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Expert guide to the best coffee in the UK

Read our expert guide to the best coffee spots in the UK. The independent coffee scene is booming – let us introduce you to those leading the roasting revolution, from the Caravan coffee roasters to Assembly coffee in Brixton, and the London coffee festival

Looking for the best coffee near you? Coffee experts from the UK’s best coffee roasters give us the lowdown on the independent coffee scene in the UK, from Caravan coffee roasters to the man behind The London Coffee Festival. 

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Jamie Boland from Ancoats Coffee Co, Manchester

“The ultimate dream for me was always to have a roastery and café rolled into one,” says Jamie Boland (below right), owner of Manchester’s Ancoats Coffee Co. “It made lots of sense to expose as many people as possible to the process of roasting – it’s a fascinating thing to see.”

Housed in a former cotton mill, Ancoats Coffee Co has quickly established itself as one of the go-to places for coffee in the north-west. Boland first experienced great coffee when he was sleeping on a friend’s sofa in Melbourne, where he found work as a barista. “When I eventually came back to Manchester, it was a bit of a shock as I was used to having awesome coffee on every street corner, but I struggled to find a decent coffee anywhere. That’s when I decided to set up a business, with the aim of bringing some of the Australian coffee culture back to Manchester.”

Set against the bare brick walls and iron pillars of the Royal Mills, try the appropriately named Warehouse City seasonal espresso roasted in small batches in the café itself. ancoats-coffee.co.uk

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Lisa Lawson from Dear Green, Glasgow

Being creative and a bit of a geek – they’re two qualities that make a good barista, according to Lisa Lawson (below) of Glasgow roastery Dear Green, which runs training sessions for barista skills and sensory skills, as well as roasting exceptional coffee. Alongside these two attributes, being passionate about the product and service, having high standards and attention to detail are the qualities she looks for in baristas.

“It’s important to me that the product is respected and appreciated right to the cup.” Lawson says bringing education to baristas not only adds value to Dear Green’s offering but also ensures that the product is executed with the same commitment to flavour, care and attention as the growers on the farms supplying the beans.

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As well as being a Living Wage employer, Dear Green has an ethical approach when it comes to coffee, too. “In order to have integrity, it’s also important to have the same values throughout the supply chain: buying in some of the poorest countries in the world brings its own moral challenge.

Working with trusted importers who go to the farms, we buy coffee with a conscience, which means we can sell it with pride. Others may be driven by their bottom line, which encourages purchasing non-traceable, low-quality coffee. I couldn’t sleep at night, no matter how caffeinated I was, if I ran my business that way.”

Although the house blend Goosedubbs is Dear Green’s biggest-selling product, lots of customers buy a subscription and wait for the weekly recommendation to arrive at their door. A recent favourite was the Kenyan Jokambu AB – sourced following a staff trip there this year. deargreencoffee.com

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Freda Yuan from Caravan Coffee Roasters, London

As head of quality control at Caravan Coffee Roasters in King’s Cross, Freda Yuan drinks a lot of coffee. A normal working day might see her tasting up to 40 cups. “My job is heavily based on my palate,” says Yuan, who joined Caravan last year after spells in Australia and her home country of Taiwan. “I taste the production roasts from the previous day to confirm the quality is up to standard and consistently maintained.”

Yuan is also a licensed Q grader – “like a human instrument to grade coffee based on its attributes like flavour, aroma, mouth-feel and acidity” – which is the highest certification in the coffee industry. You need to pass 22 sensory exams in three days to prove you’re good enough.

Enjoy cups of Guatemalan Christian Rasch (with its “apricot, tangerine and white chocolate” notes) as roasted by Freda and her team at one of the Caravan restaurants in King’s Cross, Bankside or Exmouth Market. Don’t forget to order a slice of chocolate stout cake with chocolate caramel and burnt coffee cream while you’re at it. caravancoffeeroasters.co.uk

Freda Yuan of Caravan please credit photographer Zsuzsa Zicho

Jeffrey Young, founder of London Coffee Festival

As founder of London Coffee Festival and publisher of the influential London Coffee Guide, Jeffrey Young knows the UK coffee scene. In the seven years since it started, London Coffee Festival has grown four-fold thanks to an increasing interest in great coffee that Jeffrey says reflects a wider cultural phenomenon.

“Coffee shops provide a ‘third space’ for today’s urban customers to extend their lives into. Coffee shops are the living rooms, and often workplaces, for many in a world where we are more mobile and have smaller homes,” explains Jeffrey.

In the late 1990s, he wrote research reports predicting expansion in the coffee-shop market, and this growth accelerated with the emergence of cool artisan independents that form the scene today. It continues to evolve. “We see an emerging ‘fifth wave’ in London at places such as Caravan, Grind and Gail’s, where it’s about providing boutique quality at scale.” londoncoffeefestival.com

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Bethany Williams from Colonna Coffee, Wiltshire

Soon after completing a degree in biomedical science, Bethany Williams decided that staring down a microscope every day wasn’t the job for her, so she left the field altogether to work in coffee.

She’s now head roaster of the highly regarded Colonna Coffee in Wiltshire, a roastery that has also devised its own compostable coffee capsules (there’s a coffee shop – Colonna & Small’s – in Bath, too). Bethany may have swapped the laboratory for the roastery but she says there’s still plenty of science involved in creating the perfect cup.

