Brian's Coffee Spot

Devoted to Coffee

Atlanta & Portland, November 2021

Amanda's Espro Travel Press takes in the views at Diana's Falls in the White Mountains, New Hampshire.This was one of just two overseas trips that I was able to take in 2021, flying to Atlanta, Georgia, on November 8th, the first day that the US COVID-19 travel restrictions were relaxed to allow vaccinated UK residents into the country. I spent a few days there with Amanda, visiting her mother, then Amanda drove me (plus her dog and three cats)  the 1,200 miles (2,000 km) back to Portland, Maine.

In theory, the drive could have taken two (very long) days, but instead we took three so that we could take in some of the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, enjoying the fall colours and some stunning mountain scenery. Unlike some of my other long road trips, where I’ve only managed to cover a couple of states (although I did manage five states in my Midwest road trip), this one saw us travel through 11 states in all, although the only one I’d not been to before was North Carolina.

I then spent three weeks in Maine with Amanda before flying back from Boston at the start of December. With the high (and rising) levels of COVID-19 infections,we didn’t get up to much, managing just one day out to go hiking in the White Mountains the weekend after Thanksgiving (my first Thanksgiving in the US).

I also had to go down to Washington DC on my first weekend in Maine for the funeral of an old friend. It was very much a there and back trip over the course of two days, travelling by train from Boston and returning by a combination of car, train and bus.

The trip, including my flight to Atlanta and my return from Boston, along with posts on the various impacts of travelling during the COVID-19 pandemic, are covered in the Travel Spots below. You can also read about the Coffee Spots that Amanda and I took in during our drive back to Portland, those we visited in Portland itself, our chance find in the White Mountains, and those I visiting during my weekend trip to Washington DC.

Header Image: my HuskeeCup taking in the views, looking east across the mountains from the Green Knob Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina.

Travel Spots

You can read about the trip in the following Travel Spot posts.

Brian’s Travel Spot: Flying to America During the COVID-19 Pandemic

My British Airways Boeing 787-800 on the stand at Heathrow Terminal 5, waiting to take me to Atlanta on Monday, 8th November. However, before I could get to the plane (and even to the airport), there was a lot of paperwork to get though...Welcome to just the second Travel Spot of 2021 that deals with my actual travels this year, rather than reliving previous trips. I’m currently in Atlanta, Georgia, having flown out on Monday (8th November), coincidentally the exact same day that the USA eased its restrictions, finally allowing vaccinated passengers from around 30 countries, including the UK, to travel to America.

I flew direct with British Airways, this time in World Traveller Plus (Premium Economy to you and me), my flight departing mid-afternoon and arriving in Atlanta in the early evening. Today, after a couple of days in Atlanta, Amanda and I are driving to Portland, Maine, a trip that should take us three days in all. Then, after three weeks in Portland, I’ll fly back from Boston, again in World Traveller Plus.

Usually, my Travel Spots cover the journey itself, but I’m going to save that pleasure for a follow-up post. Instead, since this is the first time that I’ve flown to America under the new travel restrictions, this post is dedicated to the various procedures and (electronic) paperwork that, these days, are a requirement before taking any international flight (with a particular emphasis on the requirements for the USA).

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Brian’s Travel Spot: Flying to Atlanta in Premium Economy

Making coffee on the plane (again), this time with my Frank Green ceramic cup, Espro TravelPress and Knock Aergrind.Welcome the second instalment of my Travel Spot covering my current trip to Atlanta, Georgia, and Portland, Maine, which began on Monday last week when I flew to Atlanta, travelling in World Traveller Plus (premium economy to you and me) with British Airways. Coincidentally, this (8th November) was the very first day that the USA eased its restrictions, finally allowing vaccinated passengers from around 30 countries, including the UK, to travel to America. As a result, I dedicated the first post in this series to all the procedures I had to go through and all the (electronic) paperwork I had to fill out before I could take my flight.

