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.
I first went to Witney in 2014 to write about Ue Coffee for a feature in Caffeine Magazine. Back then, it was just a roaster (albeit the UK’s only wood-fired roaster), but Ue Coffee’s come a long way since then, launching a sister company, Jeeves & Jericho, which offers artisan loose-leaf tea, as well as opening not one, but two coffee shops in Witney. And then, if that wasn’t enough, it’s also opened a cafe at the roastery (for more on the roastery, check out the Meet the Roaster feature),
Ue Coffee’s on the Windrush Industrial Park, a couple of miles west of Witney, occupying a large, two-storey unit. Other than an eye-catching sign at the industrial park entrance, you wouldn’t know it was there, but despite that, the cafe was doing a roaring trade on the rainy Tuesday when Amanda and I visited.
Not that this is any old coffee bar attached to a roastery. Ue Coffee Roastery Cafe & Kitchen, to give it its full name, has a wide range of coffee, including any of the roastery’s single-origins or blends through V60, Chemex or Aeropress, plus the whole Jeeves & Jericho range of tea. If you’re hungry, there are full breakfast, brunch and lunch menus plus a generous cake selection.
I first went to Witney 2014 to visit Ue Coffee Roasters, out on the Windrush Industrial Park, a couple of miles west of the town. Since then, Ue Coffee has opened a pair of coffee shops, which I discovered when I returned in 2017. The first was the Ue Coffee Roasters True Artisan Café & Store, which opened on the High Street in 2016. The second followed the next year, located in The Old Smithy on Market Square, at the other (southern) end of the High Street. However, it wasn’t until this week that I had a chance to return to Witney to check it out, a mere 2½ years later…
The Old Smithy is a lovely old building (I couldn’t find out exactly how old, but I suspect several hundred years), with Ue Coffee occupying a single, ground floor room plus two more upstairs, the second one over the neighbouring opticians. It offers an espresso-based menu, with Ue’s house-blend joined by its decaf and a monthly guest. Alternatively, there’s a range of loose-leaf tea from sister company Jeeves & Jericho, with a range of cakes and a small selection of savoury items (sausage rolls and muffins) if you’re hungry.
Blueprint Coffee & Books, in Whitstable, is at the northern end of Oxford Street, a stone’s throw from Oxford Street’s other speciality coffee shop, Garage Coffee. When it comes to bragging rights, however, Blueprint wins hands down, having started in 2013, with the shop opening in 2016. Not that I can claim anything in the way of moral superiority, having only heard of it a couple of years ago when Luke, who I knew from Water Lane Coffee in Canterbury, took over as manager. The loss, naturally, is all mine.
Blueprint Coffee & Books does exactly what the name suggests. Spread across two rooms, it’s a small bookshop with a select range of titles, while the coffee all comes from London’s Alchemy. There’s a concise espresso-based menu, the coffee served in three sizes: 4, 6 and 8oz, either with or without milk. You can choose from the house coffee, a guest or decaf, while for filter coffee, the options are V60 or Aeropress, each with its own single-origin, Blueprint also offering a Chemex for two.
Garage Coffee first came to Whitstable with its 2018 pop-up, making things permanent when it took over its current location from Burgate Coffee House in January of the following year. This made it Garage Coffee’s second permanent location, following on from its coffee shop inside the Fruitworks co-working space in Canterbury. However, in October, Garage left Fruitworks and, staying in Canterbury, moved to the Canteen on nearby Sun Street. Technically, of course, this leaves the Whitstable outpost as Garage Coffee’s oldest coffee shop…
Compared to either of the Canterbury locations, the Whitstable café is a fairly modest affair, but it’s still a substantial operation, with a generous seating area at the front and a counter with minimal seating at the back. The coffee offering is the same, with everything roasted in-house. The Maypole blend is on espresso, joined by decaf and a single-origin, which changes every few days. There’s a daily single-origin on batch-brew while all Garage’s single-origins are available on pour-over through the V60, Aeropress or Chemex.
Although the food offering’s not as substantial as Canterbury, it’s still pretty impressive, with a toast-based all-day breakfast menu plus sourdough toasties and wraps, all prepared in the kitchen at the back.
When I first went to Canterbury, in May 2017, Lost Sheep Coffee was already a fixture in the city, having, in 2015, traded in its cart on the High Street for a neat black pod down by the bus station. By the time I returned, an awful lot had changed, starting with the neat black pod, which was no more, having been replaced by a much larger (although still small in the grand scheme of things) pod. In addition, Lost Sheep had started serving in its own coffee from its new roastery in Whitstable.
In fairness to Lost Sheep, had I returned six months after my initial visit, I’d have found both these changes. However, thanks to my extensive travels, it was 2½ years later, at the end of November 2019, that I finally returned to Canterbury, making a beeline for the bus station to check out the “new” pod.
Some cities never change. In others, change is almost constant, Canterbury being a good (for me, at least) example. Since my previous visit, 2½ years ago in May 2017, pretty much everything has changed. Of the places I visited, only the Micro Roastery is still going in the same place/format. Water Lane Coffee has gone, Lost Sheep has doubled in size and now roasts its own coffee, while today’s Coffee Spot, Garage Coffee, has left Fruitworks and taken over the Canteen, a few streets away, next to the Cathedral. Spread over three floors of a lovely, 500-year-old building, the contrast with the large, open spaces of Fruitworks couldn’t be starker.
The star of the show, of course, is the coffee, with a very similar offering despite the change of venue. All roasted in-house, there’s a blend, single-origin and decaf on espresso, while any of the single-origins and decaf are available through V60, Aeropress and Chemex, with a daily option on batch brew. The Canteen part of the operation is represented by a range of options, all baked/cooked on-site. This includes various flatbreads, salads, sourdough toasties and multiple things on toast. There’s also soup, jacket potatoes and a range of cakes.