Koja by Surrey Hills Coffee (COVID-19 Update)

My flat white, made with the Surrey Hills Coffee Holmbury Hill blend and served in my HuskeeCup at Koja.Koja, a Swedish word meaning “a cosy little den”, came into being in August this year. On the one hand, it can be seen as the rebirth of Surrey Hills Coffee on Jeffries Passage, but it’s also very much its own place, resisting the temptation to become a clone of what had gone before.

When I visited, on Koja’s second day of trading, it was just offering takeaway service. As summer turned to autumn, Koja introduced limited seating downstairs, although I never seemed to be in the position to visit, either passing by at closing time (at the relatively early hour of two o’clock in the afternoon) or else it was a Saturday and very busy. With the tightening of COVID-19 restrictions in England at the start of November, Koja returned to takeaway only, and I thought it was high time I popped back to see how things were going.

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Black Rabbit Speciality Coffee

Black Rabbit Speciality Coffee on the corner of the street, the door recessed in a cut-away at 45° to the windows.The speciality coffee scene in and around Earl’s Court and Hammersmith has really taken off in the last few years, led by the likes of Over Under Coffee, with the original opposite Earl’s Court station and its shoebox-sized addition at West Brompton. Pretty much slap bang between the two is Black Rabbit Speciality Coffee, a relatively new addition to the area, which opened last year.

Occupying a sunny corner on the north side of Old Brompton Road, it’s a small, but charming spot, flooded with light from large windows along the front and left-hand sides. If you don’t mind the traffic, you can sit outside at one of two pavement tables, or you can retreat inside, where there’s a similar number of tables, plus a couple of window-bars.

The coffee is from old friends Allpress, with the standard Allpress blend, plus decaf, on espresso, while there’s a regularly-changing guest roaster on batch-brew. Although it’s small, that doesn’t limit Black Rabbit’s ambition, with a decent selection of cake on the counter, plus impressive breakfast, brunch, sandwich, salad and wrap menus. If you’re wondering how the staff manage it, there’s a kitchen tucked away in the basement (but, alas, no seating).

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Queens of Mayfair

The unassuming façade of Queens of Mayfair, the central door flanked by two tall, square-paned bay windows. There's also a table on the pavement in front of the window to the left of the door.The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic may have caused a country-wide closure of coffee shops this spring, but that hasn’t stopped a growing number of brave entrepreneurs from opening new coffee shops. Chief amongst these are siblings Grace and Victoria, who had originally planned to open Queens of Mayfair, their high-end coffee shop located, appropriated enough, in Mayfair, back in March 2020. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t happen, but despite the COVID-19 setback, they carried on, with Queens opening in August instead.

Queens is an upscale venue, offering table service, a brunch menu until 3:30 pm and a “nibbles” menu in the evening. There’s cake, of course, plus hot chocolate, tea and a fully-stocked bar offering cocktails and other delights. However, it was the coffee that made the headlines, even catching the interest of the mainstream press. The reason? The UK’s most expensive cup of coffee, coming in at £50 a serving!

This is something so special that it has a Saturday Supplement all of its own. In the meantime, this Coffee Spot focuses on Queens as a coffee shop, where you can order from the more affordable espresso-based menu, based around a Brazilian Daterra, roasted for Queens by Difference Coffee.

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Over Under Coffee, West Brompton

The front of Over Under Coffee, West Brompton, which is pretty much the extent of the store!Over Under Coffee, which seems to specialise in tiny coffee shops, has done much to bring speciality coffee to Earl’s Court/Hammersmith in West London, starting in 2017 with the original, opposite Earl’s Court Station. After branching out with a slightly larger coffee shop in Ham Yard, just off Piccadilly, which closed almost exactly two years ago at the end of October 2018, Over Under returned to its roots, the subject of today’s Saturday Short opening just outside West Brompton Station in January 2019. Since then, there have been two more Over Unders in London (Ladbroke Grove and Wandsworth Town) and one in Manchester (which, sadly, has not reopened following the COVID-19 pandemic).

Over Under Coffee at West Brompton is even smaller than the ones that came before it, the tiny interior offering standing room only, with just two small stools on the pavement outside. Despite this, there’s a concise espresso-based menu, backed up with batch brew filter, the coffee, as always, coming from Assembly. Even more impressively, given the size, is the brunch menu, cooked in the kitchen downstairs, plus various pastries and filled croissants.

