Unfortunately, I was working in Chicago the weeks before/after the 2019 festival, so this year, I was determined not to miss out. I put the dates (first weekend in May) in my diary, ensured that work didn’t schedule any meetings around then and even bought my tickets. And then the COVID-19 pandemic happened…
You might think that would spell the end of the coffee festival for this year, but the folks of Glasgow are made of sterner stuff, and the festival, now a 10-day event, is back in a new form.
I first visited Brew Lab in December 2012, part of the Coffee Spot’s first-ever road trip to Edinburgh. Back then, I found it all rather bewildering, Brew Lab playing a large part in my transition from an innocent coffee lover to my headlong descent down the rabbit hole that is speciality coffee. Over the years, Brew Lab has gone from bewildering to familiar, almost a home-from-home. Along the way, there have been a few changes, some of which I wrote about when I returned in April 2014. However, the biggest change occurred when London roasters and speciality coffee pioneers, Union Hand-roasted, bought Brew Lab in 2018.
Naturally I was keen to find out what, if anything, had changed as a result of the new ownership, popping back at the end of last year to check out the “new” Brew Lab (annoyingly, I missed visiting exactly six years after my first visit by a single day). The good news is that Union seems to have taken an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach, leaving Brew Lab to carry on much as I remember it, providing great coffee on espresso and filter, including guest roasters, which is an excellent sign.
When I first visited, at the end of April 2014, Edinburgh’s Fortitude was the new kid on the block, having been open for all of four weeks. When I returned, at the end of last year, it had been going a bit long than that, but at first glance, not much had changed, particularly not when viewed from the street. Even when you go inside, the layout and décor is much the same, a small, high-ceilinged space, single window at the front, counter at the back, with the espresso machine tucked away around the corner.
However, look more closely and you’ll start to see the differences. The shelves on the right-hand wall, once lined with retail bags from the likes of London’s Workshop and Glasgow’s Dear Green Coffee, the bags now say “Fortitude”. That’s right, Fortitude started roasting. In 2017… That’s what I get for not visiting Edinburgh for over three years…
In keeping with the best Edinburgh coffee shop traditions, you’ll find Cairngorm Coffee in a basement, occupying a pair of joined spaces under a row of houses on the steeply-sloping Frederick Street. This is one of two branches, the other, on Melville Place, having opened in April 2015. This, however, is the original Cairngorm Coffee, having first opened its doors in March 2014, which means that it celebrates its fifth birthday this month.
Cairngorm Coffee started life as a multi-roaster, showing-casing coffee from across Europe. However, in April 2018, Cairngorm started roasting its own coffee. For now, the roastery is based in the family-owned café in Kingussie, just off the A9 in the heart of the Cairngorm mountains, but there are plans to move it to Edinburgh.
The coffee operation at Frederick Street is fairly simple, with a single-origin on espresso and another on batch-brew, although you’ll find a wider range at Melville Place. The coffee options change on a monthly basis and are served from a concise drinks menu, where they’re joined by an equally concise tea selection. If you’re hungry, there’s a short breakfast/lunch menu, heavily biased towards sandwiches and toast, plus a selection of cakes and pastries.
I first dsicovered Edinburgh’s Machina Espresso in 2013, when I wrote about it as part of my first-ever feature for Caffeine Magazine. Back then it was an equipment supplier, in November that year, it opened its first coffee shop in Brougham Place, where it fulfilled dual roles of coffee shop and equipment supplier, its shelves full of (very) shiny home espresso machines, compact grinders, great cups, tampers, pouring kettles and so on. However, that was only the beginning…
In 2017, Machina Espresso took two big steps forward. First, in May, it started roasting its own coffee in a dedicated facility (sadly not open to the public) and then, in the summer, the second branch, the subject of today’s Coffee Spot, opened on Nicolson Street.
In keeping with its roots, there is plenty of coffee kit on sale, although Nicolson Street stops short of grinders and espresso machines. Machina Espresso only roasts single-origins, with two choices on espresso (for drinks with and without milk), while there’s another on batch-brew. If you’re hungry, Machina Espresso has a good selection of cakes, plus a concise combined breakfast and lunch menu available until four o’clock (although the porridge is only available until 11 o’clock).
Although I’ve visited Glasgow many times, I rarely venture east of the city centre, normally spending my time in the centre itself, in the West End and, starting last year, the south side. I’d heard about the appropriately-named East Coffee Company, which opened in January 2018, on my visit for that year’s Glasgow Coffee Festival, but with my bad back, I’d not been able to get out there. However, on my return to the city in December, I made it a priority to head over to East for coffee and some lunch.
