Understandably, coverage of the UK coffee scene is almost always focused on London. It’s where the Third Wave first hit Britain, but in recent years specialty coffee has begun to spread beyond the limits of the capital. Nowhere is this boom more apparent than the South West. Spurred on by the remarkable success of three-time UK Barista Champion Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood, the region has exploded with independent artisan cafes and roasters.
In an area awash with quality coffee, equipped with a vibrant cafe culture that is expanding all the time, we’ve pinpointed five coffee shops that no self-respecting coffee tourist should miss. While this piece will focus on the cities of the region, many small towns now have a specialty shop of their own. These five are some standouts, all interesting in their own way and not to be missed. If you are visiting this area though, even a small rural town, take a walk out into the center and have a look. What you find may surprise you.
Colonna & Smalls, Bath
The only place to begin. It is no understatement to say that the coffee scene in the South West owes much of its existence to current UK Barista Champion Colonna-Dashwood and his Bath-based coffee destination Colonna & Smalls. Many local coffee shop owners and roasters began their coffee journey at the elegant counter of this exceptional cafe.
A minimalist décor puts the emphasis directly on the coffee. Rotating regularly through espresso and filters from a number of roasters, visiting C&S is like a tour through the best of what British coffee has to offer. Several different brew methods are on offer, with the syphon proving perhaps the most dramatic; or the adventurous can try a lungo pulled from the shop’s new Sanremo Opera.
Colonna & Smalls has blazed a trail for specialty coffee in the South West and created a market where there was none. After a visit, the reasons for their success become clear: excellent service, delicious cakes, educational conversation, and truly world-class coffee. One of the true institutions of British coffee culture, and not to be missed.
Repack Espresso, Bath
A newcomer on the Bath coffee scene, Repack has certainly made a splash since owner Jonathan Prestidge first opened his doors to the public. With its comfortable windows looking out onto cheerful graffiti, this small shop sticks out as a haven from a slightly industrial area, a short while from the city center.
Espresso is pulled on a Kees van der Westen Triplette, with local favorite Round Hill providing the house and a rotating guest espresso for those regulars who fancy a change. Filter is also offered in the form of AeroPress or Clever Dripper, while electrolyte gels keep Prestidge’s more sporty regulars happy.
Repack gives a 10% discount to students and this community-based approach is clearly paying dividends. Prestidge exhibits artwork in the shop and even hosted a latte art competition for Bath’s baristas.
Do not be put off by the young crowd as the coffee here is truly top-class. Repack is a hidden gem, offering a somewhat private location away from the bustle of the city center to enjoy a seriously good cup.
Full Court Press, Bristol
Bristol is a city with a thriving coffee community, and has been established as an excellent coffee location for some years now. Chief amongst the scene stands Mat North’s Full Court Press.
A short walk from the central train station, the understated FCP is an elegant powerhouse. A colorful stained glass window shines down on an otherwise sparse and stylish interior, which perfectly sets the scene for their coffee. North’s science background is evident in a host of brew methods, showcasing a dramatic and constantly evolving selection of coffees.
While the shop will easily provide you with a satisfying coffee, the true joy of the place lies in its tasting sets. FCP regularly offers the same coffee served two, three or even four ways—espresso, espresso with milk, filter, and cold brew. Friendly and skilled baristas aim to guide the customer through the coffee experience, demonstrating the impact of preparation on flavor as well as origin.
Somewhat of a love letter to coffee, and coffee preparation, Full Court Press is a must-visit. Expect excellent coffee, charming staff, and a chance to truly and utterly geek out.
Devon Coffee, Exeter
An inoffensive little doorway sticking out onto the center of Exeter, Devon Coffee could easily be missed. This would be a shame, though, as it is one of the quiet treasures of the South West.
Inside is cosy and warm, with dark wood walls covered in genuine 1870’s abstinence posters discovered by owner Steve and Kim Pearson when they tore down the plasterboard. With a wide array of cakes and sandwiches made to order, the shop feels homey. Comfortable compared to the busy city outside of the door, Devon is a great space to while away the hours with the pleasant bustle of a thriving cafe to keep you company.
Do not be fooled by the tranquillity though, the coffee here is serious business. They offer three espressos and a filter option, all of which are roasted by Steve Pearson at his home on a roaster that he built himself. Devon Coffee feels above all else personal, more like a home than a coffee shop, and knowing that your coffee was roasted by the owner adds to that immeasurably.
Darkhorse Espresso, Exeter
Sat in a residential area on the outskirts of Exeter city center is Darkhorse Espresso. A re-purposed DIY shop, Darkhorse is a bit of an oddity. The owners Neil and Sarah Bunting have lived in Germany, the US, and Canada, and have tried to bring some of the experiences of the San Francisco and Toronto (where there’s a different Dark Horse) coffee culture home to Exeter.
Serving Monmouth and local roaster Clifton Coffee, Darkhorse favors profiles a tad…darker than the other shops on this list. The interior is quirky, but it is genuine. An interesting tin ceiling shipped in from the US sheds light on an eclectic space filled with ornaments and bookshelves. Delicious cakes from local legend The Exploding Bakery and fresh sandwiches feed a loyal customer base of local residents whiling away the day at the bar.
Darkhorse is interesting because it is a kind of hybrid, it is the quirky neighborhood cafe crossed with a specialty shop. It is not in a cool student area, or a thriving city center. There is no through traffic of tourists and backpackers, and they haven’t won awards or accolades for their coffee, but it works. In a few years, your local cafe may well look a lot like Darkhorse, and I for one will welcome it.
Sam MacCuaig is a UK based coffee professional. This is MacCuaig’s first feature for Sprudge.
Photography by Ash James for Sprudge.com.