In many ways, COVID-19 was a blessing in disguise for Chris and Monika, the Swedish couple behind Surrey Hills Coffee. Temporarily released from the day-to-day grind of running the coffee shop, they were able to focus on the roastery, realising that this was their true passion. When the COVID-19 restrictions were eased in England, allowing the coffee shop to reopen, Chris and Monika had a decision to make. They didn’t want to close the coffee shop, but they also didn’t want to go back to the day-to-day management.
Fortunately, the solution presented itself in the shape of Koja, which opened on Thursday, 13th August, initially for takeaway only, but with plans for sit-in service in due course.
Today’s Coffee Spot marks something of a first for me. Up until now, I’ve been revisiting existing Coffee Spots as they reopen following England’s easing of COVID-19 restrictions. In contrast, The Gardens of Caversham, the latest venture from Reading’s Workhouse Coffee, is somewhere I’ve never been before, although I’ve been aware of it since it opened early last year. So, when I was in Reading last week, I headed across the Thames to say hello.
The Gardens of Caversham is on the right-hand side as you go north over Caversham Bridge, directly opposite the junction with the A4074. Initially it reopened for takeaway service in June, reopening the indoor seating just two weeks ago, although the staff said that the current seating provision is considerably reduced compared to pre-COVID times. The coffee offering, however, is as extensive as ever, with a healthy selection of beans for sale as well, all roasted in-house.
When it comes to food, there’s a wide range of cakes and pre-prepared savouries, all baked in the kitchen at the back, although the more extensive breakfast and lunch menus are on hold for now. Also, keep an eye on opening times, which are under constant review.
Tuesday seems to have become my “get on a train and visit some coffee shops” day. For the first two weeks I went to/in the direction of London, but this Tuesday I headed for Reading, where I found the town’s speciality coffee scene was already bouncing back. My first stop was Coffee Under Pressure, then it was around the other side of the Minster to pay a visit to Tamp Culture.
The last time I was there, in 2014, Tamp was operating from a Piaggio Ape trike (housing the espresso machine) with a counter that was painstakingly assembled each morning and then broken down again at the end of the day. Fortunately, by the time Bean There At visited in 2018, this had been upgraded to a very nifty kiosk with fold-up windows, which is what I found on my return.
I first visited Reading’s Coffee Under Pressure just over four years ago. Back then, it had only been open for a year, enjoying its status as the new kid on the block. It’s since gone on to open a second location on nearby Blagrave Street, while a third Coffee Under Pressure opened just last month on Park Street in Bristol, a brave move if ever there was one.
The original Coffee Under Pressure, St Mary’s Butts, looks much as I remember it, tucked away in a lovely spot behind the Reading Minster, its sun-drenched, south-facing aspect providing a sheltered spot for its outdoor seating, while you’ll still get a warm welcome inside, the interior seating have recently been reopened following the relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions.
As well as the warm welcome, you’ll find close to Coffee Under Pressure’s full menu with two blends on espresso, plus decaf, as well as several single-origins available as through the V60, all from Winchester’s The Roasting Party. There’s also a wide selection of sweet and savoury items provided from the small kitchen to the left of the counter. The main concession to COVID-19 is that everything’s served to go, even if you’re sitting in.
On Tuesday last week, I got on a train again, this time heading to Surbiton and The Press Room, stopping along the way at G!RO in Esher. Both coffee shops had recently reopened for sit-in customers and I was keen to see how they compared to the likes of Notes and Attendant, which I had visited in London the week before.
I was last at what was then G!RO Cycles in 2015. Like The Press Room, it’s undergone quite a few changes since then. Some of these are clearly recent, allowing for safe reopening during COVID-19, while others, such as the large outdoor seating area, clearly predate that. There’s also been a subtle rebranding, with G!RO Cycles becoming G!RO, although you shouldn’t read too much into the dropping of the word “cycles” from the name. This is still very much a cycle-friendly café as well as a bike shop.
G!RO currently has an espresso-based coffee menu, plus batch-brew filter, although its extensive pour-over offering is unavailable for now. All the coffee is from Workshop, with a range of retail bags for sale. If you’re hungry, there’s a limited all-day brunch selection, backed up by sandwiches and a large range of cake.
