Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Comments on London as an emerging "coffee town" & a review of Kaffeine, London

Kaffeine is another antipodean owned coffee shop in the Soho/Fitzrovia region.

An article appeared in the New York Times on the weekend, making the bold claim that London is becoming an emerging "coffee town". For those of us who hail from real coffee towns, this is a somewhat eyebrow raising claim. Melbourne has a population of  around 3.9 million and has hundreds of sublime coffee shops within a 10 square mile radius. What's more, you could walk in to any Melbourne deli or cafe these days, even in the less cosmopolitan outer 'burbs, and they'll likely make a passable attempt to roast you up a fairly decent brew.

London, a city of 7.5 million people, is a stone's throw from Italy, and in any 10 square miles you'll be lucky to hit more than a handful of passable contenders (most of the good ones are named in the Time Out's excellent "London's Best Coffee" feature this month, although it misses Fernandez & Wells, Foxcroft & Ginger and Kaffe Automat, and I don't rate all of those listed that I've tried as within the same league as Flat White, Milk Bar, Monmouth and Fernandez & Wells). And if you haven't done your homework, and dare to gamble on any others outside the select few, I can guarantee you'll be rewarded with a cup of complete pus. Most cafe owners in London don't know, or care about, what good coffee is meant to taste like.

Historically, London just does not have a coffee culture. This is a land where people love their tea - a drink that generally turns me on about as much as stale tea biscuits, but I grant this is a matter of taste. The fact that the current new wave of decent coffee shops is being largely shepherded in by Australians and New Zealanders then is no surprise. Given TPG and I chose our current abode by proximity to the only decent coffee in London (at that time, 3 years ago, Flat White in Soho - although The Providores in Marylebone was the other option if you could bother to queue), the first buds of a potential full bloom of coffee havens is a much welcomed arrival. To be fair, the NY Times article labelled London as "emerging" in coffee status - and if it keeps up the current trend, this could well be true. But for a city of its size and sophistication, London still has a long way to go before I'll ever think of it as having a strong coffee culture. The scars from being forced to drink bland brews from chains or sordid cafes over previous decades due to a complete lack of alternatives still cut too deep.

So it is with this background in mind that TPG and I walk past our beloved Flat White and Fernandez on Saturday morning, to give Kaffeine another try.

I have been to Kaffeine before, soon after it opened (I'm always hot on the heels of any new coffee establishments - TPG claims we "discovered" Fernandez in the days when we were the only bods at the front window seats, and he still likes to tell himself its popularity is almost solely due to the word of mouth emanating from his lips alone). I've also been back to Kaffeine since, but have never taken TPG (1) because getting him to risk his morning coffee on somewhere other than Fernandez is like pulling teeth, and (2) because I've never found it to be quite as good as the others.

Kaffeine has a friendly, chilled out, open vibe as a mixed crowd sit in near the Synesso Espresso machine, chatting, reading the papers and sipping the produce of their well roasted Square Mile coffee beans (the same beans are used at Flat White and Milk Bar). The coffee is warming, rich and strong with a good amount of bite. But it weighs in slightly too much on the bitter side for me, without as much of that lovely round smoothness that's makes those favourites closer to home (for me) so sublime. It's good, but slightly outside my first tier.

This is nothing to be sneezed at. I am splitting hairs a little, but since London is being put on the emerging coffee city pedestal, its coffee outlets should be rated as they would be in a true coffee city where ample alternatives abound. In any case, Peter Dore-Smith (who heads up the team, and is originally from Melbourne like me) has a blog which indicates one of Kaffeine's baristas is placed 7th going into the semi finals of the UK Barista Championships. So try it and make up your own mind.

The food also looks good - Kaffeine's ethos is to search out quality, independent food vendors, at street markets and specialist suppliers. The range of colourful salads, which I've tried at lunch time, are particularly appealing. At breakfast, there are a range of pastries, banana cake, muffins, croissants loaded up with savoury fillings (such as coppa cotta ham, talleggio cheese, spinach and plum tomatoes), a big urn of organic porridge (with a range condiments such as muscovado sugar, rhubarb and raspberry compote, mixed fruit and chopped nuts) and muesli.

