Speckled Ax, Thames (COVID-19)

A lovely cappuccino, made with the Honduras El Cedro, a honey processed coffee, served in a classic white cup at Speckled Ax, Thames Street in Portland, Main.On my first trip to Portland, in June 2015, Speckled Ax was one of three coffee shop/roasters that I visited (along with Tandem Coffee and Bard). Back then, Speckled Ax had a single coffee shop on Congress Street, but two new locations have recently opened, a coffee bar on Walton Street (attached to the new roastery which opened in 2021) and a large café on the waterfront at Thames Street (which opened in 2020).

I’d planned to visit Portland in March 2020, but sadly the COVID-19 pandemic ruled that out, preventing me from returning for another 18 months. However, the travel restrictions were eased in November 2021, and I was finally able to return to America and to Portland, where I paid a long overdue visit to the new Thames location.

Speckled Ax occupies a spacious ground floor unit with views across Thames Street to the harbour. At the time of writing, the space is effectively split into two, with a takeaway section to the right, while the seating is at the front on the left. There’s a limited coffee menu (which still manages to offer two espresso options and two on batch brew filter), while the kitchen provides a concise breakfast and lunch menu.

You can read more of my thoughts after the gallery.

  • Speckled Ax, as seen from the other side of Thames Street in Portland, Maine.
  • It's right on the corner, on the ground floor of a modern building...
  • ... and goes a fair way back.
  • As well as the door at the front, there's also one on the side (which is currently exit only).
  • There's a pair of benches back here, although they're not for the rainy day we visited!
  • Since this door is exit only, let's return to the front to enter.
  • The view from just inside the door, where there's hand sanitiser and a small lectern...
  • ... containing the menu and the current COVID-19 precautions. Once you've read them...
  • ... you can step around the lectern and into the large ordering/waiting area.
  • You order at the side of the counter, where there's also a table acting as a retail display.
  • Meanwhile, behind you by the side door, is a grab-and-go fridge.
  • The view from the back of the space. You can wait here...
  • ... or sit at the tabe by the door (but not if you're sitting in).
  • For that you need to go around to the left of the retail table, where you'll find the seating.
  • This starts with a short, four-person window bar to the left of the door...
  • ... and continues with a seven-person one in the next set of windows.
  • Beyond that, in a nook at the far, left-hand end, is an L-shaped arrangement of benches.
  • A view of the second window-bar from the far end.
  • I've saved the best until last: these sofas and armchairs in front of the counter.
  • They are arranged in two sets, the chairs back-to-back in the middle, sofas at the ends.
  • Each has a pair of small, round coffee tables in the middle.
  • This is the one Amanda and I sat at, on the sofa, of course.
  • The whole ensemble.
  • There are a few neat touches, such as this flower display by the door...
  • ... and this painting in the nook at the far end.
  • You order down the side of the counter, where you'll find...
  • ... the very concise menu on a pillar (look up)...
  • ... with the current choice of beans (two espresso, two filter) and the specials to the right.
  • The cake selection, a bit depleted due to our afternoon viist, is on the counter...
  • ... along with the breakfast and lunch menu, all prepared in the kitchen at the back.
  • Order/pay at the table in front of the counter, which provides staff/customer separation.
  • Finally, there's the retail selection on the table to the left. These are the single-origins...
  • ... while these are the blends, along with Speckled Ax's coffee advent calendar.
  • The blends (and decaf) in more detail.
  • The counter, with its twin espresso machines, is a thing of beauty, sadly roped off for now.
  • I was taken with the customised Synesso espresso machine, used to make our coffee.
  • Amanda and I each had a cappuccino, which we paired...
  • ... with a very fine apple and maple (American) scone.
  • Both cappuccinos were made with the same coffee, the Honduras El Cedro.
  • This is mine...
  • ... while this is Amanda's.
  • They were very smooth and sweet, coffee and milk in perfect harmony.
  • I was so impressed with the El Cedro that I bought a bag to take home.
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Speckled Ax is downtown Portland, northeast of the Old Port Historic District on Thames Street, close to the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad. Occupying a spacious, high-ceilinged corner unit in a modern building, it has large windows along the front and right-hand sides, making for a very bright interior. The front faces Thames Street, the main door towards the right, while there’s a second door towards the back of the right-hand side. For now, a one-way system is in is operation as a COVID-19 precaution, entering at the front and leaving by the side door.

