About Brian Williams

Author of Brian's Coffee Spot, you can read all about me in the "About Me" section of the blog (www.brian-coffee-spot)

Obscure Coffee Update

A lovely flat white, made with Climpson & Sons signature Estate espresso, served in a classic yellow cup at Obscure Coffee in Chester.My only disappointment from my visit to Chester at the start of August was the discovery that Obscure Coffee had yet to reopen after the enforced COVID-19 shutdown. Fortunately, I was tipped off a few weeks later by Glenn Mango on Instagram that Obscure was back, so I made sure to pop in when passing through Chester on my way home last week.

Obscure had only been open for two weeks at that point. While the basic set-up is the same, there have been plenty of changes since my first visit a year ago, some of which pre-date COVID-19. The seating has been upgraded in the front section, while Obscure no longer serves pour-overs, instead concentrating on its concise espresso menu, backed up by batch brew through the Moccamaster. The coffee is still from Climpson and Sons, while the warm, friendly welcome is as warm and friendly as ever.

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Bold Street Coffee Update

The Bold Street Coffee sign, back outside the shop on Bold Street, Liverpool.Bold Street Coffee, a legend of Liverpool’s speciality coffee scene, was opened in 2010 by the equally legendary Sam Towil (who, incidentally, now lives in Llangollen, where he runs Sam’s Coffee). I visited in 2013, returning almost exactly seven years later to see how it was faring during the COVID-19 pandemic. In between, Bold Street Coffee has been through a lot, including having to leave its beloved Bold Street home in January 2018, only to return at the end of the year, bigger and better than ever.

Then came 2020 and COVID-19 which forced Bold Street Coffee to close, along with everyone else, in March. Bold Street Coffee partially reopened in May, offering an extremely popular weekend take-out service, before fully reopening in early July, following the relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions in England.

If you’re familiar with Bold Street Coffee of old, the new layout is very similar, only with a larger, open kitchen and more seating at the back. There are also three tables outside on the temporarily-pedestrianised Bold Street. The menus are slightly limited for the moment: there’s no second option on espresso, while filter is restricted to batch-brew, but hopefully things will be back to normal soon.

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Visiting Coffee Shops During COVID-19: Lessons Learnt, Part I

The new one-way system at Wayland's Yard to keep everyone safe during COVID-19.Since the relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions in England at the start of July, I’ve been visiting coffee shops again, including some in London, Reading, Chester, Birmingham and Liverpool. Although I haven’t been anywhere I’ve felt unsafe, there are big differences in how individual coffee shops have interpreted and implemented the COVID-19 guidelines and the measures that they’ve put in place.

This post looks at some of these different measures, highlighting what has worked for me in terms of making me feel extra secure when visiting a coffee shop (whether I’m actually any safer is another matter). Wherever possible, I’ve illustrated my points with specific examples from coffee shops that I’ve visited.

That different coffee shops have chosen to implement the guidelines differently doesn’t surprise or bother me, since this was always going to be the case, often dictated by the physical layout of the shop. Similarly, I’d hate this post to be taken as a “must do” guide, although there are things that most coffee shops could do to improve. It’s also worth saying that I’ve deliberately tried to visit coffee shops when they are quiet, although over the last few weeks, I’ve noticed places getting busier across the board.

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Ngopi (COVID-19 Update)

My pour-over at Ngopi in Birmingham, a V60 of a Mount Halu honey-processed coffee, which was roasted in the shop, and served in a carafe, presented on a wooden tray with a handleless cup on the side.The last stop on my brief tour of Birmingham is Ngopi, which exclusively serves single-origin Indonesian coffee, all of which is roasted in the little roaster visible through the front window. Ngopi was my find of 2019, after the staff opened my eyes to the variety and sheer quality of Indonesian speciality coffee at that year’s Birmingham Coffee Festival.

Like the rest of the UK’s speciality coffee shops, Ngopi was forced to close by COVID-19, only reopening in July following the relaxation of restrictions in England. The obvious COVID-19 precautions are now in place (Perspex screens on the counter, reduced seating, etc) but otherwise, Ngopi is very much its old self. In particular, the coffee is just as good as I remember it, while there’s a menu of light Indonesian dishes and desserts which, had I not just come from lunch at Wayland’s Yard, would have been very tempting.

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Root Coffee (COVID-19 Update)

The words "Root Coffee" written in an arch in black capitals on white, tiled wall. "EST / 20 / 15" is written in red in a box below.I first visited Root Coffee back in 2016, when it was a relative newcomer to Liverpool’s speciality coffee scene, having opened right at the end of 2015. By the time of my return at the start of September, checking out how the city’s speciality coffee shops were coping during the COVID-19 pandemic, Root was an old hand, looking (and feeling) very similar to how it had over four years earlier.

Blessed with a large, bright interior and a generous outdoor seating area on the (already) pedestrianised western end of Seel Street, Root Coffee was ready-made to offer a COVID-safe environment with minimum change. The outdoor seating was reopened as soon as the restrictions were eased on 4th July, with the indoor seating quickly following.

These days, Root is almost back to normal, with slightly reduced opening hours (10:00 -17:00) and with the kitchen closing at three o’clock. The coffee is a good as I remember it, with a cast of three roasters gracing the various hoppers, although batch-brew is off the menu for the moment.

