Barrista Aaron Dorres stirs it up at one of the recent arrivals, Colombia Coffee Roasters
By Christopher Benton
Oxford’s coffee scene is much like its property prices – trailing London, but barely. The dreaming spires are increasingly caffeinated with theatrically brewed single-origin coffee beans, as if Shoreditch had driven up the M40 and parked its stripped-out, bare-brick and reclaimed-timber soul in the centre of the city.
We don’t mean college SCR capitulation to fake choice via those infernal Nespresso capsules, which are as expensive and poor-tasting as they are environmentally unfriendly, whatever the claims. We’re not referring to Costa or Starbucks, both in the High Street, nor the Benugo franchise within the Weston Library in Broad Street – a surefire way to blow a bit of departmental budget on an ‘important meeting’.
Neither even do we mean the Café Nero concession, perched on the first floor of Blackwell’s, and that’s not bad.
No. The so-called ‘new-wave’ of coffee is defined by independent outlets, their credibility resting partly on their ability to fly just below under the radar of branded respectability. Their owners’ avowed emphasis is on the coffee – and nothing but. A stripped-out, cramped space is key for student approval. An ethical stance is definitely part of the mix, even though recycling those takeaway cups remains a tricky business.
Consider Colombian Milly Barr, whose Colombia Coffee Roasters opened in the Covered Market in December. She serves coffee grown on a variety of farms in Colombia – one of them within her family – and already has a very successful roasting business in Oxford. A note inside the shop declares: ‘We are part of a generation of coffee farmers in Colombia with strong focus on delivering high-quality coffee while supporting Fair Trade conditions to ensure our coffee is sustainable and ethical.’
Other credibility cues include offering a ‘coffee of the day’, typically a single-origin bean, meaning that it is from an identifiable farm rather than being part of a blend of beans from different countries. Colombia Coffee Roasters barrista Aaron Dorres offers V60 drip filter as well as Aeropress, in addition to the expected Italian espresso machine (which had better be a La Marzocco – and it is).
Then there is Jericho Traders, recently opened on the High Street next door to the University Shop, head to head with the big brands. Next, there is the Missing Bean in the middle of Turl Street, the closest ‘real coffee’ to the Bodleian Library and a huge success with students since it opened in 2013. Heading north, we’d highlight Brew, recent newcomers to North Parade, and the Natural Bread Company in Little Clarendon Street.
Most of these half dozen outlets roast their own beans, or source them with a high degree of care from specialist roasters. All are magnets for students and – unlike some London coffee shops – they are relatively tolerant of students camping out with screens for hours while nursing a single espresso.
Meanwhile, of course, some of the iconic older shops and cafés of Oxford soldier on in a time warp – Brown’s in the Covered Market, and opposite it Cardews. These and other institutions such as the Queen’s Lane Café and Taylor’s have all ‘upped’ their coffee offering, to the point now where you can get an espresso or a macchiato virtually anywhere. But the days of merely offering ‘strong’ coffee to counter once-bland fare are over. The new game concerns variety, provenance, delicacy and flavour – qualities that these newcomers are really delivering on. Perhaps above all, the owners of these businesses are part of the community around them. There is a certain credibility that comes from being small scale and local, without profit targets remitted to head office and thence to shareholders. The choice and quality of coffee in Oxford is today unimaginably good compared even to five years ago.
Christopher Benton regularly serves coffee at Oxford college events, and is the founder of Pedal and Post, Oxford’s only dedicated bicycle delivery company.
Photos by Richard Lofthouse.