This post is more traditional, covering my flight out, which departed from London Heathrow in mid-afternoon, arriving in Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport in the early evening. This is the third time that I’ve flown to/from Hartsfield-Jackson, having made a pair of visits at the start of 2020, one enroute from Phoenix to Portland (Maine) and the second when I flew from Atlanta to Chicago in March 2020. However, this is the first time that I’ve flown into Terminal I, which handles all Atlanta’s international flights, my previous three flights all being internal.

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Brian’s Travel Spot: Amtrak Northeast Regional 65

Amtrak Locomotive 629, a Siemens Sprinter ACS-64, which was at the front of Northeast Regional 65 at Washington DC's Union Station.I had expected to spend most of my month-long trip to the USA at the end of last year in Maine with Amanda. However, the death of a close friend necessitated a weekend there-and-back trip to Washington DC for the funeral. The obvious choice was to fly, but a combination of factors, including my dislike of flying internally in the US, plus a lack of (reasonably priced) direct flights, led to me taking the train, by far my preferred option anyway.

Initially, I looked at travelling down on Saturday (the funeral was on Sunday morning) but that would have involved spending all day on the train (from Boston, the quickest service, the Acela, takes seven hours, while the regular Northeast Regional takes eight hours). While exploring my options, I noticed the Northeast Regional 65, a train which leaves Boston at 21:30 on Saturday night, arriving in Washington DC’s Union Station at 06:30 on Sunday morning. That would give me plenty of time to get to the funeral, as well as avoiding an overnight stay in the DC area. And, as a final bonus, it meant I could spend Saturday with Amanda. So, the Amtrak Northeast Regional 65 it was.

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Brian’s Travel Spot: First Time on Amtrak’s Acela Service

Power car 2022 pulling my Amtrack Acela service into New Haven on the way to Washington DC.Last week I wrote about my impromptu trip to Washington DC for a friend’s funeral, and how I took Amtrak’s Northeast Regional 65 sleeper service overnight from Boston South Station to Washington Union Station. That got me into DC first thing on Sunday morning, in plenty of time for the funeral, which just left me the small matter of getting back. My options included flying, which would have got me back to Portland on Sunday evening, or taking the counterpart of the train I caught on the way down, the Northeast Regional 66, which would have got me into Boston early on Monday morning.

The Northeast Regional was my fallback option, but since a mutual friend was driving back to Connecticut after the funeral, I took the opportunity for a ride as far as New Haven. I spent the night there, before carrying on to Boston by train on Monday morning, completing my journey to Portland by bus that afternoon. To get to Boston, I had a choice of the Northeast Regional service, or Amtrak’s premium Acela service. Since I’d never taken the Acela before, it seemed like this would be the ideal time to see what I’d been missing.

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Brian’s Travel Spot: From Boston to Portland by Bus

My Concord Coach Lines bus waiting at the gate at Boston's South Station Bus Terminal before taking me up to Portland, Maine.Welcome to the third and final instalment of this mini Travel Spot series about my impromptu trip to Washington DC back in November, itself part of my wider month-long trip to America. Part one covered my journey to Washington Union Station on Amtrak’s Northeast Regional 65 sleeper service, travelling overnight from Boston South Station. The second part, meanwhile, was all about my first time on the Acela service, travelling from New Haven back to Boston South Station. That just left the small matter of getting back to Portland from Boston, the subject of today’s post.

In an ideal world, I’d have completed the journey by train, taking Amtrak’s Downeaster from North Station. However, as much as I like travelling by train, the Downeaster is not very convenient compared to the bus. Although the same price (a very reasonable $24), the Downeaster runs once every three hours, compared to the bus’s hourly schedule. Plus, while the bus leaves from South Station, where I’d just arrived, to catch the train, I’d have to get myself over to North Station (admittedly a short tube ride or a 25-minute walk through the city centre, but an unnecessary additional step). So, the bus it was.

