Disenchanted with the pre-packed muffins, soggy paninis and ubiquitous, committee-designed corporate interiors?
Or maybe it’s simply the incessant Dido soundtrack that gets you down.
Whatever it is, there is an alternative to the one-size-fits-all Starbucks approach to flogging ground beans and sweet treats. It is called the independent coffee shop and Birmingham is blessed with one of the liveliest concentrations of quirky, independent cafes of any UK city.
Here’s a thing – these entrepreneurs actually like what they sell. They like selling good coffee. Scrub that – they love it. Their shops are extensions of their personalities. Here you will find a business ethic that values service and the quality of produce. The owners also value that outmoded concept of wanting customers to relax, have a good time and enjoy themselves.
These are places where you can focus on an informal business meeting, catch up with friends or just sit alone and let your mind wander. You can wake up – and smell the coffee. And then there is time for a slice of gooey coffee and walnut cake, made down the road, not at a factory in Milton Keynes.
These new style coffee shops may not be faultless but I will always go out of my way to find one rather than pop in to the nearest chain.
Want to know why Costa Coffee and the like are usually the “nearest?” It is because they are the only coffee purveyors who can afford the astronomically high rents imposed in central shopping districts; it’s not because they are the best.
So if you like your coffee personally selected rather than market-driven, it’s well worth taking a short detour to investigate Birmingham’s indie scene.
The backlash against corporate coffee is a popular global movement. From Church Street and Livery Street in Birmingham to Causeway Bay in Hong Kong and Australia’s brash Gold Coast, people are going in search of out-of-the-way, off-beat coffee shops.
Hong Kong’s lau seung, or upper-floor, cafes are a cultural phenomenon. Shop owners have taken units way above street level to take advantage of lower rents and the best, sometimes oddest, businesses are making a go of it. Some establishments encourage customers to bring their pets, following a trend set by the Japanese.
It may be a while before we see the first Moggychino in Brum, but who knows?
One of the coolest coffee bars I have been to, Black Coffee Lyrics, exploits the same economic advantage utilised by its South-East Asian colleagues.
Black Coffee Lyrics (BCL) is at Surfers Paradise in Queensland, where ground rents for the skyscrapers are eye-watering. But it has survived and prospered by locating itself at the back of a rather dingy shopping arcade where The Strip’s famous Meter Maids fear to tread. The bohemian clientele come here because of what is inside, not outside, the unit. It’s all about the flat whites – or the espresso martini cocktails.
The coffee-based cocktails are tremendous and the drinks are supplemented by tasty small bites (tempura zucchini flowers stuffed with ricotta, pumpkin, olive and sage), pizzas and hearty dishes (local Goldband snapper with caponata).
Interestingly, the thinking is not a million miles away from The Plough at Harborne (see below) where boss Adam Johnson has installed a whopping, bespoke-built Slayer coffee machine, imported from Seattle. Customers can now have a coffee, or a pint of locally-brewed Purity beer, to drink with a pizza or a fat, juicy burger and fries.
For the anoraks, there is a whole host of coffee gadgetry to check out in Birmingham’s burgeoning coffee scene. There is an Exobar New Elegance machine (made in Australia), a La Spaziale (Italy) and a Birmingham-made Fracino, to name but three. None of the eight shops I have highlighted here uses the same coffee machine. It’s good to be different.
Interestingly, when asked what the theme tune for their coffee shop would be, there again was no duplication. In fact, there is a broad range of music favoured by our boogie-ing baristas. Gratifyingly, it’s a Dido-free zone.
For me, the prize for coolest song has to go to Leverton and Halls in Bournville, which declared Sly and the Family Stone’s classic “Family Affair” as the song that sums up their coffee-house vibe. Leverton and Halls may not have a website (it’s coming) but they’ve got the funk. I’ll take mine black.
Who they are: Simon Dunmore set up the deli nearly two years ago. He saw a gap in the market in Edgbaston and decided to specialise in salads and good quality food for the lunch trade. “We cook everything ourselves, don’t believe in having mayonnaise sandwich mixes and we only use butter.”
Coffee machine: Gaggia manual. “It’s got to be over 20 years old. I only buy old coffee machines. The new ones today are so thin and prone to breaking.”
Coffee supplier: small roasting house near Grenoble, France.
Specialities: “We like to think of ourselves as a proper coffee house. We won’t jump on the bandwagon. We don’t even like to serve a cappuccino after 11am, but of course we do.”
Teas: Ceylon, Darjeeling, lemon Earl Grey, Earl Grey, green tea, peppermint and the “best builders tea” – Yorkshire Tea.
