You can't visit Edinburgh at the moment without noticing the new coffee company in town - Black Sheep Coffee Company. I passed outlets in George Street, Princes Street and spotted a huge advertisement on a new building at the West End - Black Sheep Coffee, Coming Soon. So I needed to find out more.
I had a look at the George Street outlet first. It's a fairly small shop and was quite busy so I headed for the Princes Street site. It was easy to spot, having some large flags advertising the shop.
The entrance was a few steps up from pavement level and you arrive in an entrance foyer. The coffee servery lies to your left, in the main area but you must first select your order from an electronic screen in the foyer - much like those used in large modern eateries such as KFC, or McDonald's. You're issued with a number, then you can approach the servery and watch the screen above the bar to see where you're number lies in the queue. There's not really much chance to interact with the barista/server.
When you receive your order you can then take it to the coffee lounge, which is upstairs.
The coffee lounge was fairly quiet at my visit so I was able to grab a seat at one of the tables which overlooked Princes Street and had a great view of The Castle. The interior of Black Sheep sites are described as "an immersive Urban experience"; and while I liked some of the wall graphics I thought the atmosphere was pretty soulless. The space had a cold canteen-ish look, with a lack of character - an important aspect of a modern coffee shop. There were a number of tables which hadn't been cleared and they weren't cleared during my visit.
You have the choice of Arabica, or Robusta coffee when selecting your drink on the electronic screen - I chose a Robusta oat flat white, as Black Sheep state a "Robusta Revival" as a usp. The literature states that the Company are "proud to be serving the first speciality grade Robusta on the market" - listing the benefits of "Double the Caffeine, Lower Acidity, Fuller Body and Richer Crema". While I'm aware that it's common to blend a small percentage of Robusta to Arabica beans to achieve a crowd pleasing coffee, I'm not sure a totally Robusta coffee would suit many.
My flat white was drinkable but not memorable. I may have enjoyed it more in more pleasant surroundings but it still wouldn't be enjoyable enough to make me head for a Black Sheep outlet, rather than the excellent Indy shops we have available. In fact, I think this type of large chain coffee offering seems to be more about securing key commercial property in major cities than making excellent coffee available for more people.
Not my thing I'm afraid 😕
Brew Lab (Union Brew Lab to be correct) is located in South College Street, right in the heart of the Edinburgh University area, in the "Southside" of the city. Needless to say a majority of customers are associated with the University but it's reputation also attracts coffee enthusiasts from further afield; and in "normal" times you would be hard pushed to get a seat most days. The coffee offer focuses on single origin coffee from Union Coffee Roasters in London and "carefully considered guest roasters".
I had some business to attend to in the Southside last week and so Brew Lab was my first port of call. My luck was in - with lockdown still partially in place, I was lucky enough to get a seat on two consecutive days.
At the moment with lockdown procedures in place entry is via the right hand (retail shop) unit, where you wait to be seated at a vacant, cleaned and suitably spaced out table. A disposable paper food and drink menu on each table includes details on how to register your personal details for the Track & Trace requirements. Once you have had your fill of the excellent coffee(s) you leave via the coffee bar area in the left hand unit. The whole process was fairly straight forward and well managed on each of my visits.
There were two filters on offer - on Batch Brew, a washed COLUMBIA Veronica & Mercedes, from Union, or on Pour over - a natural ETHIOPIA/Guji from guest roaster Edinburgh's Williams & Johnson.
The coffee was lovely, it was like drinking a really dark toffee apple. I think the formal notes are cola and brown sugar with white grape and lime but to me it was a big juicy dark toffee apple - very moreish.
A great first visit to Brew Lab but I had more time the following day to plump for the pour-over from Williams & Johnson. I followed the same procedure on entry and was shown to a bar stool seat facing the coffee bar. I ordered the Ethiopian Guji and avocado toast. This took a little longer than the previous day but this time I was able to watch the barista carry out the pour-over. While I waited I was able to take in the interior of the space.
The walls were a mixture of plain unfinished wooden panels with sections of exposed brick.
The interior is sort of semi-industrial. with worn wooden floors, old wooden tables and school chairs, the interior looked warm and chic.
Prices are a shade higher than others in the city centre - £2.80 for an espresso, £3.00 for the batch brew filter and £4.20 for the pour over - but Brew Lab offers excellent coffees, expertly brewed; and in a great space.
Brew Lab know their market and know their coffee. If you're a fan of speciality coffees I doubt that you would be disappointed. It will always be at the top of my list if I'm in Edinburgh's Southside. 💚
Monday 10th August 2020
The last coffee shop I sat in before the covid-19 lockdown took effect was Fortitude in York Place, at the East end of Edinburgh's Queen Street. It is a small coffee shop with a big following, a respected player in Edinburgh's speciality coffee scene. I was aware that Fortitude had just opened a second shop in Stockbridge but unfortunately I didn't have a chance to visit before the lockdown.
The new shop in Stockbridge's Hamilton Place has been open for a takeaway service for the past few weeks and has now opened up fully, offering a sit-in service also. My timing was spot on and I was able to get a seat to check out the new shop while enjoying a coffee.
Fortitude have a fairly straight forward procedure which follows a series of steps to meet the covid-19 guidelines for staff and customers. The counter is at the front of the shop, a few feet away from the large main windows at the entrance which allows for a few bar stools along the windows. The signage on the counter and markings on the floor helps to maintain the required physical distancing. However the cheerful welcome from the girl behind the counter includes some further guidance to help you make your order. I ordered the bulk brew filter coffee which was advertised on the counter - Ethiopian Banko Gotiti (a fully washed Heirloom variety for the coffee specialists) - with a chocolate brownie to accompany.
I was asked to wait just a few minutes while a table was cleaned after the previous customer left - some hand gel is available to clean your hands while you wait. After the counter, which runs a few meters into the shop, is the seating area with toilets to the rear. I was soon shown to my table right at the back of the shop. Tables are spaced out appropriately and access is clear for wheelchairs and pushchairs; and child seats are available.
While I waited on my order I checked out the interior of the shop. You're immediately drawn to the old wall tiles along the length of the walls; and the high ceilings with ornate detail along the edges and beams. There was a steady flow of customers looking to sit inside; and customers ordering takeaways - no doubt many loyal customers from the local area who would previously have visited the York Place shop.
The shop was previously a cafe area within the Ronde Bicycle Outfitters, selling bicycles, clothing & accessories - see the photo below.
Now refurbished, Fortitude have put their own stamp on it and the space is now a modern family friendly speciality coffee shop; and with some low chilled music playing in the background, it oozes great vibes and is sure to be a success with the local coffee lovers.
The most obvious difference when you look around the shop is the lack of an espresso machine at the counter. The owners have installed the impressive MODBAR system where the "business end" of the espresso machine is hidden below the counter. Only the streamlined silver taps for milk steaming and group heads are visible to the customer, allowing a more open space over the counter between the server and the customer. This is a new innovative system for coffee shops, with only one other system installed in Scotland at the moment I believe. Elsewhere, retail shelves stock coffee home brewing equipment and Fortitude's own range of coffee beans.
After five minutes or so, the cheerful girl serving at the counter brought my order to my table - a carafe of water, my cup of coffee (in a china cup!) and chocolate brownie. The Ethiopian Banko Gotiti was described at the counter with notes of Peach, Strawberry & White Tea, brewed on the bulk brewer; and it was lovely.
I'm not the greatest at detecting all the various different notes coffee has to offer - I didn't get the peach or white tea but it was clean and crisp, with the strawberry coming through strongly. These guys know how to brew good coffee - but I knew that already.
It must be difficult opening a new shop in the current climate but Fortitude are experts. With their usual friendly service and pleasant coffee shop atmosphere, this is sure to be a very popular new coffee venue in Stockbridge.
Tuesday, 4th August 2020
The weather was dreich and I was looking for a decent cup of coffee near Edinburgh's Waverley Station. I had a few favourite coffee shops in mind but I wasn't sure how they were operating with the lockdown still largely in place. As I crossed the High Street near North Bridge the smell hit me - a smokey, ashey, almost wood burning smell. I recognised this smell right away - it was coffee being roasted and it would be coming from Gordon St Coffee on Market Street. I headed towards Market Street.
Woohoo! They were open, with a sitting-in service too and there was a free socially distanced seat at the window - haud me back.
I've written about the Gordon St coffee shop previously in my post labelled "coffee shops near Edinburgh Waverley Station" but that was in March, just before the lockdown came into force. The Gordon St crew are a very professional outfit - I've visited here on a few occasions and have also ordered coffee from them on line. Their service was excellent on each occasion.
The coffee shop is across the street from the Market Street entrance to Waverley Station, so very handy if you're travelling to or from Edinburgh by rail. Gordon St's main base is in Glasgow, again well located for travelers at Glasgow Central Station.
The Edinburgh shop was well laid out and clearly marked out for social distancing measures; and there were several signs in place advising customers of the safety requirement when in the shop. The staff wore masks and a perspex screen was in place at the ordering point. I remember the long counter from my last visit which had a selection of cakes and pastries and a huge display of hand made chocolate truffles. No truffles today but I'm sure they'll be back after the lockdown is fully lifted.
Gordon Street Coffee offer a good range of espresso based coffees and single origin coffees but I was craving a flat white. They had two espressos on the go - the House Blend and the Edinburgh Blend. I opted for the Edinburgh Blend first, with a cinnamon swirl and both went down a treat. I then tried the House Blend - as a flat white again. Both coffees were nice but for me The Edinburgh Blend has the edge. I thought it was a bit richer but smooth, with maybe a slight nuttiness in there somewhere. Nice.
