Smalls

The front of Smalls, on the steeply-sloping Brackett Street in Portland, with its door deeply recessed between two windows.Smalls, which opened in January, is the latest addition to Portland’s small but thriving speciality coffee scene, a chance discovery which I made on Google Maps when planning a trip downtown at the end of last week. Located on Brackett Street in Portland’s West End, it’s a stone’s throw from the Casco Bay Bridge and a 15-minute walk from the Old Port and the heart of downtown.

One of the things I really admire about Portland’s speciality coffee scene is its diversity. No two places are the same (even when they’re part of the same group) and Smalls only adds to that. The front of Smalls is part coffee shop, restaurant and bar, while at the back, it’s a lovely little store, selling groceries, gifts, candles and personal care products, with an emphasis on reuse and local produce.

I can only really speak to the coffee shop part of Smalls, which serves Variety Coffee Roasters from Brooklyn in New York City. The Lucky Shot seasonal blend is on espresso, while there’s also decaf and a batch brew filter option. If you want to try more of Variety’s range, Smalls has a selection of retail boxes offering a variety of single-origins.

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Meet the Roaster: Speckled Ax

The Speckled Ax roaster, a refurbished 20 kg Petroncini roaster from the 1970s, in the Walton Street roastery, with the tell-tale woodpile against the wall behind it.Regular readers will know that I have a soft spot for Portland’s coffee shop/roaster, Speckled Ax, which I first visited in June 2015. Back then, there was just the original coffee shop on Congress Street, with the roastery out in South Portland. However, Speckled Ax has been busy in recent years, opening its flagship Thames Street coffee shop in 2020, and then, a year later, moving the roastery to its new home on Walton Street, where it also opened a neat coffee bar.

On my return to Portland at the start of this year, I caught up with Matt, owner of Speckled Ax. I’ve already written about the coffee bar, so today’s Meet the Roaster is all about the roastery. Although an outstanding roastery in its own right, consistently turning out some excellent single-origins and blends year-on-year, Speckled Ax’s particular claim to fame is as one of a handful of wood-fired coffee roasters in the USA (reminiscent of Witney’s Ue Coffee Roasters in the UK). The magic happens in a large, industrial unit behind the coffee bar, where you’ll find the 20 kg Petroncini, a refurbished Italian roaster from the 1970s, its fire box filled with local kiln-dried wood.

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Brian’s Travel Spot: Amtrak Downeaster, Part I

Amtrak Genesis P42DC diesel locomotive No. 86 at the head of the Downeaster which took me to Brunswick, Maine (seen here at Brunswick station).Welcome to this two-part Travel Spot, dedicated to Amtrak’s Downeaster, connecting Boston and Maine with five daily services in each direction, departing from/arriving at Boston’s North Station. Regular readers will be aware of my hit-and-miss relationship with the Downeaster, having been on it just once before, at the start of my Portland-to-Portland trans-America train trip. Since then I’ve found the bus more convenient when travelling between Boston and Portland, although tomorrow that will change when Amanda and I take the Downeaster from Portland to Boston, the subject of Part II of this two-part Travel Spot.

So, what’s Part I all about? Well, the Downeaster doesn’t just connect Boston with Portland: there are two more stops north of Portland, Freeport and Brunswick, where the train terminates. Ahead of tomorrow’s journey, I decided to catch the train in the other direction, from Portland to Brunswick, just so that I could say that I’d travelled the full length of the line, albeit in two separate trips. Ideally, I’d have taken the train back to Portland, but Amtrak’s schedule is quirky to say the least. Returning by train would have required a 2½ hour wait, so I caught the Greater Portland Metro BREEZ bus instead.

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Speckled Ax, Walton

The sign over the door, proclaiming "COFFEE" at Speckled Ax, Walton Street.If you’ve been paying attention for the last two weeks, you’ll know that I’m back in Portland, Maine, where, weather permitting, I’m catching up with the local coffee shops. Top of my list was Speckled Ax’s new roastery/coffee bar on Walton Street, which opened last year. It’s out beyond Back Cove, north of Portland’s compact city centre, just over the train tracks from Forest Avenue, the main north/south drag.

