I can’t believe it’s been five years since the original Decaf Challenge, my attempt to raise the profile of all the great decaf coffee out there, inviting roasters to send me their decaf roasts, which I then highlighted in the post. I also tried to dispel some of the persistent, negative myths surrounding decaf coffee.
Although I’m still a champion of decaf coffee, drinking it on a regular basis (about 25% of my coffee consumption is decaf) I haven’t repeated the exercise, largely because, with so much great decaf about, it’s unfair to highlight just a few roasters. These days, almost every good roaster I know has a decent decaf, while there are more options than ever when it comes to sourcing decaffeinated green beans. I honestly can’t remember the last time I bought a bag of poor decaf.
However, despite this progress, options are limited. While most roasters have multiple espresso and pour-over options, there’s usually only a single decaf on offer, invariably roasted for espresso. So, when I heard that Workshop Coffee had launched a pair of decafs, both using the same beans, but with one roasted for espresso, the other for filter, I had to buy some.
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.
I went to London last week for my first sit-in coffee shop experiences since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. I visited three coffee shops, starting with Notes and ending with Attendant, both of which I’d first written about in 2013. In contrast, the middle one, Kafi, had only opened last year. A lovely little spot in Fitzrovia, it felt at the time like a throwback to the cutting-edge coffee shops of five to 10 years ago, which, sadly, London has mostly lost.
Kafi reopened in the middle of June offering a takeaway-only service. However, unlike other shops, which have taken advantage of the easing of COVID-19 restrictions to offer a sit-in service, Kafi has remained takeaway only. Kafi has stayed true to its founding principles, deciding not to reduce its coffee offering. As a result, Kafi still has two options on espresso (both single-origins), plus decaf, as well as three more single-origins on filter, one each on V60, AeroPress and siphon. It also, unusually, still allows customers to use their own reusable cups.
Kafi opened in April this year, joining a long list of excellent coffee shops in Fitzrovia, that small slice of central London between Oxford Street and Euston Road. While small, it has high ideals, including a dedication to sustainability, which includes soucing 90% of the material in the shop from recycled or reclaimed material, plus an emphasis (where possible) on local sourcing.
This is allied to a coffee offering of the sort that’s rather rare in London these days. Switching every month between house-roaster, Workshop, and a guest roaster, there’s a range of single-origin coffees, each matched to a specific extraction technique, including espresso, V60, Aeropress and syphon. There’s also cold brew, nitro cold brew, hot chocolate, a choice of 10 teas (plus cold brew, nitro cold brew tea options) and a series of wellness drinks. Finally, if you’re hungry, there are all sorts of cakes and savouries to enjoy.
June 2020: Kafi has reopened, although it is only offering takeaway services only at the moment (that said, you can sit outside if you want). You can see what I made of it when I visited in July.
The Pilgrm is a small, boutique hotel almost directly opposite the front of Paddington station which just happens to have a speciality coffee counter in the lobby downstairs, run by Workshop. If that’s all there was to it, it would be pretty awesome, but there’s more. The Pilgrm also has an upstairs lounge and terrace, which, while catering primarily to hotel guests, is also open to the public, serving breakfast, lunch and, in the afternoon/evening, a range of small plates and drinks. And then there’s the coffee…
While the coffee counter works as a standalone operation, you can take your coffee and sit upstairs, or, alternative, sit upstairs, where there’s full table service, and order your coffee there, the barista bringing it up to you. Having spent most of my week in the Paddington area popping into Workshop for either an espresso or a flat white, usually on my way to the office, I decided I had to try the lounge, popping by on Friday afternoon for coffee and returning on Saturday morning for breakfast.
The Pilgrm is a small, boutique hotel in an old townhouse on London Street, almost directly opposite the front of Paddington station. In itself, it makes for quite an attractive hotel, but the icing on the cake is that in August last year, Workshop took over the coffee operation, installing itself behind the counter in the simple, well-appointed lobby, which is effectively a small (and beautiful) coffee shop. The coffee offering is equally simple, well-appointed and beautiful, with a concise espresso menu (with decaf getting equal billing with a single-origin option) backed up with another single-origin on batch-brew, both changing roughly once a week.