Roasting was taking place during my visit at the other end of the shop. Normally, customers can approach the area and discuss the process with the roaster and I will certainly make an effort to visit again on a roasting day after lockdown has finished and certainly look forward to trying more of their coffees. 💚
Lothian Road, by Usher Hall (Coffee)
Temp closed due to lockdown
Grassmarket, (Ice Cream)
Temp closed due to lockdown
I then drove towards Bruntsfield - I had passed one previously which was open, with a small queue of customers so I was hoping to be able to buy a coffee there.
I was in luck, Sam's Coffee Box was still open and no queue!
The box is well situated at the end of Bruntsfield's main shopping area; and just at the edge of Bruntsfield Links. Ideal for a takeaway coffee and a bun; and a sunbathe in the park.
Sam, who owns and operates the box, was able to give me an outline of the coffee scene in Bruntsfield during the lockdown, as he has been open throughout. He has a loyal following from the local community and offers espresso based coffees using beans from Williams & Johnson coffee roasters in Leith and a small selection of treats and sausage rolls.
Williams & Johnsons Peru Espresso is a favourite of mine so I was able to enjoy a flat white while I spoke to Sam. It wasn't long before more customers arrived so I left Sam to sell more of his great coffee.
After Bruntsfield I continued on to Morningside and found The Drip, a coffee box situated midway down Morningside Road. The Drip was open and I spoke with the owner Jakub while I had one of his excellent flat whites.
|The Drip, Morningside|
Jakub and his wife Aimee operate two converted police boxes, this one at Morningside and another at Tollcross. The Tollcross unit is temporary closed for the lockdown period due to the low footfall in the area.
Both units have recently been decorated with some zany graphics, painted by a local artist. They certainly make the boxes stand out on the grey Edinburgh pavements.
The Drip offer a selection of cookies, muffins, brownies and pastries to accompany their excellent coffee. The coffee is a bespoke blend, supplied by Edinburgh roaster Mr. Eion and I found it smooth and well balanced, chocolate and nutty.
|The Drip, Tollcross|
So, perhaps not as many police boxes converted to coffee outlets as I had thought but it was interesting to see a few of those which were. Obviously the lockdown period has affected the operation of many so I will revisit this again when things get back to "normal".
In the meantime . . . . evening all
I spent a few days travelling around Edinburgh recently to try and get an overall picture of the status of the city's coffee shops. Lockdown restrictions were lifted last week, allowing cafes and restaurants to serve customers inside as long as suitable safety measures were in place.
However I was interested to see how owners would approach this with some very obvious major operational challenges. For example, they would need to consider the likely low level of custom available at this time, as "non-essential" businesses - especially the large offices - were still on lockdown. Travel is only just opening up again so the crowds of tourists normally seen at this time of year are also absent. I was also craving a professionally made flat white - I have been brewing coffee at home during the lockdown but could never achieve the great standard of coffees available in Edinburgh's coffee shops.
I visited the City Centre areas and some of the surrounding communities such as Bruntsfield and Stockbridge. Many of the coffee shops are either remain closed or operate a takeaway service only; and only open on certain days of the week. Those which are open and provide a sit-in service obviously have a reduced capacity due to the required safety measures; and only offer a restricted menu.
In general, the streets in the city are still eerily quiet. The impact of the large number of offices which were still closed was obvious to see - where is the footfall which would provide the necessary sales? A few of those who are trading have raised prices but this may also have an adverse impact on customer perception. It appears that the majority of coffee shops have decided not to offer a sit-in service but to continue with a takeaway service only for now, partly due to an anxiety over the various safety measures to be taken but also due to staffing issues. Some staff would still be furloughed - and why would you request staff to return to work without having confidence in achieving an adequate level of sales?
It's obvious also that the location and layout of the premises can affect the ability to open up safely. Some may be lucky to have patios or pavement areas for tables externally, while some may find it difficult to operate at all with the necessary social distancing requirements inside.
A brief summary of the current status of some of the city centre coffee shops follows (as at Wednesday 22nd July).
Burr & Co, George Street (within footprint of The George Hotel)
Lowdown Coffee, George Street
OPEN. Closed at the time of my visit for refurbishment but has since opened and provides a sit-in service. Mon to Sat 9.00am - 5.00pm, Sun 10.00an - 5.00pm.
Wellington Coffee, George Street
OPEN. Fully open but with minimal seats inside, however good seating is available outside on the basement patio or on the main street (weather permitting!)
Castello Coffee Co, Castle Street
Their second shop in Bruntsfield is open for takeaway service only.
Cairngorm Coffee, Frederick Street
Their second shop in Melville Street is open for takeaway service only.
