I set off one murky Sunday evening in Shanghai with the aim of catching a basketball match, but armed with the knowledge that along the way there was a branch of my favourite Shanghai roaster, Little Bean. Located in the lobby of the Century Link Tower 2, it was right above my destination, the Century Link metro station. Sadly, Little Bean appears to be closed at weekends, but while I was looking for Tower 2, I wandered past Tower 1, where, glancing through the window, I saw Mellower Coffee in the lobby.
Mellower Coffee is a local coffee shop/roaster chain, with multiple branches around Shanghai. In this case, there’s a simple counter tucked away in a corner of the lobby, with nine two-person tables providing seating in the lobby itself. The choice of coffee is impressive for somewhere so small, with two blends on espresso and nine single-origins on pour-over through the Chemex, plus various signature drinks and a small selection of pastries. Unsurprisingly, it’s disposable cups only, so don’t forget to bring your own.
I first became aware of Little Bean on my first trip to Shanghai in October 2016, when I tried its coffee at AUNN Café & Co. On my return in December 2017, Little Bean’s flagship, Little Bean Roastery, was one of that trip’s highlights. These days, there are five Little Beans, but back then, there were just two, the second being the Little Bean Coffee Museum, located in the basement of the K11 Mall, right in the heart of downtown Shanghai.
I managed to visit in 2017, but didn’t get a chance to write it up, so on my return in 2019, I made a point of visiting, even though modern shopping malls are very low on my list of places I want to spend any time in. However, the lure of Little Bean, tucked away in the basement, was too much to resist (and the good news is that you can get there straight from the Metro, so you can bypass K11 altogether).
What you get is the usual Little Bean offering of a Brazilian single-origin on espresso, plus another Brazilian single-origin on pour-over through the V60, where it’s joined by a selection of single-origins sourced from Nordic Approach.
Like yesterday’s Coffee Spot, BLUEKING Coffee, Chez Black Coffee was a chance discovery, something seen through a window once again drawing me in. I was wandering the leafy streets of the old French Concession, perhaps my favourite Shanghai district, when the awning, with its single word, “Coffee”, caught my eye. I crossed the road, more in hope than expectation, but then, glancing in the window, I saw the most amazing-looking espresso machine behind the counter. A modular design, akin to the Modbar and Mavam systems, this looked like it had been designed by a Steampunk enthusiast, who’d crossed it with a lever machine, the result all angular lines and brass cylinders. Naturally, I had to go in.
The espresso machine aside, Chez Black is a lovely spot, a cross between a coffee shop and a library. There’s plenty of seating options, each one cosy in its own particular way. You can sit at outside, at the counter, chatting with the baristas or at the back with the books, where there’s a delightful mezzanine. The coffee is from Shanghai’s Yûn Coffee Roasters, with a single-origin on espresso and two more on pour-over, backed up by a small but delightful cake selection.
BLUEKING Coffee was a chance discovery while hunting down Manner Coffee on the same road on my first visit to Shanghai in 2016. It’s part of a cluster of coffee shops, including Lanna Coffee to the southwest, Sumerian Coffee to the north and, on the same east-west stretch, both branches of Manner Coffee. It also has the distinction, along with Sumerian, of being the only Shanghai coffee shop that I’ve visited on all three of my Shanghai trips.
When I first discovered BLUEKING, it had only been open for six months and, despite its small size, was roasting all its own coffee in the front of the shop. By my return a year later, it had a second shop (just past Manner Coffee on Fengxian Road) and a dedicated roastery, the original branch now forming a cute coffee bar, serving espresso and pour-over, plus a small selection of cakes.
My first experiences of % Arabica were in department stores/malls, initially in % Arabica’s hometown of Kyoto in 2017, where I visited its Fujii Daimaru Department Store branch, then last week in Shanghai, in the newly-opened Xintiandi Plaza branch. In both cases, it was disposable cups only: disappointing, given that both cater to sit-in customers, but forgivable, given the location/style of service. I was therefore looking forward to visiting % Arabica’s combined Shanghai roastery and coffee shop, in a prime location just off the Bund.
I have a rule on the Coffee Spot never to write negative/critical pieces. Today, I’m partially suspending that rule. Never have such high expectations been met with such bitter disappointment. Don’t get me wrong: the coffee was excellent, while the setting has so much potential. However, counter-service and disposable cups just don’t cut it for me, not when you could do so much more.
Talking of the coffee, there’s a house-blend (Brazil and two different Ethiopians) and a single-origin, both available as espresso or pour-over (through the Chemex), but that’s pretty much it. You can, of course, buy the beans, while there’s a limited range of merchandising on sale, but don’t forget to bring your own cup.