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Brian’s Travel Spot: Returning from Boston in Premium Economy

My travelling coffee kit at the British Airways Lounge in Boston Logan Airport, Terminal E. Back row, from left to right: my Frank Green ceramic cup, Knock AerGrind hand grinder and Espro TravelPress. The tub holds a pre-weighed dose of beans.Welcome the last leg of my trip to Atlanta (Georgia) and Portland (Maine), which included an unexpected weekend round-trip to Washington DC. Today’s Travel Spot covers my return to the UK last weekend, flying World Traveller Plus (aka Premium Economy) with British Airways. Having arrived in Atlanta almost four weeks earlier, I continued my USA tradition of (hardly ever) flying to/from the same airport by returning from Boston Logan.

This post starts with my pre-flight preparations (an essential part of travelling during the COVID-19 pandemic). Even though the rules changed mid-trip (due to the omicron variant), things were nowhere near as onerous as when I flew out, when the process was sufficiently complex that I dedicated an entire Travel Spot to the experience.

The remainder of the post is more traditional, covering the journey to the airport, the airport itself, and my flight. In the last few years, I’ve taken the early morning flight from Boston (either British Airways or Virgin Atlantic), but that disappeared from the schedules at the start of the pandemic.  Instead, I flew back overnight in World Traveller Plus, my first overnight economy flight since 2017, when I flew from Chicago to Manchester with American Airlines.

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Brian’s Travel Spot: Day 2 PCR Test

The entrance to the Collinson test centre at London Heathrow.This is not a Travel Spot that I particularly wanted to write, since it very much ended what had otherwise been a very good journey on a down note. Exactly two weeks ago, I landed at Heathrow having flown back from Boston with British Airways at the end of my trip to Atlanta (Georgia) and Portland (Maine). However, that wasn’t quite the end of my journey. On arrival in the UK, everyone has to take a COVID-19 test within two days, with the test booked in advanced. When I left the UK, the requirement was for a lateral flow test, but during the trip, this was changed to a PCR test.

That in itself was nothing new: I’d taken a Day 2 PCR test on my return from Iceland. There was, however, one crucial difference. Another rule change means you now must self-isolate until you’ve received a negative test result. That wouldn’t have been an issue had my PCR test result come back within the stated 48 hours. Unfortunately, it didn’t. And the rest of the process, with the honourable exception of the staff at the testing centre, was a complete shambles, my problems starting as soon as I left the terminal.

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Coffee Spots

You can read about all the Coffee Spots that Amanda and I visited on this trip, which I’ve split into those that we visited:

If you’re interested, of the 12 speciality coffee shops visited (some of which I never had the chance to write up), ten roast their own coffee, with seven of them roasting on-site.

Atlanta to Portland

We didn’t have time to visit many speciality coffee shops on our long, three-day drive. We managed four in all and I only had a chance to write up one of them, from our first stop on our first day. The other three were All Day Darling in Asheville, NC, where we breakfasted at the start of our second day, plus Brandywine Coffee Roasters in Willington, DE and Penstock Coffee Roasters in Highland Park, NJ, both of which broke up the long drive of our third day.

Alma Coffee Roastery

A lovely cappuccino, made with the medium-roast Soulmate from the family farm in Honduras, roasted and served in my HuskeeCup at Alma Coffee Roastry in Canton, Georgia.Exactly three weeks ago today, Amanda and I set off to drive from Atlanta, Georgia to Portland, Maine, a three-day journey that would take us through some lovely scenery along sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway. However, before we got there, we stopped at Alma Coffee Roastery, a chance discovery which we made while planning the route. It’s on Holly Springs Parkway, which runs parallel to I-575, connecting Woodstock in the south and Canton to the north.

The roastery, which doubles as a coffee shop, is just off the parkway on the left as you drive north, with clear signage and plenty of parking, although there’s no public transport access. A generous outdoor seating area stands in front of the roastery, while inside, a neat coffee shop with a handful of tables occupies the right-hand side of the large roastery building.