Cakes & food: Carla’s Cakes in Droitwich supplies lemon drizzle, coffee and walnut, chocolate, Victoria sponge, cherry Bakewell and at least one special every week, e.g. pear crumble, orange and polenta.
What song would be your cafe’s theme tune? “Where Love Lives” by Alison Limerick.
30 Church St B3 2NP The Big Peg, Warstone Lane B18 6NF
Who they are: disappointed with the lack of good coffee shops outside London, Simon Jenner and Amir Belkhelladi decided to set up one in the heart of Birmingham’s business district. “Urban’s USP is offering different great coffees, both blends and single estates – think wine-tasting meets coffee.” A seven-day a week community hub puts on everything from book and knitting clubs to Live Music Friday and entrepreneur meet-ups.
Coffee machine: Nuova Simonelli Aurelia II 3 Group.
Coffee supplier: Union Hand Roasted.
Specialities: seasonal speciality coffee menu available.
Teas: Twinings and Jacksons of Piccadilly.
Cakes & food: Church St – homemade sandwiches, flatbreads, ciabattas, soup, retro toasties and snackpots. Jewellery Quarter – brunch menu including “posh sausage sandwiches,” eggs Benedict/Royale/Florentine and bagels. Both outlets sell seasonal cakes. “We always recommend the chilli chocolate brownies or the Guinness and Amaretto cake.”
Cafe theme tune: “Perfect” by Fairground Attraction (“Ha, ha”).
Who they are: a neighbourhood “gem” on Harborne High Street, known for a down-to-earth menu and eclectic décor. “The Plough in Harborne has a villagey vibe right in the centre of Birmingham. We draw in a mixed crowd of professionals, music-lovers, ale enthusiasts and young families,” says director Adam Johnson. Renowned for its service, homemade food and beer garden. Menu includes: homemade stone-baked pizza and chargrilled burgers.
Coffee machine: Slayer – imported from Seattle, one of only four machines in the country, designed specifically for The Plough.
Coffee supplier: Has Bean Coffee in Stafford – “We believe they are the best roasters in the West.”
Specialities: a range of single origin and blend espressos that change almost weekly. Single origin filter coffee available.
Teas: selection of Joe’s Tea Company, based in London.
Cakes & food: The Plough is a pub with a full menu but coffee-drinkers (any customers, in fact) can also choose from a selection of homemade cakes. Afternoon tea, too.
Cafe theme tune: “The Pink Panther Theme” by Henry Mancini.
1 Oozells Sq, Brindleyplace B1 2HS www.opusrestaurant.co.uk Twitter: @cafeopus Facebook: www.facebook.com/CafeOpusAtIkon T: 0121 248 3226
Who they are: baby sister to Opus restaurant, born February 26. A modern British café on the ground floor of the Ikon Gallery in Brindleyplace bringing “style and great value classics to Birmingham’s café culture.” There’s a sun-trap south-facing terrace but don’t worry if it is chilly – there are heating lamps and cosy throws. All-day menu from Tuesday through Saturday until 9pm featuring unfussy classics: boiled egg and soldiers, mushrooms on toast and eggs Benedict. More substantial dishes include slow-cooked ox cheeks and lentil and goats cheese salad with pine nuts and lemon oil. All day Sunday brunch menu.
Coffee machine: New Elegance, produced by Expobar (Australian).
Coffee supplier: single origin estate coffee 100% naranjo Costa Rican altitude grown. (Purchased through the Land Rover Coffee Foundation.)
Teas: English breakfast, leaf teas and individually wrapped Earl Grey, green tea, camomile, peppermint, fresh mint infusion.
Cakes & food: coffee and walnut (by far the biggest seller), chocolate fudge, Victoria sponge, lemon drizzle, brownies etc.
Cafe theme tune: “Eat to the Beat” by Blondie.
218 Mary Vale Road, Bournville B30 1PJ Twitter: @LevertonHalls Facebook: www.facebook.com/pages/Leverton-Halls T: 0121 451 1246
Who they are: the cafe, run by husband and wife Paul and Dee, is an important part of the community, employing local staff and providing a hub for “great food, coffee, chatter and value. We believe organic, local and fresh is best.”
Coffee machine: Fracino, manufactured in Birmingham.
Coffee supplier: Tudor fair-trade rainforest espresso beans from South America.
Teas: Clipper organic – English breakfast, Earl Grey, peppermint, chamomile, liquorice, red bush, decaf, fruit teas & white/green tea.
