Built on a swamp, the city of Saint Petersburg was once the Russian Empire's showcase capital. Even though it ceded its primary status to Moscow almost a hundred years ago, it is still the second largest city in Russia, and today has a new goal: to become the country’s specialty coffee capital.
The coffee scene in Saint Petersburg is home to many unique concepts, ingenious ideas, and dedicated coffee pros advancing the place of specialty coffee here in Russia. The following guide is a selection of go-to places, but it's by no means exhaustive or authoritative. Let's instead call it an ode to diversity: from a car-based cafe to a historic grotto, from a go-to pop-up-style bar to a spacious palatial affair—these spots won’t let your coffee soul go untouched.
Just a couple of years ago, finding good coffee in Saint Petersburg was a mission next to impossible. Hip coffee bars, now multiplying like coffee cherries in the harvest season, were only present in the foreign travel memories of coffee connoisseurs. Fortunately, two enthusiastic forward-thinkers came on the scene with a wealth of experience and a genuine desire to promote and develop the specialty coffee culture in their hometown. Nickolay Yalanskiy and Nickolay Gotko see coffee as their lifetime project, and they've grown that love and dedication into a friendly family of cafes across Saint Petersburg. Bolshe Coffee was their “first-born”; today this cafe is a beloved and influential part of the city's coffee scene.
Bolshe sports a lovingly handmade interior, and is housed in a real grotto with history that goes back to the Tsarist era. Beans are roasted in-house; a sip of espresso served in a charmingly tiny cup will bring you back to your senses. Say thanks to the queen of this cave—a two-group lever Futurmat machine. This is a must-visit for any Saint Petersburg coffee lover.
Back in 2011, the founders of Saint Petersburg Coffee and Tea Institute—a training school for coffee professionals—made the decision to move beyond their walls of knowledge to demonstrate how theory can be introduced into practice. Within just a couple of years, a single location grew to a coffee shop chain of three spots along with a summer pop-up.
City Coffee never settles. They strive to explore new tastes, playing with roast profiles and creating their own signature espresso blends, like the Rio de Oro blend—a Colombian coffee combo that tastes like a flavor bomb of tangerine, chocolate, and prunes with a beautiful thick body. For manual brewing, City Coffee's rotating menu includes several single-origin coffees: Kenya Kabiruini, Ethiopia Chelba, Colombia Huila Palestina, Panama Geisha Los Laines, and more. And as for pedigree, City Coffee is home to 2014 Russian Coffee in Good Spirits Champion and the 2015 Russian AeroPress Champion. To top that off, last year City Coffee was titled Russia's Best Coffeehouse in a debut season of the Russian Coffee Cup.
Feel the spirit of Dostoevsky in Sennaya Square and get a decent cup of coffee at Met, a walk-up fixture with only takeaway offerings. The shop's founders opted for an XS-size cafe to concentrate on the quality of beans and invest in high-end coffee equipment, with the goal of achieving a simple yet critical goal of creating the perfect cup. Met's equipment arsenal includes a customized cream-white PID-controlled La Marzocco Linea Classic espresso machine, a Nuova Simonelli Mythos grinder, and a Bravilor Bonamat coffee machine.
Surprisingly enough, Met to-go coffees make people stay. Be it raining (common) or sunny (less likely), guests at Met will often spare a moment of their lives to learn what their cup was about during a chit-chat with a knowledgeable barista—regardless of the fact that this cafe is just a walk-up window. Served coffees here are always topped with a good story. Dostoevsky would approve.
Like a perfectly crafted espresso, great coffee shop music has a kind of magic and power. The owners of Coffee 22 seem to be fully aware of this harnessing force of music: at the center of this coffee shop (both literally and figuratively) sits a vinyl turntable setup that pours out the hippest vibes. Coffee aficionados and the city’s best DJs frequent this space, which even has a Mixcloud for fans who want to stay tuned in from afar.
