As part of my current US trip, I paid a visit to Portland, Maine, partly to check out the local coffee scene and partly because it made a cool addition to my overall journey. What I found was a thriving coffee scene which I’ll cover in the next few months, starting today with the lovely Bard Coffee.
Bard Coffee occupies an amazing location next to Tommy’s Park, a lovely green space right in the heart of downtown Portland. For once got my timing right and arrived two weeks after Bard had reopened following a major refurbishment. Normally, it’s the other way around, with me arriving just before a refurbishment or, better still, in the middle of one!
Bard roasts all its own coffee, with a good selection available at any time. On espresso, there’s the seasonal High Tide blend or the decaf Lo-Fi blend, while on bulk brew there are two coffees of the day, a light- and dark-roasted single-origin. Finally, you can have any of five single-origins, plus decaf, through the Kalita Wave filter, with one of the single-origins available through the Chemex. This last one is chosen to highlight the difference between the Chemex and Kalita brew methods.
Welcome to the second instalment of Brian’s Travel Spot, which follows my three week adventure across the USA. The first instalment, imaginatively entitled New England, covered my time on the east coast in New England: Boston, Providence and Portland, Maine, to be precise. This second instalment covers my journey west, by train, as I thread my way, city to city, to my ultimate destination.
The idea behind Brian’s Travel Spot is that it enables you to follow my adventures as they unfold. As with the New England post, I’ll update this post every few days, in between my normal Coffee Spot posts, the idea being to capture the highlights, with the emphasis on the travel rather than the coffees shops (although I’m sure they’ll feature).
Although small, Providence, Rhode Island, has a pretty decent coffee scene. That I discovered it is entirely down to Allison, who with fiance Chris, runs Broke and Travelling. Having enticed me down from Boston on a day-trip, Allison acted as my guide, introducing me to Dave’s Coffee, The Shop and the subject of today’s Coffee Spot, Coffee Exchange.
Coffee Exchange is an old-hand when it comes to Providence’s growing speciality coffee scene. Founded in 1984, it can be said to have inspired a generation (at least) of Providence coffee-drinkers. Coffee shop, roaster and retailer all in one, Coffee Exchange operates out of its busy store on Wickenden Street, roasting all its own coffee using a pair of Deirich roasters conveniently located at the back of the store.
In look and feel, as well as in the coffee it roasts, Coffee Exchange seems a little old school. Dark roasts and blends predominate, although single-origins and lighter roasts are there for those who look. Coffee Exchange is also a pioneer, having championed strong ties between roasters, green bean importers and coffee growers long before it became fashionable. Indeed, Coffee Exchange co-owner Bill Fishbein founded both Coffee Kids and The Coffee Trust.
Welcome to a somewhat new direction for the Coffee Spot as we head off into the unknown with Brian’s Travel Spot. As my followers on twitter may already know, I’ve just embarked on a three-week adventure across the United States. The aim of this little (well, not so little by the time I’ve finished it) piece is to keep a record of what I’ve been doing.
The idea is that it enables you, dear reader (Or should that be dear readers? Perhaps I’d better not be too ambitious and stick with dear reader for now.), to follow my adventures as they unfold. I’ll update this post every few days, in between my normal Coffee Spot posts, the idea being to capture the highlights, with the emphasis on the travel rather than the coffees shops (although I’m sure they’ll feature).
I’ve never tried my hand at travel writing before, so it could be an adventure in more ways than one! So, if you’ve made it this far, take the plunge, and come along with me as I traverse the USA!
I first came across L.A. Burdick exactly three years ago after a tip-off from a friend in Cambridge (Massachusetts, not UK). I tried the branch there and loved it, but was a little put off by how busy it was. Even late on a weekday afternoon, I still had to wait 20 minutes for a table, such was its popularity!
On my trip to Boston a year ago, I learnt that there was a branch on Clarendon Street in Back Bay, around 10 minutes from my hotel. Although excited, I nevertheless approached it with some trepidation, expecting crowds. However, I needn’t have worried: it was an oasis of tranquillity in comparison. It might have helped that it was gone six o’clock on a freezing cold Tuesday evening, but I wasn’t complaining.
The main draw of L.A. Burdick is the hot chocolate and the Back Bay branch is no exception. However, there’s also coffee, tea and a range of cakes and pastries. And, of course, chocolate. L.A. Burdick is definitely at the luxury end of the chocolate market and both prices and décor reflect this, making L.A. Burdick one the more sumptuously-appointed cafés you’ll visit.
When I originally started the Coffee Spot, the intention was to write about places where I liked to have coffee. Although it’s evolved a lot since then, this original motivation is still very much at the heart of the Coffee Spot. On that basis, I present today’s Saturday Supplement, The Java Room. Located in a small plaza on Littleton Road in Chelmsford, you might be mistaken for thinking that this represents my first foray into Essex, but this happens to be Chelmsford, Massachusetts. Confusingly, the New England version of Chelmsford is in Middlesex County. Go figure, as my American friends would say.
