Oxford Coffee Guide13 Jul 2016
Although we are very much focussed on London, we thought it would be fun to share our explorations of the coffee scenes of other UK cities. Oxford is only an hour so from London by train and do-able as a day trip or weekend break. The university dorms are a charming and inexpensive source of bed and breakfast accommodation out of term time and give access to beautiful college grounds.
Of course University life is central to Oxford and cafes are often essential for student life meaning the coffee scene has really blossomed here – although it’s certainly not all about the students and several Oxford coffeeshops have particular neighbourhood feels with locals drawn from the nearby communities.
The Oxford coffee story started early. An Oxford scholar reputedly brewed the first recorded coffee in the city in 1637. The Grand Cafe sits on the site of the very first coffeeshop in England which was opened in a room inside the Angel Inn in 1651 and right across the road, the Queen’s Lane coffeehouse claims to have been inaugurated in 1654. Both coffeeshops were opened by Jewish immigrants who had been encouraged to settle in England and bring their trade connections. It’s interesting that these two venues currently are about as far from speciality as you might imagine representing almost the extremes of pre-millennial UK coffee culture – Queen’s Lane as a no nonsense fried breakfast, long menu humble caff and The Grand Cafe all high teas, cake stands and grand European manner.
But to the speciality coffee...
Society Cafe Oxford
On the way from the railway station we were delighted to escape the traffic-filled streets and reach sleepy St Michael’s Street. Handle Bar (situated above a cycle shop – Bike Zone) seems to have less emphasis on coffee and we were disappointed by the coffee here at the former Zappi’s which had a key role in the developing Oxford scene– pretty old school Italian espresso. Go for the bikes and the food menu but for better coffee go straight down the street to Society, one of our favourite coffeeshops anywhere (main photo). Fairly new on the Oxford scene and having established two cafes in Bath, Society feels thoroughly up to date with its Scandinavian design feel, smart aprons, light board menu, EK43 grinder, hexagon themed bar and custom La Marzocco. Coffees are superbly brewed by Silviu, Tom, Saskia and the team – mostly London experienced and this coffeeshop could hold its own anywhere in London. Origin and Round Hill are served with a choice of two espressos, two filters and a batch brew. World class coffee.
12-16 St Michael’s Street OX1 2DU
Brew is situated North of the centre – we’d recommend a stroll through the Oxford University parks to get there but it’s not far at all. It seems to inhabit a different universe to Central Oxford though – set in a narrow market street off the Banbury Road. It’s a tiny space with limited seating and a unique and appealing fit out quite unlike anything else we’ve seen. Dominated by the cylindrical Elektra espresso machine that pays homage to another era, the place has the feel of a stylish living room. Staff are very friendly and they brewed us a delicious Round Hill Ugandan pourover.
75B Banbury Road OX2 6LX
photo by LT
The Missing Bean
The central location of Oxford stalwarts Missing Bean with its bustling unpretentious, un-showy vibe belied the quality of the coffee we enjoyed here. The Missing Bean roast their own coffee and the house espresso blend we tried was very enjoyable – well balanced with a great mouth feel. It’s a surprisingly comfortable space despite being so busy – with a cosmopolitan crowd of tourists, students and city centre shoppers.
14 Turl Street OX1 3DQ
The Bear and the Bean
Cowley Road, a short walk over Magdalen Bridge (don’t miss the University Botanical Garden) is a very different neighbourhood again: fast food, the O2 Academy, Indian restaurants, independent shops and cafes giving the area a fairly ungentrified and cosmopolitan feel – there’s even an annual Cowley Road Carnival. The Bear and the Bean is a smallish friendly space that combines gift shop and music shop, cocktail bar and cafe. Formed like Brew as an offshoot of the now defunct Keen Bean Coffee Club we were tipped off that coffee here was improving fast and well worth a visit. As well as Fritz Kola and Crate Brewery beer, The Bear and the Bean serve coffee from Jericho Coffee Traders as well as from UE. We very much enjoyed an espresso blend from Jericho and spent a long time chatting with Jericho's owner/roaster James who was visiting.Originally from New Zealand, he is passionate to talk about coffee and keen to work with the eclectic venues who he supplies. As well as roasting and operating a mobile coffee van, James plans on opening a central Oxford cafe very soon having previously run a pop-up cafe there.
The Missing Bean and Jericho Coffee Traders roast in Oxford and UE Coffee Roasters in Witney, Oxfordshire on a wood powered roaster – unique in the UK. Jericho Coffee Traders also supply a range of restaurants, bakeries and cafes such as new vegetarian restaurant Gäf, Barefoot (who we heard bake the best cakes but didn’t have time to visit), Turl Street Kitchen and the charming Inky Fingers which combines comic shop and espresso bar.
The Bear and the Bean 98 Cowley Road OX4 1JE
Sharing space with the fabulous Truck Store record shop, Mostro – Italian for monster - serves up espresso and filter from UE Coffee Roasters. The staff are enthusiastic, friendly and knowledgeable and the coffee very decent. We tried an Ethiopian Sidamo batch brew that was roasted a tad darker than we usually drink but very tasty and enjoyable. Mostro share the space that Keen Bean formerly shared showing the shared connections and development of Oxford coffee.
101 Cowley Rd OX4 1HU
Central to the development of the coffee scene, Quarter Horse was set up by former Square Mile employees. Now roasting in Birmingham where they have a second coffeeshop, Quarter Horse is a popular cafe with a relaxing garden out back. Recently they have changed management but are under the same ownership as before. On our visit the service was a bit off and we do hope our experience was a one off. The coffee itself, a Guatemalan espresso was pretty decent. A range of filters are always available.
76 Cowley Road, OX4 1JB
Also in Oxford:
We missed Combibos in Central Oxford serving Union Coffee and Natural Bread Company serving Has Bean.
Combidos: 93 Gloucester Street OX1 2BU
Natural Bread Company: 29 Little Clarendon Street OX1 2HU
Gäf: (formerly Oxfork) 39 Magdalen Road OX4 1RB
Barefoot: 74A Walton St, OX2 6EA
Turl Street Kitchen: 16 Turl Street OX1 3DH
Inky Fingers: 38 Cowley Road OX4 1HZ
The Handle Bar Cafe and Kitchen: Bike Zone 26-32 St Michaels Street OX1 2EB
If you visit Oxford, let us know your recommendations...