While improvements in the Dublin coffee scene over the past couple of years are plain to see, perspective is often missing. Sure there’s a growing awareness, but even if I was being kind you could count the number of places where you’d get a good to great coffee on one hand. Dublin is a relatively small city though; the demand and the necessary footfall probably aren’t there yet. London on the other hand is not relatively small (does Mumbai count?). Having spotted an upcoming Square Mile Espresso tasting session, myself, Fergus and local barista and friend Colin decided now was as good a time as any to cross the Irish sea and see if all those cafés we’d heard about on Too Much Coffee would live up to the billing.
The 4am start probably set the tone for the rest of the day. Not fully awake we somehow found ourselves in the departure lounge at Dublin airport. One Ryanair flight, and two trains later, we arrived at Tottenham Court Road tube station, which I had at some point decided was a good place to set out from. It would probably be good to note at this point that (a) if you make a map with all the coffee shops you want to go to, you should print it out and bring it with you, and (b) GPS has trouble with all the tall buildings in London.
After more wandering than we hoped for, we arrived at our first destination – Milk Bar. Milk Bar is a small enough place, decorated in a minimalist, yet trendy manner. Johnny Cash was playing over the speakers as we entered. The coffee menu was full of terms that are quite unfamiliar to your average Irish person, flat white (kind of wet cappuccino), piccolo, long black, short black etc. These terms are more common antipodean coffee speak, and it seems the London coffee scene owes a lot to those from the Southern Hemisphere. Milk Bar is of course the sequel to another London coffee bar / institution – Flat White. At Milk Bar I had a triple ristretto and a flat white. Not only was it hard to find any faults, but the flavour and complexity of the espresso was really wonderful – starts off deep and rich, but on the finish I was getting something that reminded me of Turkish Delight – sweet, fruity, and floral. We were all mightily impressed and full of optimism for the day ahead.
After another 40 mins of getting lost we stumbled upon Monmouth (Covent Garden). First impressions for me were, what a cool building, and those beans surely could be stored better. The interior is on two levels, the lower level is for takeout orders and buying beans, the upper level has a quirky, small and pokey seating area. We found seats, and leafed through the filter coffee menu. Filter coffee is not something that is really done to any great extent in Dublin, which is a pity. Instead of a potentially delicious, aromatic filter coffee, Americanos have become the ubiquitous order for a long black drink. We ordered three different filters, La Fany (El Salvador) which I’m familiar with, as well as a Rwandan and a Kenyan whose names I cannot remember. For sake of completion a double espresso and a latté were also ordered. I can only imagine that something went seriously wrong in the filter preparation because all three were more or less undrinkable dreck. The strongest flavour was paper (from the filters obviously), but even allowing for that you would expect that some nice coffee flavours would come through. Unfortunately, all three, without fail tasted flat and dirty. What a pity. On the espresso side of things, we fared better. The espresso wasn’t as remarkable as the one in Milk Bar, but the extraction was decent. I could have taken the milk 5 to 10 degrees cooler on the latté, but it wasn’t burnt, and the rosetta was really top notch.
The next stop on our list was Sacred, just off Carnaby Street. They kind of have a religious theme going on in there, with their espresso machine raised up on a pulpit type area. The decor seemed a bit confused though. No filter coffees available in Sacred, so we ordered a couple of flat whites and a couple of espressos. These would prove to be easily the most disappointing of the day. The espressos were thin, and if anything seemed stale, and the quality of the milk, well I’ll let Fergus describe it.
We took the opportunity to not finish these drinks and keep our caffeine quota down a little. Although at this stage our stomachs were starting to feel the pinch from the lack of sleep and the amount of coffee. Luckily Fernandez and Wells was the next stop and provided an opportunity for some much needed (and very tasty) lunch – big thick Ham, cheese and piccalilli paninis. We decided to wash the paninis down with some coffee. Fernandez and Wells use Monmouth’s espresso blend, but the shot of espresso they produced was even better than the one produced at Monmouth itself. This and the excellent milk in Colin’s piccolo highlighted an attention to detail only bettered by Milk Bar at that point.
Our last stop was Flat White. Our expectations were high from our visit to Milk Bar that morning, and we were not let down. The vibe of Flat White is quite different though, it has more of an indie / student feel to it. It was certainly busier and noisier. Once again I had the triple ristretto, affirming its place as a highlight of the day. I even went as far as an affogato (scoop of ice cream “drowned” with a shot of espresso), which I normally don’t like. While I still don’t really like affogatos, it was probably the best I’ve had. There was nothing to choose between Flat White and Milk Bar in terms of coffee quality, for an ambience point of view I’d probably go with the calmer Milk Bar. I feel lucky to have tried that espresso blend, as I found out it was due to be changed shortly afterwards. I knew beforehand that they used Square Mile coffee, but I didn’t know that it was a custom blend. I hope I’ll be forgiven for saying that it was my favourite Square Mile espresso blend thus far, having tasted the WBC, Autumn Espresso, and the Los Luchadores.
