LONDON, Oct 25 — At first glance, the English capital is like any other metropolis around the globe: swarms of mass-market coffee chains at every street corner. Look closer though, and you’ll discover a coffee underground in London patronised by the city’s most discerning café hoppers and caffeine addicts.
Monmouth Coffee: Old-fashioned brews, the English way
You wouldn’t want to miss out on what basically amounts to an institution of the London coffee scene, do you? The name Monmouth would inevitably come up whenever Londoners talk about specialty coffee. This stately café was initially started in 1978 by Anita Le Roy from a basement in Covent Garden.
Since then, Monmouth Coffee has since opened another branch near Borough Market and roasts beans in a third outlet on Maltby Street, Bermondsey. The queues can be daunting at the Covent Garden and Borough Market cafés though. The Bermondsey roastery-café, where three railway arches have been converted into their barista training space, is less packed but only opened to the public on Saturdays.
While Monmouth Coffee had previously used an old-school, direct-flame Whitmee, the manufacturer stopped producing coffee roasters in the late 1960s. Today Monmouth use new roasting machines by Petroncini, a small Bolognese manufacturer.
The resultant coffees tend to be full-bodied and quite bold, which may be a tad bitter for some while a much-needed pick-me-up for others. A diverse variety of beans from around the world are available for purchase by the bag, a great way to complete your Monmouth experience.
TAP Coffee: An ace of a café
Formerly known as Tapped and Packed, TAP Coffee is a specialty café without the fuss. Walls still have what appears to be the original coat of paint, now a dusty magnolia colour. Dark wooden tables, benches and flooring lend an austere feel to the place.
Despite its almost unadorned décor, TAP Coffee has one of the best environments for enjoying your cuppa. The baristas are very friendly and happy to chat with you, whether about the coffee or the English weather.
Blends here have names inspired by playing cards: the Jack of Spades is a sweet marriage of Brazil Cruzeiro Natural and Colombia La Joyeria, while the Ace of Diamonds is a bright balance of Guatemala Finca La Perla and Costa Rica Finca San Luis.
These well thought-out blends result in some of the best milk coffees around, be it a caffè latte or a flat white. If you have only time for one cuppa, order a cappuccino though: the foam is silky smooth and the temperature is just right; every sip is a little slice of heaven. Why aren’t all cappuccinos like this?
Rapha Cycle Club: Pedal-powered piccolos
A casual passer-by may not look twice at this place, thinking that it’s only a bike shop. Look closer and one will discover that, in addition to wind jackets and bib shorts, there is coffee too!
Opened in July 2012, Rapha Cycle Club is a concept store pairing a cycling clothing shop and a café. Pedal fanatics would love the variety of racing accessories and attire available here. Rapha Cycle Club provides the clothing for the UK-based Sky Pro Cycling team, some of whom won gold medals for Great Britain at the Olympics.
Regulars are drawn here to watch live racing with other enthusiasts. Other events include film screenings, exhibitions and even book launches. The coffees are a constant surprise: from a nutty single origin Burundi filter brew to a piccolo, made with Ethiopian beans, that has a fruity aroma with delightful mango notes at the end.
Food here is meant to be fuel for hard-core riders. “Cycling chef” Henrik Orre creates a rotating menu with dishes that are homages to illustrious cycling regions. There are even granola, rice and brownie ride bars for those on the go. Come here for wheels and freshly brewed thrills.
Ozone Coffee Roasters: The subtlest aromas
Opened in 2012, Ozone Coffee Roasters London was originally founded by Kiwis in New Plymouth, New Zealand before crossing the oceans to Shoreditch. The London chapter of the Kiwi-owned Ozone is famed for their eccentric menu (kedgeree with salsa verde and fried shallots, anyone?) as well as their stellar coffee.
Arrive early before the crowds swarm in and grab a window seat; all the better to watch the world pass by. Designed by Lou Davies of Box 9 Design, the café is all exposed brick walls and time-worn wooden tables. A large espresso bar wraps round the baristas as they pull their shots so you can choose to sit there and watch them at their craft. Coffee is roasted in the basement, unapologetically bare and surrounded by sacks of green beans.
The coffee, naturally, retains a strong Antipodean influence. There is a commitment to uncovering the beans’ best profile and flavours that you won’t find in a mass-market coffee shop.
Try the French toast, which comes served with a soft, ripe pear poached in ginger syrup and topped with mascarpone. The subtle aroma of pear, the soft doughy toast: who could blame you for finishing every mouthful without sharing a single morsel?
Nude Espresso: No naked baristas, only great coffee
The cheekily-named Nude Espresso isn’t a clothing-optional coffee shop but a café founded by New Zealander Richard Reed and former IT consultant Gerard Fisher. “Nude” here refers to the straightforward focus on great espresso (though filter coffee is available too). The décor is similarly unpretentious; the owners are going more for a clean contemporary look than the usual hipster-bohemian ambience.
As such, you’ll see customers from all walks here, from office workers to families. Nude Espresso has a tempting variety of freshly baked goodies — from flapjacks and friands to cookies and custard (in their Portuguese egg tarts). Aussies who miss a slice of home would appreciate the well-executed Lamingtons here.
The highlight of Nude Espresso remains, well, the espresso. Taken black or white, these balanced cuppas are made with East Blend, a house blend that is sweet and smooth with Brazilian notes of dark chocolate. Little wonder Nude Espresso won the Café Society’s Independent Café of the Year UK in 2010 and 2013.
Despite the name, don’t miss the non-espresso offerings too. Your Aeropress brew will arrive on a tray, complete with cup and timer. The timer is set for five minutes, after which you are to pour the coffee. Five minutes may seem too long but rest assured the resultant coffee will be just perfect.
A surprise and a delight? Maybe, but that, one could argue, is a good way of describing the London coffee underground scene too.
• Covent Garden: 27 Monmouth Street, London WC2H 9EU, United Kingdom / Open Mon-Sat 8am-6pm
• The Borough: 2 Park Street, London SE1 9AB, United Kingdom / Open Mon-Sat 7:30am-6pm
• Bermondsey: Arch 3 Spa North, between Dockley Road and Spa Road, London SE16, United Kingdom / Open Saturdays only 9am to 1:30pm
193 Wardour St, London W1F 8ZF, United Kingdom
Open Mon-Fri 8am-7pm; Sat 10am-6pm; Sun 12pm-6pm
Rapha Cycle Club London
85 Brewer St, London W1F 9ZN, United Kingdom
Open Mon-Fri 8am-9pm; Sat 8.30am-7pm; Sun 10am-6.30pm
Ozone Coffee Roasters
11 Leonard St, London EC2A 4AQ, United Kingdom
Open Mon-Fri 7.30am-5pm; Sat-Sun 9am-4pm
26 Hanbury Street,
London E1 6QR, United Kingdom
Open Mon-Fri 7am-6pm;