real innovation lies with the espresso machines.

These have been moved to the opposite corner, where a pair of booths used to provide some seating. Now, instead of being behind the counter, the two La Marzocco machines are out in the open. It’s not that customers are invited to watch their coffee being made, it’s more that they have little choice in the matter; it’s right there in front of them!

The idea is to make coffee much more accessible. Gone is the hulking espresso machine, behind which the barista works his/her magic in splendid isolation. Some Coffee Spots have put the espresso machine side-on at the end of the counter, while others have the business end of the machine facing the customers at the back of the counter. In both cases, you can see what’s going on, but, if you want to watch your coffee being made, you still have to stand in front of the counter, getting in everyone else’s way. Workhouse is the first place I know which has taken this desire for accessibility to its logical conclusion.

This pursuit of accessibility ties in with Workhouse’s pursuit of coffee-making excellence. The espresso machines themselves are interesting. The pumps, rather than being inside the machines, are wall-mounted on a rack. Each group head has a different temperature/pressure profile, each being used for a specific type of drink (eg espresso on one machine, flat whites on another). This foreshadows developments in several modern espresso machines, where individual group heads can be pre-programmed with specific temperature and pressure profiles (for example, the new M100 from La Cimbali).

The way the coffee is made is also innovative. If you want sugar in your espresso, Workhouse uses a muscovado sugar which is infused in the coffee as it’s made rather than added afterwards. I tried one of these as a straight espresso and, I must confess, it has caused me to look again at putting sugar in espresso. If I had many more of these, I could easily get hooked!

This innovation stretches to the pour-over filter coffee, a large part of Workhouse’s business. Workhouse’s plastic filters are manufactured to its own design, along with its own filter papers made from unbleached paper. The pursuit of coffee excellence extends to the home as well; Workhouse is so keen that you get the most out of your beans (all roasted in-house and for sale for use at home) that it sells the filter cone, plus a pack of papers, for the ridiculous price of £6. Only the best for Workhouse’s beans!

10-12 KING STREET • READING • RG1 2HF +44 (0) 7826 851467
Monday 08:00 – 18:00 Seating Tables, Bar, Tables outside
Tuesday 08:00 – 18:00 Food Lunch, Cake
Wednesday 08:00 – 18:00 Service Order at counter
Thursday 08:00 – 18:00 Cards Cash Only
Friday 08:00 – 18:00 Wifi No
Saturday 09:00 – 18:00 Power Limited
Sunday 09:30 – 16:00 Mobile 3G, Voice
Chain Local Visits Original: 13th April, 31st August 2013
Update: 6th December 2013

You can find the original Workhouse Coffee Company Coffee Spot here, including the complete write-up and gallery. You can also see the Coffee Spot piece on the original Workhouse Coffee branch on Oxford Road, West Reading.

If you are interested, here’s what local (Guildford) coffee blogger, Katie, made of Workhouse.

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10 thoughts on “Workhouse Coffee, King Street: Update

  1. Pingback: Workhouse Coffee, King Street | Brian's Coffee Spot

  2. This is my local coffee shop and I love it! It is always packed despite being opposite Starbucks and other chain coffee shops. The Oxford Road shop is now unfortunately empty most of the time but I’m glad that this one is thriving. We need more coffee shops like Workhouse!

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