The original Manner Coffee on Nanyang Road in the Jing’An neighbourhood was one of my finds from my first visit to Shanghai, part of my first round-the-world trip in October 2016. When I returned at the end of 2017, I discovered that a second branch of Manner Coffee had opened on Fengxian Road, just a couple of blocks to the east of the original. Naturally I had to check it out.
Whereas the original is a hole-the-wall, literally a window in the side of a building, opening onto the street, the new Manner Coffee is much bigger, although it’s still tiny. This time it occupies the front half of a shop, with the rear section home to a small restaurant. The operation’s very similar though, with a window at the end of the counter opening on the street, where you order.
The offering’s also very similar, Manner roasting all its own coffee, with a blend on espresso and up to seven single-origins on pour-over through the V60. Naturally, all the beans are available to buy.
Sharps Coffee Bar, on Windmill Street, is something of a fixture in the London speciality coffee scene, having been around almost as long as the Coffee Spot. For those who don’t know, Sharps is a two-for-one, with a barber shop at the back and a lovely coffee bar at the front. It started life with London coffee legends Dunne & Frankowski, but it was taken in-house in 2014, with some equally famous names, such as Michael Cleland (Assembly) and David Robson (ex-Association Coffee) taking over behind the counter.
Fast forward five years and things have, in some ways, come full circle, with Harry and Alfie of Rag & Bone Coffee taking over the coffee operation at the start of February. Superficially, little has changed, with the layout still essentially the same. This includes the iconic Kees van der Western Spirit espresso machine, clearly visible through the window. However, there are subtle changes, including a new menu board, while the coffee has changed, Rag & Bone bringing in its house-blend from Old Spike Roastery on espresso, with various guests on filter, both batch-brew and pour-over through the V60. If you’re hungry, there’s a small range of pastries and several toast-based options.
In speciality coffee circles, Omotesando Koffee is something of a legend. Named after its home in Tokyo’s Omotesando district, this pop-up coffee shop was credited by some as helping to transform the Tokyo coffee scene. Sadly, it was a relatively short-lived affair and, while I visited its successor, Koffee Mameya, I missed the original (although you can read what my friend Bex made of it when she was there in 2014).
From those humble beginnings, Omotesando Koffee has gone on to spawn a series of coffee shops around the world, including branches in Hong Kong and Singapore. In the summer of 2018, a ripple, for want of a better word, went through the London speciality coffee scene. Omotesando Koffee was opening on Newman Street in Fitzrovia.! Excitement mounted for the rest of the year, until, in the middle of December, Omotesando finally opened its doors, perhaps the most anticipated event in London specialty coffee that year.
A minimalist coffee shop, offering a bespoke house-blend from Assembly (with components from Brazil, Colombia, Uganda and Ethiopian) on espresso and pour-over, plus single-origins on pour-over and batch-brew, it offers a slice of modern Japanese coffee culture. Naturally, I had to take a look…
Regular travellers know that, with a few exceptions, airport coffee varies on a scale from mediocre to awful. While the likes of British Airways and Union Hand-roasted have made great strides forward, this is only of use to travellers who have lounge access. Meanwhile, it is left to individual airports/coffee shops to take the initiative, a great example being the branch of Cartel Coffee Lab at Phoenix Sky Harbor.
Into this mix comes Philadelphia-based roaster/coffee shop chain, La Colombe. I passed through Philadelphia Airport on my may from Manchester to Manchester (I couldn’t help myself) and was delighted to find multiple branches of La Colombe, at Terminals A, B, C and E. Each one serves a pair of blends, plus a decaf, on batch-brew and another blend plus decaf on espresso. Even though I had lounge access, I had to stop off and grab some proper coffee…
Philadelphia’s speciality coffee scene is dominated by roaster/coffee shops, with the occasional exception such as Menagerie Coffee. Into this mix comes Rally, a coffee shop which not only isn’t a roaster, but is also a creative marketing agency, as well as doubling as an events and co-working space. However, don’t let that put you off, since it’s still an excellent coffee shop in its own right.
Rally is in Bella Vista, just south of the centre, having opened in early 2016, not long after I visited the city, so I just missed out. However, on my return in 2018, I was alerted to its presence by the lovely folks at Ox Coffee, so naturally I had to check it out.
Using local suppliers wherever possible, Rally originally used Passenger Coffee Roasting from nearby Lancaster. However, it has recently switched to Philadelphia-based roaster Blind Tiger Coffee (which I’ve yet to try), set up last year by Charlie, one of the baristas at Rally. There’s a concise espresso-based menu, plus batch-brew and pour-over through the Clever Dripper. If you don’t fancy coffee, there’s tea, while if you’re hungry, there’s a selection of cake from local bakers, plus ice-cream from Weckerlys in Fishtown.