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Wayland’s Yard, Birmingham (COVID-19 Update)

The new one-way system at Wayland's Yard to keep everyone safe during COVID-19.I revisited Wayland’s Yard in Birmingham at the end of August, almost exactly two years after my first visit, seeking a late lunch one Tuesday afternoon. Looking reassuringly similar from the street, the only obvious differences were the lack of outside benches (there used to be one on either side of the door, underneath the windows) and the presence of the bold “we are open” sign on the door.

Inside, the changes are similarly subtle, with several of them pre-dating the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the additional seating on the left in front of the counter. Of course, there are the COVID-19 precautions themselves, mostly the clearly-marked one-way system on the floor, but otherwise, Wayland’s Yard is much as I remember it.

The coffee, from Herefordshire’s Method Roastery, is as good as ever, with a bespoke house-blend and single-origin on espresso, although for now, there’s just a solitary single-origin on pour-over through the V60 rather than the customary two. The brunch menu has similarly been cut down, but is just as innovative as before.

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The Decaf Challenge (2020)

A picture of the Quindío region in Colombia, taken from an information card that came with Workshop Coffee's Quindío Decaffeinated Espresso.I can’t believe it’s been five years since the original Decaf Challenge, my attempt to raise the profile of all the great decaf coffee out there, inviting roasters to send me their decaf roasts, which I then highlighted in the post. I also tried to dispel some of the persistent, negative myths surrounding decaf coffee.

Although I’m still a champion of decaf coffee, drinking it on a regular basis (about 25% of my coffee consumption is decaf) I haven’t repeated the exercise, largely because, with so much great decaf about, it’s unfair to highlight just a few roasters. These days, almost every good roaster I know has a decent decaf, while there are more options than ever when it comes to sourcing decaffeinated green beans. I honestly can’t remember the last time I bought a bag of poor decaf.

However, despite this progress, options are limited. While most roasters have multiple espresso and pour-over options, there’s usually only a single decaf on offer, invariably roasted for espresso. So, when I heard that Workshop Coffee had launched a pair of decafs, both using the same beans, but with one roasted for espresso, the other for filter, I had to buy some.

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Kaffeine (COVID-19 Update)

My espresso, made with Square Mile's Red Brick blend, and served in a classic black cup at Kaffeine on Great Titchfield Street.One of the legends of London’s speciality coffee scene, this is the original Kaffeine on Great Titchfield Street, in the heart of Fitzrovia. It reopened in June, initially just serving takeaway, and has been slowly expanding its offering ever since. First, the internal seating reopened, then, in mid-August, following traffic restrictions put in place by the council, the outside seating was expanded.

Wherever you sit, you’ll get the trademark Kaffeine hospitality and some exemplary service. You’re greeted at the door by a staff member who takes your order. If it’s to go, you’ll need to wait there until your coffee is brought to you. Alternatively, if you’re staying, once you’ve ordered, you’ll be shown to a table (or allowed to select one if sitting outside), thus ensuring separation between sit-in and takeaway customers.

As usual, Square Mile’s Red Brick is on espresso, joined by a single-origin guest, which can be had instead of the Red Brick, or there’s a tasting flight where you can try them both. There’s a selection of cold/iced coffee options, plus tea from the Rare Tea Company. Finally, if you’re hungry, Kaffeine has the usual cake and pastry options, plus small breakfast and lunch menus.

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Faculty (COVID-19 Update)

Faculty/Sixteen Kitchen has long been my go-to option when changing trains at Birmingham’s New Street Station. Located at the bottom of the Piccadilly Arcade, opposite the station’s New Street entrance, it’s a great breakfast/lunch option, courtesy of Sixteen Kitchen, although I’ve tended to call in the afternoon for coffee and cake at Faculty when changing trains, its proximity to the station making it perfect if you have a few minutes between trains.

Like many in the speciality coffee industry, Faculty has been feeling its way back, initially reopening for takeaway only, when it served from the door. Since then, it’s reopened its seating areas and is slowly expanding its opening hours as people return to the city centre. For now, the coffee offering has been reduced slightly, with just one option on espresso and another on pour-over. Similarly, Sixteen Kitchen is offering a cut-down menu, although you can always get cakes and a small selection of toasted sandwiches from Faculty.

The usual COVID-19 precautions are in place, including reduced seating to ensure social distancing, a queuing system at the door and Perspex screens on the counter. One non-COVID change is the appearance of a Modbar espresso system on the counter!

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Quarter Horse Coffee Update

The Quarter Horse Coffee logo: a profile of a knight from a chess set, surrounded by an oval with the words "Quarter Horse Coffee" written around the outside.While the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly hit the speciality coffee industry hard, it has also provided unforeseen opportunities for some. Quarter Horse Coffee opened its café/roastery in Birmingham in early 2015, but in recent years, Nathan, the driving force behind Quarter Horse, has wanted to make some major modifications. However, the question was always how to justify the disruption caused by the required structural work, which would inevitably shut both roastery and café for several weeks. Then along came COVID-19, with its enforced shutdown, giving Nathan his opportunity…

Originally the roastery was behind an open counter on the left of the café. While this had the obvious advantage that customers could see the roaster in operation, the layout had some serious operational disadvantages. The resulting remodelling has seen the roastery remain in place, but enclosed in its own room, the café being reworked to provide more seating in a slightly reduced space, a clever trick if you ask me. And, of course, the excellent coffee is still there, along with an enhanced food offering.

Today’s Coffee Spot Update focuses on the café, which reopened on the last day in July, while the roastery has its own update, which will be along in due course.

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