Coffees here are sourced as raw green beans from Sweden's Johan & Nyström, then carefully roasted in Russia by Coffee Owl. Coffee 22 makes a selection of both classic and signature drinks, sometimes utilizing the same coffees for both; their delicious Costa Rica Red Honey espresso turns out to be a perfect pair to a Honey Porter signature drink, made using coffee porter and handmade raspberry and pear syrups.
In Russia, coffee finds you everywhere—even in a traffic jam. While most of us dread tedious moments of car imprisonment, it was during a traffic jam when the owners of Hey, Coffee had their eureka moment. They realized that a good cup of coffee is something that can reinvent the traffic jam experience. So the guys took a small truck, installed a trusty La Cimbali M Series machine inside, got some baristas trained and started off. Their carriers deliver freshly brewed coffee right to your car—you just give a sign and a Hey, Coffee savior will come up loaded with freshly brewed espressos and milk offerings. The drinks that have got unacceptably cold go to waste.
Where do the beans come from, you ask? Hey, Coffee has forged a partnership with Sibaristica, a multi-faceted coffee company focused on mass market sales, but also selling some high-quality coffee options. This unusual business model is working quite well, as Hey, Coffee has grown into a chain of three traffic jam cafe cars and three more conventional cafe locations. While two of the trucks are stationary, the third one migrates depending on traffic conditions.
A perfect place for an intimate date with your espresso, with infinitely high ceilings and more than 1,000 square feet of space securing enough privacy for every guest. Scattering from the king-size windows that span almost the entire wall, tons of light make you drift into a meditation-like condition, tete-a-tete with your drink. On a recent visit, my espresso was a Brazil Mundo Novo from the Sul de Minas region, pulled on a classy red La Marzocco FB/80. For filter, I also tried the Kenya Nyeri Zahabu, which is a mix of different lots carefully picked by Diamond Coffee. This coffee is sourced to Russia by the SFT Trading Company—one of the biggest green coffee importers in the country, who partner with the Collaborative Coffee Source.
In Russian, the word “schastye” means “happiness”—it's hard not to feel some happiness as a visitor to this shop, part of a small chain with locations in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Apart from a proper cup of coffee, there are a lot of cute little things here: Schashtye offers a selection of signature postcards that you can send to your beloved ones via “Happiness Mail”, and there is even a “Happiness shop” where a wide variety of stylish desserts and treats. The brand defines itself as a cafe-slash-confectionery-slash-bar, proving that quality coffee is not doomed to be lost in a place with a deep menu. Actually, when pros of different areas work side-by-side, curious concoctions are born. Inspired by their colleagues on both sides, Schastye baristas decided to take advantage of the egg whites (long used by bakers and cocktailers alike). The coffee menu now boasts a delicious riff on summer lemonade made with one espresso shot, egg whites, fresh orange juice, homemade caramel, and cinnamon syrup.
Though now Espresso Bike is a full-fledged cafe, it used to be a bike-based coffee bar. Founder Dmitriy Pavlenko is pushing for serious coffee quality here in Saint Petersburg, using top-notch beans from two excellent Russian coffee roasters. While Department of Coffee is responsible for the espresso (a tasty single-origin Ethiopia on my recent visit), for an array of brew methods Pavlenko opts for Sweet Beans, which is a coffee bar, and micro-roastery in Krasnodar, a city in the south of Russia. I saw coffee options like Kenya Karinga, Colombia Finca Inmaculada, and Ethiopia Worka—all coffees of excellent provenance, and the kind of offerings range you might find at a cafe in London or Portland.
The picky crowd can schedule their visits thanks to Espresso Bike’s Instagram account, which features daily updates on the coffees being brewed. It's a challenge to find the place, tucked away deep in the basement of a building that dates back to the beginning of the 19th century, but that only adds to its mystique.
Darya Afanasyeva is a coffee professional based in Moscow. Read more Darya Afanasyeva on Sprudge.