There was nothing left to do at that point except head out to the east end. The Square Mile roastery is located in a small warehouse space under a train track/bridge on Poyser Street. Inside were a mountain of sacks of green coffee, a collection of roasters, and a bar area. Anette Moldvaer and James Hoffman were hosting their Taste of the West Coast US espresso tasting. We had tried to keep our caffeine level to a minimum in lieu of this, so although we got around 5 cafés there were several others we did not get a chance to sample (such as Gwilym’s, Beas, Taste of Bitter Love, Taylor St etc). We got their early, and while we waited for the 25-30 attendees to arrive we were offered some iced “tea” made with Cascara (dried coffee fruit). Delicious. Sweet and refreshing. However, James informed that by guzzling down a big cup of it I had inadvertently sent my caffeine intake to a new high. Crap.
I decided I may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb at that stage, and prepared myself to drink whatever was placed in front of me for the next couple of hours. The espressos on offer were from Ecco, Intelligentsia, Verve, Ritual and Seven. James diligently set about producing shot after shot of each blend, per the roasters exacting instructions, including repulls if requested (I had two), on the two group Synesso. It quickly became apparent that all of these roasters had quite diverse ideas about espresso, from the quite fruity sweet offerings from Ritual and Ecco, a chocolaty, nutty offering from Seven, to very deep, dark, almost foreboding offerings from Intelligentsia and Verve. For me, personally the offering from Ecco, just shaved Ritual to top spot, for nearly everyone else though it seemed Ritual was the overwhelming favourite.
The Street level blend from Verve was probably the most unusual. Verve had indicated a set of parameters to James for brewing a “face melter” espresso shot. This basically entailed a 42 second, 24 gram single shot of espresso. It’s quite unlike any espresso I’ve had previously. Mouthfeel unsurprisingly was incredibly thick, the taste was deep and dark, with almost a super concentrated fruityness, but because it is so concentrated it no longer seems to taste of fruit, instead perhaps of some industrial byproduct of the distillation of a fruit liqueur (if that makes any sense). I liked it though, and would probably have called it third.
The new Black Cat Classic from Intelligentsia further compounded my bafflement at what exactly Black Cat is. Until this summer just passed, Black Cat, to me, was merely a frequently hailed blend on US based coffee forums like Home Barista and Coffeegeek. Fergus brought me a bag back from New York though, and I experienced a very impressive blend, quite chocolaty up front, but with an intense fruity finish. I ordered another bag as part of a group order with some fellow Irish coffee nerds and found a similar, to my palate, really wonderful profile. However, by Septermber, a subsequent order delivered to us a very different blend. That fruitiness seemed to have disappeared; in its place was something quite nutty and chocolaty that I would come to identify as typical of yellow bourbon cachoeira. Having had this profile in my mind I assumed the cachoeira-y shot from Seven was in fact the Black Cat, I may have even wagered part of my anatomy on this. The Black Cat Classic shot, however, proved to be something entirely different, very dark, like the Maillard flavours from roasted meat. It was my least favourite of the Black Cat iterations I had tried, and my least favourite on the night. From my reading on the US coffee forums, over the summer, it was apparent that this fruity, berry Black Cat that I fell in love with, was in fact a departure from the typical Black Cat profile, and Intelligentsia came in for a lot of criticism (here and here for example). I’m still no closer to knowing what Black Cat should have originally tasted like, and I reckon the new Black Cat Project will only confuse me even more.
We collapsed back out into the London night, frazzled from over-caffeination, ready to compete with the Roma (who had played Chelsea that night) fans for the bus back to Stansted. We tried beer and food, alas, neither could restore us to a state of normal brain function. Not having a hotel bed to return to, and having to wait till 6am the following morning for our return flight, the hard linoleum floor outside Tie Rack in Stansted was deemed an adequate sleeping space for a few hours. Some disappointments aside, it was a great trip. I suspect had we gotten a different barista in Sacred, or just caught Monmouth on another day, then they may have met expectations, but Flat White, Milk Bar, and Fernandez & Wells lived up to their billing as destinations for caffeine-heads. The only surprise at Square Mile was how very gracious and humble our hosts were. In fact the passion on show from the hosts and the attendees at the tasting speaks more to the future of the London coffee scene than whether or not certain cafés were able to produce a good coffee in a snapshot in time. What was evident was a real community spirit, a shared passion from World Barista Champion to home obsessive, no one was too big or too small to engage in this debate. Next time, however, I think it’s only fair that they do the tasting in Dublin.
I’ll leave you with our Halloween themed video: