Having just returned to London from a visit to Northern Ireland, I thought it would be a great time to share some of my thoughts on its' burgeoning coffee scene.
Coffee and NI - an unlikely couple?
Northern Ireland was my home for 18 years before I crossed the Irish Sea to begin university in London.
When I left in 2011, I had no idea what specialty coffee was. In fact, I didn’t even drink it - scarred - I think, by my experience of Nespresso pods, and bitter french press brews.
So I might not have noticed an “underground” specialty coffee scene before I left, but, by all accounts, there wasn’t a great deal going on.
In fact, in many ways, it’s the last place you might expect to find a blossoming specialty coffee culture. Many years of strife and violence left Northern Ireland lagging behind when it came to anything that could be considered new or unknown.
Establishing something new
However, with the pioneering work of the likes of Established Coffee in Belfast, which opened just over 4 years ago, the country is discovering what good coffee tastes like, and quickly growing accustomed to it.
Many of my favourite Northern Irish coffee shops have a friendly, almost antipodean service style, and, resultantly, feel a little more rounded and welcoming that the typical “hipster” venture.
Established is, for me, a perfect example of this. Unfortunately it was undergoing renovations while I was in Belfast - so I’ll have to return again soon!
The shop itself, located in the Cathedral Quarter, is perhaps one of the most spacious cafes I’ve been to - not by virtue of square-footage, but because of the deliberate and thoughtful decision to maximise customer comfort by not cramming the place full of chairs and tables.
Meanwhile, the coffee offering, (featuring 3fe as their house roaster, alongside a range of quality guest-roasters), is outstanding. It’s rare to find a coffee shop that so consistently serves delicious coffee!
The excellent coffee is complemented perfectly by an exquisite food menu. Here my words fail me, so perhaps it’s better that you just check out their Instagram feed.
Soon after Established was… established… Northern Ireland began to see more and more specialty shops opening, and demand has clearly kept pace with supply, as more and more punters begin to get a taste for “better” coffee.
A taste of something special
On Thursday night, I managed to attend a cupping event at Lost and Found, sampling Bailies Coffee’s current offerings. It was, perhaps, the best attended cupping I’ve been to, with 50-60 people filling the downstairs space, and little space to move around the cupping table.
Afterwards, we heard from Jan Komarek, Bailies’ green coffee buyer and head of QC, about each of the 8 coffees on the table. What excited me most about this event was that neither the hosts, nor the attendees shied away from the sharing of knowledge - which is never a given.
Coffee by the coast
I met the owner, George, (a local legend), properly at Thursday night's cupping, and popped into his shop, (which boasts perhaps the best coffee shop view in the world), on a busy Friday afternoon for a chat and some Burundian filter coffee.
I didn't tell George, and I doubt he remembers, but my first encounter with him actually occurred a few years back, I'd travelled home for a summer break, and had run out of coffee.
I popped down to Babushka, looking to buy some retail beans, and George said "we don't stock any retail coffee, but you can have this bag I've been brewing for myself - it's really tasty", and handed over an open bag of (I think) Workshop Coffee.
That interaction, the generosity and kindness, exemplify the spirit of Northern Ireland's Coffee scene. It is so easy to feel at home in a shop like Babushka.
On a previous visit, Jonathan, owner of Middletown Coffee, told me that he received a lot of “advice” that specialty coffee just wouldn’t work in a place like Ballymena - an average shopping town in County Antrim, bearing few signs of metropolitanism.
However, Middletown Coffee has defied expectations, and is now a thriving hub in Ballymena town centre.
This success is a product of the hard work, and dedication to quality - whether in food, coffee, or customer service, and Middletown has done well to provide something special for changing consumer needs.
Overall, there's a lot to be excited about. Coffee is clearly on the up in Northern Ireland. The spirit and enthusiasm of baristas and consumers is captivating.
Just after Christmas, I made a trip to Belfast, and decided that I'd finally visit Root and Branch's Ormeau Baths store, where I met Rachel - the Head Barista/Manager of the shop, who was preparing to compete in the Irish Barista Championship.
Her enthusiasm for coffee, and in particular, the NI coffee scene was infectious, and bodes well for its'
It seems, for now, that nothing will put an end to Specialty Coffee’s rise in the country I still call home.