Not long after Canopy Coffee, Guildford’s multi-roaster speciality coffee shop, reopened on Saturday, 16th May, I was walking home past Krema Coffee, another of Guildford’s speciality coffee shops. Looking in the window, I saw an encouraging sign: Krema was reopening on the following Monday, 1st June. Naturally, I made sure I popped along and have been back a couple of times since.
Unlike Canopy, which has re-invented itself as a takeaway coffee shop, converting a side door into a serving hatch, Krema looks more like the coffee shop of old, although for now it is only offering a takeaway menu, with cake, having temporarily closed its kitchen. It’s still serving from the counter inside though, making use of its greater space to create an excellent one-way system, guiding customers from the door to the counter and back out again, all while keeping everyone at a safe distance from each other.
March turned into April and April turned into May and, while I wasn’t short of good coffee at home, I missed my local coffee shops, missed my flat whites (while I make good home pour-over and espresso, I’m still rubbish at milk) and missed my friends who worked there. Then, on Saturday, 16th May, exactly three months after leaving Chicago, I was in Guildford, shopping, and what did I see? Canopy Coffee. And it was open! Naturally, I forgot everything else and made a beeline for it!
I first came across Surrey Hills Coffee in early 2016 at what was then Turn Fit Deli on Chapel Street in my hometown, Guildford. Although starting out as a deli, it quickly morphed into a coffee shop, supplied by Surrey Hills, which had started roasting in 2014, although Chris and Monika, the Swedish couple behind Surrey Hills, have a much longer involvement with coffee than that. In April 2016, Turn Fit decided to concentrate on its fitness business, and while Chris and Monika hadn’t planned on becoming coffee shop owners, they saw the opportunity and took over the lease to run the coffee shop themselves.
One thing led to another and by 2018, the original shop had moved to much bigger premises in Jeffries Passage. That same year, Surrey Hills opened its second coffee shop, The Pod at London Square, as well as growing a thriving, local wholesale business, supplying other cafes and retailers. Although the current COVID-19 pandemic has put the coffee shops on hold, this has, ironically, given Chris and Monika a chance to catch their breath and re-focus on the heart of their business, the roastery, which I learnt more about when we caught up last weekend.
A week ago, I’d just arrived in Chicago for work, having flown in from Atlanta. While there were worries around COVID-19, and people were taking precautions, everything seemed very normal. I went for a walk around the city and visited some coffee shops. That weekend now feels a very, very long time ago.
The day after I arrived, Sunday, 15th March, the Governor of Illinois announced the closure of all bars, clubs, restaurants and cafes to all except takeaway customers, and I made the decision to return home. I flew to Boston the following day and on Tuesday, I flew from a near-empty airport on a near-empty flight back to Heathrow.
Since then, I’ve been trying to readjust to life at home and practice social distancing, while continuing to work (I’m fortunate that I work remotely anyway and, for now, work is carrying on as normal). I’m also trying to support my local coffee businesses as best I can and for as long as I can.
Am I taking unreasonable risks? I don’t know. Am even doing the right thing? I don’t know. All I can tell you is that I’m asking myself those questions every day, re-evaluating, every day.
With the COVID-19 situation getting worse every day (all UK coffee shops closed as of last night), now seems like a good time for a new Meet the Roaster feature.
I first visited Ue Coffee Roasters back in 2014 for a feature in Caffeine Magazine. In those days, the roastery, on Windrush Industrial Park, a couple of miles west of Witney, was a standalone operation. These days, it’s been joined by a lovely café & kitchen, which occupies the front of the building, the roastery still in its same old spot, a large, warehouse like space at the back, which you can see through the windows behind the counter. Even better, the café’s toilets are in the roastery, so you have a legitimate excuse to nose around!
Ue Coffee made its name as the UK’s only wood-fired roaster. However, it’s come a long way since then, launching a sister company, Jeeves & Jericho, offering artisan loose-leaf tea and opening not one, but two coffee shops. While still doing much of its roasting on its bespoke, wood-fired roaster, there’s a new, gas-fired 30kg Giesen, along with a sample roaster, reflecting a new emphasis on high-scoring single lots and micro-lots. There’s also a plan for a new organic roastery in Cheltenham, due to open later this year. With all that in mind, Amanda and I had a tour with head roaster, Jon.