The Java Room offers pretty standard coffee-shop fare. There are no flat whites and piccolos here, no single-origin beans or micro-lots, just large lattes, cappuccinos and espresso, along with bulk-brewed filter coffee and various iced and blended beverages. Where the Java Room really scores is in its atmosphere. It’s a lovely spot, the perfect, small town, neighbourhood coffee shop, friendly, relaxed and welcoming. I’m kicking myself for having been to Chelmsford many, many times and not discovering it before last year.
March 2015: Correction. I popped in one Monday in March (since I was literally passing by) and there are indeed flat whites to be had at The Java Room. Naturally, I had to have one and it was very fine.
I think I’ve found a new favourite in Boston. Head a few blocks along Columbus Avenue past my favourite breakfast spot, Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe, and you’ll find Render Coffee, just before the junction with Massachusetts Avenue. Ironically, I found it from the other direction, walking south along Mass Ave from Pavement Coffeehouse on Boylston. Although only 10 minutes from Pavement, the contrast couldn’t have been sharper, going from the busy Pavement to the relatively laid-back calm of Render. Quiet, but not empty, it was a relaxed and relaxing place to spend the afternoon.
Like Pavement, Render serves Counter Culture as both espresso and pour-over, along with guest coffees (both from Gracenote Coffee during my visits). One of the things I really liked is there’s no bulk-brew filter coffee. Instead, Render only offers hand-pour. There’s also an excellent selection of food and cake.
Long and thin seems to be a theme for Boston coffee shops and Render is no different in this respect. Accessed by a short flight of steps up from Columbus Avenue, you can sit right at the front and watch the traffic go by, or better still, sit at the back where there’s an excellent fireplace and conservatory!
Pavement Coffeehouse is a chain of four shops (six as of May 2015), all in the Back Bay area of Boston. I was fortunate enough to visit the original, which is at the western end of Boylston Street, just beyond the junction with Massachusetts Avenue. I really liked it, finding it a curious mix of American coffee shop (front) and European coffee house (back). The coffee, from Counter Culture, is excellent, the food is good and the staff friendly. I was there twice, once for morning coffee and once for lunch; both times it was packed!
You can tell that Pavement is serious about its coffee: there are two espressos on offer, a single-origin (Buziraguhindwa from Burundi), served straight, and a blend (Rustico; a mix of 70% Guatemala and 30% Ethiopia) to be served with milk. There is also the choice of two more single-origins (a Rwandan and a Bolivian) on filter (generally called “hand-poured” in the US) in this case made using the Clever dripper, something I don’t see very often (the last time was at Bath’s Colonna & Small’s). The coffee options were rounded off with the obligatory drip-filter (bulk brew), another single-origin (Baroida from Papua New Guinea).
Boston’s South End Buttery is an excellent bakery/café that, until this visit, I had tabbed exclusively as a breakfast spot. Its breakfast offerings aren’t as extensive as some other establishments; mostly egg sandwiches on biscuit (American, not British) or bagel, with hot oatmeal as an alternative. I usually opt for the egg sandwich on a biscuit which never fails to satisfy while leaving space for lunch and dinner later in the day!
If you come for lunch there’s the usual range of sandwiches prepared while you wait and some tasty pastries to tempt you throughout the day. The South End Buttery changes a little in the evenings and at the weekends. Brunch is served on Saturdays and Sundays from 10:00 to 15:00, while the bar (see below) turns into restaurant from 17:30 onwards, staying open until 22:00 (23:00 Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays).
Since I’ve only ever been there on weekday mornings I can’t really comment on the merits or otherwise of it as a dinner/brunch spot. One day I’ll visit on the weekend and let you know!
Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe is my go-to breakfast place in Boston. Although my first visit was in 2003, I’ve only been a regular since 2011 (if visiting at least once during my annual trip to Boston makes me a regular that is!), which is when I started staying in Boston’s South End. Charlie’s is the quintessential family-run American diner, although it’s now in the hands of local chef, Evan Deluty. It’s so much a fixture of the neighbourhood that it’s even got its own Wikipedia page!
To the detriment of my waist-line, I’ve always been a fan of American breakfasts: fluffy, buttermilk griddle cakes, smothered in maple syrup; a plate full of eggs, fried potatoes with a couple of slices of toast; there are reasons why I put on half a stone whenever I go to America.
Charlie’s supplies these in abundance, along with bags of friendly atmosphere. It’s best experienced sitting on a bar-stool at the counter with a mug of coffee and enough food to last you for the day. There you can watch the regulars come and go, read the Boston Globe, or, increasingly these days, browse your smartphone or tablet. Not that Charlie’s has succumbed to the lure of wifi just yet…