TPG's porridge on Saturday was quite gloopy, while my wheat free muesli with yoghurt, chopped dried fruit and nuts, popped corn and compote contained enough broken walnut shells to put have me chewing on tenterhooks for the sake of my teeth. The yoghurt and muesli comes in a pre-packaged plastic cup which is not ideal. The flavour was tasty however. The croissants with savoury fillings looked delicious.

It's a friendly place, where they welcome prams (relevant for some), and one that I'm sure is held dear to the locals and office workers nearby. Despite some quibbles, I would probably go back to it more regularly if I didn't pass my favourite local haunts along the way to get there. And its down to earth, friendly and relaxed charm definitely appeals.

In any case, I'm all up for the sudden interest in coffee around London and the passion it inspires. That can only be a good thing for coffee lovers like me, who may no longer need to scour the streets in a caffeine withdrawal frenzy whenever the need for a good flattie takes grip. Stay tuned for my next post... on the new Brewing Boy coffee van in Soho.

Kaffeine, 66 Great Titchfield Street, Fitzrovia, London W1.

Kaffeine on Urbanspoon


  1. Interesting post, and thanks for the review of Kaffeine, to which I have not yet been.

    In response to the NYT article and your post, I personally find that coming from a place that I would define as having a 'real' coffee culture (the Pacific Northwest of the US), I find that the London coffee scene has most certainly improved over the nearly 10 years that I've been living here. However, I view London as a place where, if you are fairly dedicated and do your research, you can seek out places that serve a decent (or even very good [& rarely excellent]) coffee, but if you are not armed with such ambition and/or knowledge it is more of a 'crap shoot', in which you are likely to get the first word in that gambling phrase in terms of the taste of your coffee. That said, the word 'emerging' is probably apt, in reference to London's coffee culture, and this is no doubt (as you point out) led primarily by foreign influences that have settled in London in order to stake their coffee claims, whether Aussie, Kiwi, Italian, American or otherwise.

    I am eager to try any new coffee houses that purport to serve an exceptional brew, so will definitely be trying Kaffeine. Within the area that I used to work (we have since moved, unfortunately), I enjoyed the coffees at Monmouth, Milk Bar and Caffe Vergnano (in that order). I was also recently introduced to Ginger & White in Hampstead which makes pretty good coffee (they use Square Mile roasted beans, and it has an Aussie influence, though not ownership so far as I understand).

    My guess is that London will remain a firmly tea-over-coffee culture for a while yet though, although the options for decent coffee will doubtless continue to grow, which is great news for coffee lovers.

    Best regards,


  2. LF - The London coffee scene is certainly on the improve but it looks like we are both agreed that you need to be in the know about where to go to get a good one (in which case there are some great - if still too rare - options).

  3. GD - what I find really interesting is that despite being a very "old" city we have only really found our coffee feet through the influx of our Antipodean brethren. The good coffee to be found in Vienna and Italy never quite got here.

    Anyway glad you liked Kaffeine. I found there was no real draw to it for me and it was a bit further away than the traditional good new coffee places you also frequent. Also I found the food a bit of a let down.

    Looking forward to hearing about the Brewing Boy van

  4. Hi Tom - My thoughts exactly! Might see you around the coffee trails soon.

  5. What is the coffee in England?

  6. I have visited Kaffeine. Its a great little coffee shop, great price and the cakes are nice too. I stayed in a serviced apartment London I went for a afternoon pick me up and I saw lily Allen having a coffee there, its right by Oxford Circus so I even had a shop. :)

  7. thank you for sharing :) I'll be moving to London to study next year and I'm really interested in discovering new cafes and places, I'm only familiar with the generic ones like Costa & such :)


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