It’s a lovely little place, occupying a front and back room in a row of shops, with tenements above, a very typical set-up for Glasgow. Despite the small size, there’s plenty on offer, including a seasonal single-origin espresso from local roasters, The Good Coffee Cartel (a Colombian during my visit) with decaf from Dear Green Coffee. If that doesn’t appeal, there’s a daily batch-brew, featuring roasters from around the country. While I was there, it was the turn of Sacred Grounds from Arbroath, with a Black Honey processed El Salvador. East also offers a concise all-day breakfast/lunch menu, the food cooked in an open kitchen behind the counter.
When you’ve been away from Edinburgh for as long as I have (an embarrassing three years!), everything is new, even places that have been open for ages, like Lowdown Coffee. However, today’s Coffee Spot, Detour Espresso, is genuinely new, having only opened in August this year. Located on the south side of the Meadows, an area bereft of speciality coffee since the closure, long ago, of Freemans Coffee, it’s a welcome addition.
There’s not a lot to Detour Espresso, but it’s well worth making a detour to visit. Essentially a large, open cube (bless those high Edinburgh ceilings) you’ll find Birmingham’s Quarter Horse Coffee Roasters on espresso with its Dark Horse blend, along with a guest single-origin, plus a further single-origin on pour-over/batch-brew from a different guest roaster. These guest roasters change every month or so, depending on how quickly Detour goes through the stock.
If you’re hungry, there’s a simple all-day food menu with breakfast and lunch options. This includes my favourite option of toast, plus a range of toasted sandwiches and soup of the day, while, for a change, you can have a warm savoury tart with side salad. There’s also plenty of cakes from old friends Cakesmiths.
Toro Coffee burst onto Glasgow’s speciality coffee scene (specifically the Southside) in September, becoming an instant hit, partly thanks to the efforts of cheerleader-in-chief, my friend Charlotte. Indeed, when I popped over to Glasgow last week, Charlotte’s plan for the morning was “we’re going to Toro”. Not, “would you like to go to Toro?”. No, we were going. On the other hand, Charlotte has excellent taste in coffee shops, so I wasn’t about to disagree.
Other than the coffee, the main draw is the wonderful, friendly and welcoming owners, Ross and Gill. Although a new name, Toro has good pedigree: Ross’ big brother, Iain, owns Primal Roast, one of my favourite Glasgow breakfast spots (and also home to some excellent coffee).
Although there’s a wide selection of cakes, plus toast for breakfast (as if I needed any further encouragement) Toro’s main focus is the coffee. It’s a multi-roaster, offering separate options on espresso and filter, the later available as batch-brew through the ever-reliable Moccamaster, and as pour-over, using hand-thrown ceramic Kalita-wave style filters. The espresso changes every week, while the filter is swapped every day or two, with roasters drawn from just down the road to half way across Europe.
With all the travelling I’ve been doing recently, it’s been increasingly hard for me to get around the UK like I once did. Even so, I was rather embarrassed to discover that it’s been three years since I last visited Edinburgh. Unsurprisingly, rather a lot has changed since my last visit, including plenty of new faces and a few changes at some well-known old faces.
Where to start? Well, let’s try Lowdown Coffee on George Street, right in the heart of Edinburgh, which opened in February 2016, just across the way from old favourite and Edinburgh stalwart, Wellington Coffee. Like Wellington, Lowdown Coffee follows the tried-and-tested Edinburgh tradition of locating your coffee shop in a basement, which gets a thumbs up from me.
However, that’s where the similarities end. Lowdown Coffee is on a mission to do things differently. For starters, there’s table service, a refreshing change from queuing at the counter. The coffee, which changes weekly, is drawn from some of the best roasters across Europe, with one option on espresso and two on pour-over through the Kalita Wave. How about the daily food menu? Or the water, with different formulations for different beans? And that’s just for starters…
Two weeks ago, I travelled up to Glasgow for the Glasgow Coffee Festival, a trip, which, for a variety of reasons, required me to leave on the Thursday evening before the festival and be back home by the Monday afterwards. In theory I could have done the trip on the regular train, but instead I turned to the Caledonian Sleeper, a far more romantic way to travel and, as it turned out, far more practical and just as cost effective.
So how does the UK’s premier sleeper service stack up against its American and South East Asian counterparts? Read on as I take the Caledonian Sleeper to Glasgow and back!