Alma Coffee specialises in Honduran coffee, much of it from the owners’ family farms. You can buy any of the roastery’s output in retail bags, while Soulmate, a medium-roast washed coffee, is available through a concise espresso-based menu, along with various iced versions. Alma Coffee only serves in disposable cups, so don’t forget to bring your own.

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Most of Portland’s coffee shops were operating takeaway only due to COVID-19, but we did get a chance to pop into Little Woodford’s new location and visit the new Speckled Ax on Thames Street.

Little Woodfords (COVID-19)

The front of Little Woodfords on Congress Street in Portland, Maine, proudly flying its Progress Pride flag.I’ve been a fan of Little Woodfords in Portland, Maine, ever since I first visited in the summer of 2019. I was therefore rather worried when I heard, in July 2020, that it was forced to move from its original location in Woodfords Corner to a much smaller spot on Congress Street in downtown Portland. Fortunately, while this has meant an inevitable change of character, the friendly, inclusive welcome of the original, plus the awesome coffee from Vermont’s Vivid Coffee Roasters, remains as Amanda and I discovered on our visit last month.

The offering is much as it was as before, with a single option on espresso, batch brew and flash brew (a pour-over over ice, akin to a Japanese iced coffee). The coffee changes on a seasonal basis, and there’s also tea, hot cocoa and several latte-based specials. If you’re hungry, there’s a small, vegetarian/vegan breakfast menu, with various toppings on bagels/biscuits. While Little Woodfords has a small indoor seating (standing?) area at the front, it’s currently takeout-only due to COVID-19, although you’re welcome to sit outside, where you’ll find a bench out front, with a couple of picnic tables down the side, which catch the afternoon sun.

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Speckled Ax, Congress

A square with the motif of an axe buried head-first in a tree-trunk above the word COFFEESpeckled Ax joins fellow roasters-cum-coffee shops, Bard Coffee and Tandem Coffee Roasters, to form a small and vibrant specialty coffee scene in Portland (Maine). Speckled Ax started life as a roaster in 2007 (under the name “Matt’s Wood Roasted Organic Coffee”), with the coffee shop following five years later in 2012, prompting the name-change to “Speckled Ax”.

Situated on Congress Street, just west of the centre of Portland, Speckled Ax is long and thin, with the counter at the back and tables along either side. There’s a neat seating area in the window at the front, with benches clustered around a tree stump. This acts as a coffee table, instantly reminding me of the window-seating in Menagerie Coffee in Philadelphia.

Speckled Ax’s particular claim to fame is that it is one of just a handful of wood-fired coffee roasters in the USA (reminiscent of Witney’s Ue Coffee Roasters in the UK). Speckled Ax offers one or two single-origin espressos, plus decaf, in the shop through its Synesso espresso machine. There are usually three more single-origins available as filter, through the syphon, V60, Chemex or Aeropress, depending on your particular requirements. There’s also batch-brew until 11am if you’re in a hurry.

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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.

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White Mountains

We didn’t expect to find any good coffee during our day trip to go hiking in the White Mountains in New Hampshire, so we took our own coffee with us when we visited the beauty spot of Diana’s Baths. That made our chance find on the way back all the more special.

Frontside Coffee Roasters

An espresso, made with a naturally-processed Ethiopia Sidamo, and served in a classic blue cup at Frontside Coffee Roasters.Today’s Coffee Spot was a chance discovery that Amanda and I made following a short hike at Diana’s Baths, a beauty spot in the White Mountains in New Hampshire. Amanda spotted Frontside Coffee Roasters as we drove through North Conway on our way there, so we decided to call in on our way back, expecting nothing more than somewhere warm to have a late lunch. Instead we found a wonderful coffee shop, roasting and serving some exceptional single-origin coffees.

Frontside has been in its current location on White Mountain Highway, the main drag through North Conway, for ten years, although it’s been in existence in one form or another for over twenty. Occupying a large, corner plot, there’s a small parking lot at the back (behind which is the roastery) while there’s a large outdoor seating area off to the right with plenty more seating inside.