“The roast is a series of chemical reactions, and you alter your machinery to manipulate these reactions to accentuate the flavours you want to show in the bean and minimise those you don’t. What’s most intriguing is how the processing that the beans undergo produces so many different flavours in the final cup.”

Try the Gigesa Grade 1 Washed, an Ethiopian coffee with promise of peachy sweetness, hints of melon and bergamot, and even black tea. colonnacoffee.com

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Mat North from Full Court Press, Bristol

Outside of London, Bristol has one of the most flourishing coffee scenes in the UK, with a number of high-end coffee shops and roasteries. Central to the city’s scene is Mat North, who runs his own excellent coffee shop Full Court Press, where the choice of filter and espresso-based coffees changes every few days. One week it might be Ethiopian and Kenyan coffees, another week they may be from Yemen and Sumatra.

Mat says that to explain the difference between speciality coffee stores like his and the big coffee chains, you have to think burgers. “Both are fresh, single-serve products. Both can be quick for convenience or lingered over for enjoyment, and both have varying levels of product quality. Speciality coffee stores do what the chains do, but the quality of raw ingredient, the service and other factors are of a higher quality. For example, we offer traceable coffees of high quality and pay good money for them, not unlike a good burger restaurant choosing high-quality beef.”

Having started his coffee career as a barista at Caffè Nero, Mat has worked both ends of the coffee industry, an experience that has helped him run his own place. “The chains have systems for everything and it gives you a lot of clarity in terms of what you’re doing. The great thing, though, is how open people are to go beyond their preconceptions of what they know about coffee.”

In the heart of Bristol’s old banking district and law courts, Mat’s tiny two-floor coffee shop offers two espresso coffees and two filters by a team of highly skilled baristas. fcpcoffee.com

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Nick Mabey from Assembly Coffee, Brixton

Ask top London roaster Nick Mabey for a few insider tips when it comes to UK coffee hot spots and he’s quick to fire off a list of must visit places. “Embassy East in Hoxton remains my favourite café, but Over Under in Earl’s Court is impeccable and Timberyard in Edinburgh is mind-blowing,” says Nick (below), who is also a certified Q grader – the coffee world’s equivalent of being a qualified wine sommelier.

Launched by Nick and Michael Cleland at the London Coffee Festival in 2015, Brixton-based Assembly works closely with many of the UK’s best coffee shops, supplying delicious coffees such as Santa Theresa (from Panama) with its promised notes of rum and raisin and bourbon, Manuka honey and tropical fruits.

But for Nick, it takes more than perfectly roasted beans to make a great cup of coffee. “Outside of the seemingly endless variations possible in flavour and profiles of the raw materials, it’s really the person making or serving the coffee that can enhance the experience.” assemblycoffee.co.uk

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Nick Law from Bean Shot Coffee, Somerset

Tucked away on an industrial estate in the pretty Somerset town of Bruton, you’ll find Bean Shot Coffee’s roastery, barista school and coffee bar. Launched in 2013 by Australian Nick Law, Bean Shot Coffee produces speciality, ‘micro lot’ coffee, most of it sourced ‘direct trade’ from farmers. It roasts the highest-quality single-origin coffees and releases new coffees each month. Recent offerings have come from farms in Java, Honduras and Costa Rica.

Since opening, Bean Shot Coffee has grown to supply outlets across the UK, the Middle East and Spain. It also opened a coffee bar in Sherborne earlier this year. Focussing on just coffee, coffee equipment and method, it was a brave move to open in the Dorset town, but Law says the reaction has been “superb”. beanshot.co.uk

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The best coffee books

The Coffee Dictionary

What Bath-based champion barista Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood doesn’t know about coffee probably isn’t worth knowing. Three-time winner of the UK Barista Championships and co-owner of an award-winning coffee shop, Colonna-Dashwood has travelled the world studying the science and art of coffee, developing new technology for better enjoyment of the bean. He has just published a compendium of coffee, from growing and roasting to brewing and tasting. It’s the ultimate guide for discerning coffee drinkers (£15, Mitchell Beazley).

HIGH RES Coffee Dictionary

Coffee Art

Originally from Nepal, Dhan Tamang is a world-renowned latte artist who has won the title of UK Latte Art Champion five times. Well known for his use of colour and his precise designs, he shares his frothy tips in a new book featuring step-by-step instructions on how budding baristas can create beautiful latte art at home.

Whether it’s a tulip or rosetta, or a more advanced swan or unicorn, there is no longer any excuse to serve up a flat-looking flat white or a lacklustre latte. Follow his advice and you will soon be the crème de la crema when it comes to coffee art (£10, Cassell Illustrated).

Dhan Tamang Coffee Art book cover

London Coffee

London’s expanding coffee scene has been captured in a new book featuring the stories of the people and the places that created it. Written by Lani Kingston, author of the bestseller How to Make Coffee, and with stunning photography from Canadian lensman David Post, it takes the reader on a fascinating journey around the capital’s roasteries and coffee houses.

From contemporary Scandinavian- style coffee houses to timeless Italian cafés passed down through the generations, the book looks at the city’s long love affair with the black stuff (£20, Hoxton Mini Press).

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Words | Mark Taylor

Photography | GU Photography, Gavin Smart, Brian Sweene, Zsuzsa Zicho, Tom Sparey, Charlie Mckay


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