Home to Speckled Ax’s new roastery (which has its own Meet the Roaster feature), there’s a small takeout coffee bar attached. Unlike the other Speckled Ax locations (Congress and Thames), with their multiple options on espresso and filter, here it’s just the daily batch brew or espresso, although, of course, plenty of retail bags of coffee are available to buy. There’s no seating, although when COVID-19 allows, there will be a small standing bar at the front. For now, it’s takeaway only, so don’t forget to bring your own cup.

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Little Woodfords (COVID-19)

The front of Little Woodfords on Congress Street in Portland, Maine, proudly flying its Progress Pride flag.I’ve been a fan of Little Woodfords in Portland, Maine, ever since I first visited in the summer of 2019. I was therefore rather worried when I heard, in July 2020, that it was forced to move from its original location in Woodfords Corner to a much smaller spot on Congress Street in downtown Portland. Fortunately, while this has meant an inevitable change of character, the friendly, inclusive welcome of the original, plus the awesome coffee from Vermont’s Vivid Coffee Roasters, remains as Amanda and I discovered on our visit last month.

The offering is much as it was as before, with a single option on espresso, batch brew and flash brew (a pour-over over ice, akin to a Japanese iced coffee). The coffee changes on a seasonal basis, and there’s also tea, hot cocoa and several latte-based specials. If you’re hungry, there’s a small, vegetarian/vegan breakfast menu, with various toppings on bagels/biscuits. While Little Woodfords has a small indoor seating (standing?) area at the front, it’s currently takeout-only due to COVID-19, although you’re welcome to sit outside, where you’ll find a bench out front, with a couple of picnic tables down the side, which catch the afternoon sun.

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Brian’s Travel Spot: Returning from Boston in Premium Economy

My travelling coffee kit at the British Airways Lounge in Boston Logan Airport, Terminal E. Back row, from left to right: my Frank Green ceramic cup, Knock AerGrind hand grinder and Espro TravelPress. The tub holds a pre-weighed dose of beans.Welcome the last leg of my trip to Atlanta (Georgia) and Portland (Maine), which included an unexpected weekend round-trip to Washington DC. Today’s Travel Spot covers my return to the UK last weekend, flying World Traveller Plus (aka Premium Economy) with British Airways. Having arrived in Atlanta almost four weeks earlier, I continued my USA tradition of (hardly ever) flying to/from the same airport by returning from Boston Logan.

This post starts with my pre-flight preparations (an essential part of travelling during the COVID-19 pandemic). Even though the rules changed mid-trip (due to the omicron variant), things were nowhere near as onerous as when I flew out, when the process was sufficiently complex that I dedicated an entire Travel Spot to the experience.

The remainder of the post is more traditional, covering the journey to the airport, the airport itself, and my flight. In the last few years, I’ve taken the early morning flight from Boston (either British Airways or Virgin Atlantic), but that disappeared from the schedules at the start of the pandemic.  Instead, I flew back overnight in World Traveller Plus, my first overnight economy flight since 2017, when I flew from Chicago to Manchester with American Airlines.

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Speckled Ax, Thames (COVID-19)

A lovely cappuccino, made with the Honduras El Cedro, a honey processed coffee, served in a classic white cup at Speckled Ax, Thames Street in Portland, Main.On my first trip to Portland, in June 2015, Speckled Ax was one of three coffee shop/roasters that I visited (along with Tandem Coffee and Bard). Back then, Speckled Ax had a single coffee shop on Congress Street, but two new locations have recently opened, a coffee bar on Walton Street (attached to the new roastery which opened in 2021) and a large café on the waterfront at Thames Street (which opened in 2020).