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Chalk Coffee (COVID-19 Update)

The A-board outside Chalk Coffee is a sign of the times, reminding you that you need to wear a mask (from October 2020).Of all the coffee shops that I’ve visited since the COVID-19 restrictions were eased in England, Chalk Coffee can make a claim to be the one with the least physical changes. Located on Watergate Street, it’s part of the rapid expansion of Chester’s speciality coffee scene that has seen numbers swell in the last few years. Like many of the city’s speciality coffee shops, it has a basement-like feel, stretching a long way back under the famous Rows and it looks, and feels, remarkably like it did on my last visit in 2019.

However, there have been changes. As well the (admittedly minor) physical ones, you’ll find a clear sign outside on the pavement reminding you that you must wear a mask. Meanwhile, there’s a QR code on the counter that you can scan, checking you in on the NHS COVID-19 app. Not all the changes are COVID-19 related though. Chalk Coffee used to use Origin for its house espresso, but it’s recently changed to Colonna Coffee, although Origin is still on decaf, while a regularly-changing guest roaster provides the second espresso option and filter. Meanwhile, if you’re hungry, the usual cast of premade sandwiches and cakes are still available.

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Kaffeine Eastcastle (COVID-19 Update)

The front of Kaffeine, door to the left, windows to the right, with a pair of benches in front of the window acting as tables.If you ever need evidence that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for operating a coffee shop during the COVID-19 pandemic, I  present Kaffeine, the London-based chain of precisely two coffee shops. I’ve already looked at how the original Kaffeine, on Great Titchfield Street, has adapted to COVID-19 and today it’s the turn of Kaffeine Eastcastle, which reopened at the start of September. Although less than five minutes’ walk apart, how the two shops are dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic is quite different.

Of course, there are similarities, with both adhering to the same underlying principles, but in each case, the response has been moulded to/by the needs of the individual shop. Perhaps the biggest difference is that while Great Titchfield Street offers table service, Eastcastle, with its lower footfall, has a more traditional counter service model.

In terms of what’s on offer, little has changed. The espresso-based menu still has Square Mile’s ubiquitous Red Brick at its heart, along with a single-origin option, while there’s also a single-origin filter, which changes monthly. The concise brunch menu is served until 2 pm (3 pm at weekends), supported by an all-day selection of salads, tarts and toasted sandwiches, plus cake, of course.

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92 Degrees Coffee (COVID-19 Update)

The 92 Degrees logo, taken from above the counter on the Hardman Road coffee shop.92 Degrees Coffee, Liverpool’s first combined speciality coffee shop/roaster, has come a long way since I first visited at the end of 2015. Then it was just a single shop at the top of Hardman Street, the roaster tucked away in a small space behind the counter. Now it’s a chain of three, adding a larger shop in the Baltic Triangle, which does food, and a smaller shop five minutes’ walk from the original, catering more to the students (and only recently reopened). The roaster has also moved since my original visit, first to the Baltic Triangle, then to a dedicated roastery/office back in the same building on Hardman Street (which, sadly, isn’t open to the public).

This update is about the original which looks and feels very much how I remember it from my visit almost five years ago. There are a few COVID-19 changes, such as a thinning out of the seating and a move to disposable cups (so don’t forget to bring your own). However, the basic offering is the same, with the house blend on espresso and three options through the Kalita Wave, along with tea, hot chocolate, plus a selection of cakes, bagels and prepared sandwiches/salads.

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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.

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Iris & June (COVID-19 Update)

A black circle with the words "Iris&June" written in white inside itFor a long time, Iris & June, on Howick Place, between Victoria and Westminster, was a lonely beacon of coffee excellence in the local area. Yes, there was the venerable Flat Cap Coffee stall, but if you wanted somewhere to sit down, for many years after it opened in early 2014, Iris & June was the only game in town. All that has changed in the last couple of years, but just because there are plenty of other options in the area these days, this doesn’t mean you should overlook Iris & June, which reopened in July after the COVID-19 closedown and is just as good as ever, which I discovered when I visited last week.

Like many coffee shops operating during the COVID-19 pandemic, Iris & June has had to make compromises, reducing its opening hours and stripping out some of the seating to maintain social distancing. However, when it comes to what matters, don’t be fooled: this is the same old Iris & June, with excellent Ozone coffee on espresso and filter, along with its innovative daily lunches. And, of course, the same high standards of service which makes Iris & June stand out from the crowd.

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