If coffee’s not your thing, there’s a small selection of tea and Pump Street hot chocolate, while if you’re hungry, Workshop has a small selection of cake, but nothing else. That said, The Pilgrm has a first-floor public lounge and terrace which serves a full brunch menu until 3pm each day, with snacks served thereafter. You can take your coffee up upstairs if you like, although it’s not very clear if you just wander in off the street. Alternatively, just take a seat upstairs and order your coffee there, which is just what I did at the weekend.
Knockbox Coffee is one of those legends of London’s speciality coffee scene that I’d assumed had been around forever. It was therefore a bit of a surprise when I finally called in one quiet Bank Holiday Monday in May to discover that it had only been around since 2014, although in today’s fast-moving industry, that makes it pretty venerable.
Located at the southern end of Lamb’s Conduit Street in Bloomsbury, there’s not much to Knockbox, a simple, square space offering limited seating around three of the four walls, while two picnic tables and a bench provide outside seating. The coffee is from local roasters, Workshop, with its seasonal single-origin espresso forming the bedrock of the simple coffee menu. This is joined by a wide array of teas and smoothies, plus an equally wide selection of cakes and toasties, which are joined (at weekends only, I believe) by a two-item brunch menu.
The association between coffee and cycling is a long and honourable one. V69 is one such example, having opened in 2016, part of the growing speciality coffee scene in the City of London. It occupies a large counter with a limited amount of seating just inside the door of the Bespoke Cycling shop on Gresham Street, between St Mary-le-Bow church and the Guildhall. If you don’t want to go inside, there’s also a takeaway window that opens directly onto the street.
The coffee is from Margate’s Curve Coffee Roasters and London’s Workshop, plus occasional guests, with a range of single-origins on espresso (one each) and pour-over through the V60. There’s also a daily option on batch-brew through the Moccamaster. The milk, meanwhile, is from Estate Dairy, with non-dairy alternatives in the shape of oat, soy and almond milks. If you’re hungry, there’s a breakfast menu, plus a selection of cakes.
In the booming world of speciality coffee, where shops open faster than I can visit/write about them, it’s nice to come across one that’s older than the Coffee Spot itself. Durham’s Flat White Café, which opened in 2010, now boasts two, soon to be three, locations in the city. That I’ve not visited before now is entirely my loss, Durham being somewhere that I’ve often gone through on the train, admiring its steep hills and stunning views from the station, but never actually bothering to get off and explore. Again, entirely my loss.
The original Flat White Café is a pretty small spot, a long, low rectangular space with as much seating outside as in, with the outside seating perched on whatever flat surfaces can be found. Yes, Durham really is that hilly. Given the size, there’s a surprisingly large breakfast/lunch menu, an impressive array of cakes and an espresso-based menu with options from Newcastle’s Ouseburn Coffee Co and London’s Workshop. Perpetually busy, and with tables at a premium, if you need more space, the second branch, Flat White Kitchen, is just around the corner (although up a steep hill), with more space, a bigger menu and even longer queues!
Workshop Coffee is one of London’s better-known (and original) roaster/café chains. Starting from its flagship branch in Clerkenwell, where, until recently, all the roasting was done, it’s slowly expanded, now with a total of four London coffee shops. I first really came across it (other than as a roaster) when it opened its Fitzrovia coffee bar in 2014, but I’ve taken my sweet time in popping into the other branches, finally making to the Marylebone branch last week. At some point I’ll have to drag myself over to Holborn and Clerkenwell, which has seen a few changes since the roaster moved out.
The Marylebone branch is on St Christopher’s Place, just a stone’s throw from the busy Oxford Street. Tucked away in the eastern arm (St Christopher’s Place is cross-shaped), it’s an oasis of calm, which is also open until seven in the evening. Simple in layout, there’s a bench along the wall providing most of the seating. The coffee offering is excellent, with two single-origins and decaf on espresso, plus two or three single-origins available through the Aeropress, with one of them on bulk-brew. If you’re hungry, there’s a wide selection of cake and a limited range of sandwiches.