I’d planned to visit Portland in March 2020, but sadly the COVID-19 pandemic ruled that out, preventing me from returning for another 18 months. However, the travel restrictions were eased in November 2021, and I was finally able to return to America and to Portland, where I paid a long overdue visit to the new Thames location.

Speckled Ax occupies a spacious ground floor unit with views across Thames Street to the harbour. At the time of writing, the space is effectively split into two, with a takeaway section to the right, while the seating is at the front on the left. There’s a limited coffee menu (which still manages to offer two espresso options and two on batch brew filter), while the kitchen provides a concise breakfast and lunch menu.

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Brian’s Travel Spot: New England & New York

Our hire car, aka "The Tank", which friends of mine hired for the second part of my stay.These posts are, in more ways than one, a first for the Travel Spot. They cover the first trip I made after starting the Coffee Spot (and long before I had the idea of the Travel Spot). Unsurprisingly, while I visited plenty of coffee shops, I didn’t make any notes about the trip itself, so they’re a combination of memories, sparked when I stumbled across my photos from the time.

This post, the first of three, covers the initial part of the trip, which began in late February 2013 when I flew to Boston. I spent a few days in the city before taking various day trips around New England with some friends. Finally, I caught the train down to New York City, where I also spent a few days.

From New York City, I boarded Amtrak’s Adirondack service, which is covered in the next post in this series. This took me through upstate New York and across the Canadian border to my final destination, Montréal, which is covered in the third and final post.

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Brian’s Travel Spot: Portland to Atlanta by Car & Train

Locomotive 608, hauling Amtrak Train 19, The Crescent, from New York Penn Station to Washington DC Union Station before it is switched out for two diesel locomotives which take the train on to New Orleans.Welcome to the second instalment of this, the second Travel Spot of 2020. The first part covered my journey to Boston, flying in economy with British Airways, before catching the coach up to Portland, where I spent the next two weeks with Amanda. This instalment involves our journey down to Atlanta to see Amanda’s mother, while the remaining posts in the series cover my onward journey to Chicago and my return home from there.

Amanda and I had plenty of options to get from Portland (Maine) to Atlanta, the most obvious one being to fly. However, neither of us is a great fan of flying internally in the US, and, since we had time, we decided to look at other options. One alternative was driving, something Amanda’s done before, although it’s a one-way trip of 1,200 miles, which amounts to about 19 hours behind the wheel, so I ruled it out.

That left the train, a mode of transport which we both enjoy. It wasn’t the cheapest, nor was it the quickest, but it definitely sounded the most enjoyable, so we booked tickets on Amtrak’s Train 19, Crescent, from New York to Atlanta, building our trip around that.

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Little Woodfords

The Little Woodfords sign, hanging outside the store on Forest Avenue in Portland, Maine. It's a design based on the clock tower which sits atop of the building and reads "little woodfords | coffee + snacks".Little Woodfords is in the Woodfords Corner neighbourhood of Portland, just west of Back Cove. The staff at Tandem Coffee Roasters tipped me off when I was visiting Amanda last summer and, while we popped in on that trip, I didn’t have a chance to write it up. As a result, on my return to Portland last week, I made it a priority to call in, visiting one sunny Tuesday morning.

Little Woodfords occupies a bright, spacious spot on the busy Forest Avenue, close to its junction with Woodford Street. It’s fairly small, but feels much bigger thanks to the high ceilings (I would guess at least 4 metres) and a tall bay window that runs the full width of the store front, catching the midday and afternoon sun.

The coffee’s from Vivid Coffee Roasters in Vermont, with a single option on espresso, batch brew and flash brew (a pour-over over ice, akin to a Japanese iced coffee). The coffee changes every six months, Little Woodfords working with Vivid to select the particular bean/blend. There’s also tea, hot cocoa and several latte-based specials. If you’re hungry, there’s a small breakfast menu, with various toppings on bagels/biscuits, complete with gluten-free options.

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