Gordon Street Coffee Co, Market Street
offers a sit-in service, Sun to Fri10.00am - 5.00pm, Sat 10.00am - 6.00pm
The Milkman, Cockburn Street
OPEN, takeaway service only
The Milkman is a small but fabulous coffee shop and I have written about a previous visit in my post "coffee shops near Edinburgh Waverley Station". I had a flat white here, which was nice. The owner is currently using beans from Obadiah Coffee Roasters in Edinburgh.
Machina Espresso, Tollcross
OPEN, takeaway service only
Cult Coffee, Newington
OPEN, takeaway service only
OPEN, takeaway service only
I stopped at this small Bakery and Coffee Shop just opposite The Commonwealth Swimming Pool on Old Dalkeith Road, as I had read some very good reports on social media about the coffee. They are currently serving a Peruvian coffee on espresso from Edinburgh roasters Williams & Johnson. I had a flat white and it was lovely, one of the best coffees I've had in a while. It would have been madness not to try one of their cakes so I had a slice of lemon and poppy seed cake, which was also lovely. This is the sort of small independent shops I love going to - I'll be back!
OPEN, takeaway service only
I've been meaning to visit Fortitude's new coffee shop in Stockbridge since it opened but the lockdown period stopped that. I stopped for a flat white, although I had a decaf on this occasion, which was nice.
Although they are open for takeaway orders only I was able to get a glimpse of their impressive Modbar Espresso system, one of only two in Scotland I believe. This system allows the business end of the espresso machine to be hidden below the counter, with only the sleek taps/group heads on show. Really impressive!
So, in summary, it's obvious that this is a difficult time for operators who must try to make the right call which best suits their business. While we all look forward eagerly to the coffee shops opening up as normal again I can understand their wish to take a bit longer for business needs. I'm sure we can wait a little longer before we can enjoy a coffee shop visit as we did before the lockdown. 💚
on Allpress Espresso
I often like to dig deep into a particular subject, to find out more about what's below the surface and so I wanted to add a section in my blog to "Spotlight" areas such as individual coffee shops, roasters, coffee beans etc. My first "Spotlight" is about Allpress Espresso coffee.
I was first drawn to "speciality coffee" in the early '90s after visiting a Seattle Coffee Company coffee shop in Edinburgh's Lothian Road. I loved the feel of the space and a new experience of lounging in a trendy environment with a huge milky espresso based coffee. This was the start of a new "Second Wave" coffee scene and it was fast moving. It was sad to see the Starbuck's takeover of Seattle Coffee Company in the late '90s but soon the whole scene was changing with a huge influx of speciality coffee shops, including large national chain shops such as Costa Coffee and later, Cafe Nero.
Then came a "Third Wave". Entrepreneurial businesses wanted to go further - sourcing the coffee beans themselves and roasting the beans locally to bespoke profiles; and describing the flavours of the various roasts just as a wine connoisseur would do for wines. The beans would have a certifiable traceability where a story could be told about the origin of the bean, down to the Country, Region, individual farm and even the farm workers.
The core products on offer are on the whole, espresso based coffees - espressos, lattes, cappuccinos, mochas, etc. - but there has also been a resurgence in filter coffee using various brewing methods. The coffee experts, geeks, aficionados, speak about their preferred brewing method, extraction rates, correct degree of grind, amongst a host of other parameters they like to use to get the best possible result. However, whilst the coffee shop owner can offer this to attract the knowledgeable coffee drinkers, the core offer will usually be a range of espresso based drinks. These can be made from a "single origin" coffee with it's own distinguishing taste, or a blend of coffees to combine the best components from a range of different beans. The large chains such as Costa and Nero have their own bespoke blends which are popular and easily recognisable to their own consumer base. The advantage of these blends are that they are consistent and have "middle-of-the-road" flavours which attract and satisfy a wide following. When you visit a Costa or Nero you know what you're going to get and you will go back again - it's a "safe haven" in today's coffee scene.
Castello Coffee Co
7a Castle Street, Edinburgh EH2 3AH
While I like to visit lots of coffee shops and try the various different coffees on offer, I always like to have my own "safe haven" (or two) in the back of my mind - sometimes you just need to get some time-out where you know the coffee will be good. Fortunately, with the wide variety of coffee shops available in Edinburgh I'm able to have a number of "safe-havens". One of them is Castello Coffee Co in Castle Street, who use Allpress coffee - a reliable and consistent espresso coffee.
Here's a brief summary of Allpress Espresso:Allpress Espresso is a coffee roaster and ‘espresso specialist’ founded by Michael Allpress in New Zealand, in 1989. Michael started out with a basic coffee machine and cart and has expanded the business into a key player in today's speciality coffee market, supplying independent cafés around the world with a strong focus in New Zealand, Australia, UK, and Japan.
Introduction to Edinburgh Coffee Shops Blog
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