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.
When Amanda and I arrived in Boston last weekend, getting coffee was top of our list, and where better than George Howell in the Boston Public Market? It helped that it was on the way to our hotel, plus the New England winter had taken the weekend off, resulting in a glorious spring day, so we were able to take our coffee (it’s takeaway only thanks to COVID-19) across the road to the Rose Kennedy Greenway, where we enjoyed it while sitting in the sun.
I originally visited the coffee bar almost exactly six years ago, in February 2016, not long after it had opened. These days, it (and the Boston Public Market) is still going strong, do so well, in fact, that it’s now open seven days a week and has moved across the aisle to a much bigger counter, at least doubling in size. The basic offering remains the same though: top-notch coffee (espresso, batch brew and pour-over through the Chemex) along with a large range of retail bags of coffee for sale.
As the name suggests, La Colombe, Seaport is in Boston’s Seaport District, just across Fort Point Channel from Downtown Boston. Although the address is Northern Avenue, it’s actually around the corner on the pedestrian strip connecting it with Seaport Boulevard. A fairly small shop, with just seven tables inside, this doesn’t stop it from providing the full La Colombe offering of two options on espresso, another two on batch-brew and two more on pour-over. There’s also a range of in-house teas and draft lattes and, if you’re hungry, cakes and pastries. For now, La Colombe only uses takeaway cups, so don’t forget to bring your own.
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.
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.
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.
Ogawa Coffee is a large (40+ stores) speciality coffee shop chain from Kyoto. However, the branch on Milk Street, right in the heart of downtown Boston, is its first overseas venture, having opened in 2015. An interesting blend of Japanese and American coffee culture, I loved it, particularly the attention to detail shown by the baristas.
The shop itself is long and thin, with perhaps the highest ceilings I’ve seen in a coffee shop this year. About as wide as it is tall, Ogawa has a great sense of space. There’s a good choice of seating too, with tables at the front and what is called stadium seating at the back, opposite the counter. Best of all, you can sit at the counter itself and watch the filter coffee being made.
Talking of coffee, it’s all roasted in Kyoto and air-freighted to the shop on a regular basis. There is a house-blend and three single-origins, which can be had by any method (espresso or hand-pour filter). These are joined on espresso by decaf and guest single-origins which change every week or two. Perhaps best of all, Ogawa serves a tasting flight, where you get to sample all three single-origins side-by-side.
I’ve been a fan of roasters, Gracenote, for a while, having first had its coffee at Boston’s delightful Render Coffee. Based in Berlin, Massachusetts, where it’s been roasting since 2012, Gracenote took a first step into serving its own coffee with a lovely coffee bar in downtown Boston, which opened in October 2015. During my most recent visit in February 2016, it was the place that everyone in the area (including Providence, Rhode Island) said I had to visit, and they weren’t wrong!
The coffee bar’s standing-room only, catering primarily for office workers from the area around Boston’s South Station. A lovely Modbar installation provides espresso, offering house-blend, a single-origin or decaf. There’s batch brew filter, cold-brew on tap and a choice of speciality tea. Naturally you can buy all of Gracenote’s coffee in retail bags, whole bean or ground-on-demand. If you’re hungry, there’s even a limited selection of sweet treats.
A highlight of last summer’s (brief) visit to Portland was Tandem Coffee Roasters, the roastery doubling as a lovely, intimate coffee bar. I was staying on the opposite side of town and Google Maps suggested I’d pass Tandem Coffee + Bakery on my way. So off I went, keeping an eye out for said bakery, only to walk right past without noticing!
My excuse? I, fool that I am, was looking for something bearing a vague resemblance to a bakery. Instead, I should have been keeping an eye out for something bearing a striking resemblance to a gas (petrol) station… Obviously. I discovered my mistake at the roastery, so on my way back, I paid more attention: there, right where Google Maps said it was, I discovered the bakery, occupying an old gas station.
Just as Tandem Cafe & Roastery’s a roastery with coffee bar attached, so Tandem Coffee + Bakery’s a bakery with coffee shop attached. And lovely outdoor seating. It doesn’t have quite the same range as the roastery, just a house-blend and single-origin on espresso, the same single-origin on Aeropress and another on bulk-brew. Being a bakery, there’s also multiple savoury and sweet things to feast upon.