Food & cakes: cakes include homemade Victoria/chocolate sponge, lemon drizzle cake, carrot cake, cookies, lemon curd cake, chocolate brownies etc, sticky toffee pudding. Gluten-free honey buns. Food: full breakfast menu (poached eggs on rye with crispy bacon and mushroom), light lunches and sandwiches, veggie breakfast, Spanish omelette.
Specialities: house Kashmir curry; veggie lasagne; Sunday roasts.
Cafe theme tune: “Family Affair” by Sly and the Family Stone.
Who they are: “The focus here is on coffee, coffee and coffee.” The shop was started in the middle of the recession by Dav, who had never owned a business or worked in a coffee shop. Six Eight Kafé was voted one of the 50 best coffee shops by The Independent – just like The Plough in Harborne – and listed in the top 10 indie coffee shops outside London by www.cosycoffeeshops.co.uk
Coffee machine: Synesso (“the one and only in the Midlands”).
Coffee supplier: Has Bean from Stafford.
Teas: loose leaf from Suki Tea of Belfast.
Cakes & food: homemade cakes from Gavin of Toobizzy2bake (www.tobizzy2bake.com).
Cafe theme tune: “Handshake Drugs” by Wilco.
Who they are: co-owners Dave Conroy and Kate Butler spent months finding premises for their vision of the “‘ideal community coffee shop.” With the help of friends and family, they gutted and rebuilt the place, opening on UK Independent Shops Day – July 4, 2011. Brewsmiths is a comfy, friendly and unpretentious oasis of calm right by the Jewellery Quarter Snow Hill station entrance. “We are a bit quirky, doing our own thing rather than following the herd, and are committed to providing sustainable jobs for local people and buying from local suppliers whenever we can.” Free/fast wifi, papers and magazines.
Coffee machine: hand-built Italian La Spaziale S5 2 group with two Italian Anfim Super Caimano on-demand grinders.
Coffee supplier: two house blends – Lone Ranger III and Tonto II – developed with roaster Limini Coffee. Guest coffees: globally sourced from 18 artisan roasters. Filter coffee from Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union.
Specialities: “bottomless” single origin filter for £3 (single serve £2). Coffee from a range of methods: Hario V60, bulk brewer, Chemex, Kone III, French Press and espresso machine.
Teas: 30 plus premium leaf teas including a Buckaroo Blend for a classic English breakfast style. Personal favourites include Russian Caravan, Kev’s Brew and Strawberry & Kiwi. Biggest seller: Clipper or Yorkshire bag tea in a big mug (“no tea snobbery here!”).
Cakes &food: popular brunch menu including the 3B (Big Bacon Butty) and 4B (Big Bacon Butty & Brew), Brewsmiths English and “real berry” smoothie (vegan or non-vegan). Range of local cakes, desserts and snacks; sandwiches and ciabattas; soups; salad box special; daily specials.
Cafe theme tune: “One Day Like This” by Elbow.
Custard Factory, Gibb Street, Digbeth B9 4AA www.greenhouse-cafe.co.uk Twitter: @greenhousebrum Facebook: www.facebook.com/pages/Greenhouse-Cafe/460299587356938
Who they are: Greenhouse is the brain-child of food and drink lover Rosie Backen. “Greenhouse is the kind of place you can stay awhile with a good cup of coffee, on a comfy sofa, listening to songs you can fall in love with. Our ethos is exactly that, to make customers feel at home. We are proud of the food we serve, and even more proud of where we source it. The Custard Factory is our home because we like the creative buzz and the vibe around Digbeth.”
Coffee machine: La Marzocco – Linea.
Coffee supplier: Has Bean. “We fell in love with their blends, single origins and their passion.”
Teas: loose leaf from Char Wallah (Jamaican Rum, Pina Colada, and Mango); breakfast, Earl Grey, spicy chai, green, mint and Darjeeling from PMD Teas.
Cakes & food: loyal following for peanut butter cake along with carrot and walnut cake and triple layer chocolate fudge cake. Caters for vegetarians, vegans and meat-eaters. All-day brunch menu with favourites such as American-style pancakes and French toast, sandwich and salad menu. Main meals: classics such as cottage pie, pasta dishes, falafel, hummus, sea bass, chorizo skewers.
Cafe theme tune: “Even After All” by Finley Quaye.
*This list is by no means exhaustive. If your coffee shop or cafe isn’t on it, get in touch by emailing: richard@RichardMcComb.com – and we’ll see what we can do. Any premises playing Dido will be omitted. This is non-negotiable.