Inside, the counter is at the back on the left-hand side, an enclosed kitchen behind it, leaving an L-shaped space to the front and right. When Amanda and I visited in early November, Speckled Ax was in just its second week of sit-in operation, with several temporary COVID-19 precautions in place, including limited seating capacity, both to maintain social distancing and separate seated customers from those waiting for takeaway orders. To this end, the right-hand area is ordering/waiting, while the seating is to the left, occupying the space between the counter and front windows, separated from the ordering/waiting area by a long table. This is effectively an extension of the counter and displays retail bags of coffee, stocking the roastery’s significant range of single-origins and blends.

The main door leads into the ordering/waiting area which extends to the back of Specked Ax, down the right-hand side of the counter/kitchen. Various signs explain the current procedures and guide you to the till and cake selection at side of the counter, with the current coffee options on a menu to the right. Order and pay here, then, if you’re not staying, you have plenty of space to wait for your coffee. Alternatively, there’s a large table to the right of the door, while the grab-and-go fridge is beside the door on the right.

If you’re sitting in, double back on yourself, go around the retail table, then head along the front of the counter. To your left, next to the main door, is a four-person window-bar, with a seven-person window-bar beyond a wide pillar. Past these, in a nook which extends to the left of the counter, are two benches, one against the left-hand wall, with a four-person table, the other against the back wall with a two-person table. Finally, where the two benches meet, is a three-person corner table. However, the best of the seating is between the counter and the windows, where two sofas and four armchairs are arranged in two pairs, each with a sofa and two armchairs facing each other across two small, round coffee tables.

Speckled Ax is currently offering a “reduced” coffee menu. I say “reduced” because it still manages to offer two single-origins on espresso (the Honduras El Cedro and a Costa Rican coffee, both honey processed), plus a blend (Sock Saunders) and single-origin (El Cedro) on filter, although there’s no pour-over. There’s a commendably concise espresso menu with a few special options. Speckled Ax has a similarly concise hot food menu from the kitchen plus the grab-and-go fridge and a selection of cakes. There are plans to serve alcohol, but for now you’re limited to buying (and taking home) bottles of wine.

Amanda and I had cappuccinos. made by default with the El Cedro (the Costa Rican is used for espresso). They were very smooth and sweet, coffee and milk in perfect harmony, producing classic chocolate notes (Amanda’s verdict: “yummy”). We paired this with an apple and maple (American) scone which was moist and sweet (American scones are often too dry for me). Finally, I was so impressed with the El Cedro that I bought a bag to take home.

December 2021: the two other Speckled Ax locations, the original on Congress Street and the new roastery/coffee bar on Walton Street (which I visited on my next trip to Portland), are both currently takeaway only, although Congress Street has a small outdoor seating area.

December 2021: Speckled Ax, Thames has won the 2021 Best Flat White Award.

February 2022: I finally made it to the other side of the tracks and visited the new roastery/coffee bar on Walton Street.

Monday 07:00 – 15:00 Roaster Speckled Ax (espresso + filter)
Tuesday 07:00 – 15:00 Seating Tables, Sofas, Window Bar; Benches (outside)
Wednesday 07:00 – 15:00 Food Breakfast, Lunch, Cakes
Thursday 07:00 – 15:00 Service Counter
Friday 07:00 – 15:00 Payment Cards + Cash
Saturday 07:00 – 15:00 Wifi No
Sunday 07:00 – 15:00 Power No
Chain Local Visits 26th November 2021
22nd January 2022

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