All the coffee is roasted in-house with two options on espresso (one blend, one single-origin), another blend on batch brew, plus two single-origins on pour-over. Naturally, all the beans are available to buy in retail bags. If you’re hungry, Frontside offers a selection of breakfast biscuits, a range of bagels and plenty of cake.

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DC Trip

My trip down to Washington DC was very short, but I did manage to call into Peregrine Espresso in Washington DC, plus I popped into a couple of places in Boston, before I caught the bus back to Portland. An honourable mention goes to Blue State Coffee, where I grabbed a filter coffee from its Congress Avenue location in New Haven before catching my train to Boston.

Peregrine Espresso, Eastern Market (COVID-19)

A lovely cappuccino from Peregrine Espresso, Easterm Market, served in my HuskeeCup.Although I’ve been through Washington DC a few times on the train, I rarely visit the city itself. So, when I took the sleeper down from Boston during last month’s USA trip, I was determined to make the most of the opportunity. I didn’t have long, so made a beeline for Peregrine Espresso’s Eastern Market location on Pennsylvania Avenue, a half-an-hour stroll from Washington Union Station past the US Capitol.

Peregrine Espresso occupies a small unit with a wide, glass front and a generous outdoor seating area which is actually on 7th Street, just around the corner from Pennsylvania Avenue. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s currently takeaway service only (so don’t forget to bring your own cup), although you’re welcome to sit outside with your coffee. In more normal times, there’s more seating inside, but this has been cleared away to provide plenty of space for customers who are queuing to order/waiting to collect their coffee.

Talking of which, Peregrine Espresso serves a concise espresso-based menu with a batch brew option, all the coffee roasted by Small Planes Coffee, owned by founders, Ryan and Jill Jensen. There’s also a selection of tea, plus a range of cakes and pastries.

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Gracenote, Boston

A drawing of a musical note, over a drawing of a coffee cup, over the words "gracenote | COFFEE ROASTERS", all in various shades of red.I’ve been a fan of roasters, Gracenote, for a while, having first had its coffee at Boston’s delightful Render Coffee. Based in Berlin, Massachusetts, where it’s been roasting since 2012, Gracenote took a first step into serving its own coffee with a lovely coffee bar in downtown Boston, which opened in October 2015. During my most recent visit in February 2016, it was the place that everyone in the area (including Providence, Rhode Island) said I had to visit, and they weren’t wrong!

The coffee bar’s standing-room only, catering primarily for office workers from the area around Boston’s South Station. A lovely Modbar installation provides espresso, offering house-blend, a single-origin or decaf. There’s batch brew filter, cold-brew on tap and a choice of speciality tea. Naturally you can buy all of Gracenote’s coffee in retail bags, whole bean or ground-on-demand. If you’re hungry, there’s even a limited selection of sweet treats.

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La Colombe, South Station

A cortado, made with the Sun Peak, a Guatemalan single-origin, and served in a glass at La Colombe, South Station in Boston.Over the years, I’ve become very familiar with La Colombe, the roastery/coffee shop chain from Philadelphia, having visited its coffee shops there, in New York City, Washington DC and Chicago. I’m also very familiar with Boston, having made many trips there, albeit mostly in the early years of the Coffee Spot (or before). However, it’s been over five years since my last major visit to Boston, in February 2016, which explains why I’ve never visited either of the city’s two La Colombe locations.

I was able to rectify this oversight on my latest trip to America, when, on my way back to Portland (Maine) from Washington DC, I had a couple of hours to kill at Boston’s South Station, where you’ll find La Colombe on the other side of Atlantic Avenue, directly opposite the entrance to the bus terminal. Off the foyer of a modern office building, it’s a large, spacious coffee shop with its own street entrance. The classic La Colombe offering sees two options on espresso, another two on batch-brew and two more on pour-over. There’s also a range of in-house teas and draft lattes and, if you’re hungry, cakes and items from the grab-and-go fridge.

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