Colombo is the gateway to Sri Lanka’s powder-white beaches nestled in palm groves, expansive paddy fields, and sweeping tea plantations. Days in Colombo start early, where ladies in sarees and high heels march faster to catch their daily commute. Cars and passenger buses whizz past the pedestrians before the office hours begin.
Wee hours in the morning begin with hole-in-the-walls serving piping hot cups of tea. Think of strong black tea or enticing red tea with two spoons of sugar. Often, breakfast ends with a cup of thick milk tea prepared with powdered milk or a layer of rich condensed milk. Chic lounges now pop up in every corner of the city featuring high-end artisan tea brands and exciting tea “dishes” such as tea ice creams, shakes, and tea cocktails.
The island nation has always been one of the largest producers of tea in the world. But before tea, there was coffee. In the first half of the 19th century, the small island in the Indian Ocean was the leading exporter of coffee in the world. Sri Lanka supplied coffee across the oceans to European countries, reaching the then continental demand of six million coffee cups a day. However, plantations began to vanish with the introduction of coffee leaf rust, known locally as “Devastating Emily,” a fungal disease that decimated coffee production here.
Today, several coffee houses are trying to reignite Sri Lanka’s coffee culture with homegrown, handcrafted coffee. Some of them also import coffees from across the world, catering to different profiles of connoisseurs while others provide a collaborative space for the creatives. What follows are some of the dynamic spaces in the city’s evolving, fascinating coffee scene. You should come to Sri Lanka for many reasons—the incredible natural beauty, culture, history, and food—and now again for the delicious coffee.
Kopi Kade has been open for just four years, but in that relatively short time it’s become an international go-to spot for coffee in Colombo, and was the first Sri Lankan cafe to be featured on Sprudge, back in July of 2019. Kopi Kade occupies a popular corner on Stratford Avenue which bustles with assorted shops, boutiques, and cafes. Guarded by frangipani trees, exteriors denote a rustic, old school vibe. Walk inside and you will find a sleek, dim-lit space, carefully curated by a local architect.
Sri Lankan born Australian Nimeshan Namasivayam derived the cafe’s name from an old Sri Lankan soap opera. Namasivayam and his small team now offer single-origin pour-overs, espressos, and cold brews, bringing roasts from all corners of the world from Ethiopia to Ecuador, Indonesia and Vietnam.
Kopi Kade aspires to provide an alluring coffee experience for their dedicated audience. There are roaster sessions and brewing workshops for groups and individuals. They also offer tasting notes alongside every order, inviting customers to ask questions and know more about the cuppa they drink.
There’s little for the ‘gram here, but young crowds frequent the spot for Kopi Kade’s French toast with a Sri Lankan twist. Namasivayam aims at recreating his northern Sri Lankan roots through the cafe’s all-day menu. Try nibbles such as the mutton pattie, which accompanies the punchy spicy notes of the Jaffna Peninsula.
Plus Nine Four
Here’s another crowd favorite in Colombo: Plus Nine Four, the sister cafe of popular local food joint Café Kumbuk. While the latter strives to promote healthy living combining both local and international flavors, Plus Nine Four creates a warm, welcoming coffee house experience for city dwellers. The coffee shop has outdoor seating nestled in a breezy tropical garden, set alongside a beautiful cafe compound wall adorned with a monochrome mural of plantain trees and coffee buds.
“We wanted to create a friendly and comfortable neighborhood coffee shop experience,” says owner Shana Dandeniya. Interiors are bright and well-lit, providing a chic, modern ambiance. While there’s a familiar Western feel, the coffee shop highlights Sri Lankan grown produce and flavors. Championing locally grown coffee, Plus Nine Four offers Soul Coffee, a brand that aspires to redefine Sri Lanka’s coffee culture while empowering the local communities.
“Plus Nine Four would not have come to life if not for its collaboration with Soul Coffee,” says Dandeniya. Young urbanites frequent the aesthetic space for their matcha lattes and salted caramel lattes. You can choose between Soul Coffee’s medium or dark roast blends. There’s also a great selection of pastries, cakes, and tarts such as the homemade buttermilk cake or chocolate coffee caramel ice cream tart.
Whight & Co
Whight & Co is one of the first cafes to open each day in Colombo, opening its doors at six in the morning sharp. The coffee shop sits on Marine Drive, facing the roaring Indian Ocean, and is housed inside a historic colonial building, where morning sun flickers through the windows while tall ceilings and pure-white walls create a calm, soothing atmosphere. As the day goes on, the retro space turns into a modern business hub while those who are looking for a relaxing space retreat to the lounge on the first floor. From the top, you get a clear view of the blue sea and the rickey train which runs along the old colonial-era railway tracks. This is as picturesque as coffee gets.
Apart from the go-to lattes and cappuccinos, Whight & Co are popular for their pour-overs, cold drip, and Vietnamese-style coffee made with condensed milk. Australian expat owners seem to have a cafe on nearly every corner of the earth, and so it goes with founders James and Gabrielle Whight. Alongside their team, the Whight’s brew each cup from scratch on the shop’s premises, and also roast Sri Lankan coffee in-house from their own Ruby Harvest brand, established in 2002.
There’s also a modest, refreshing menu for those looking for some fish and chips or an order of Australian lamb pie. Visit during evenings and grab a top floor seat for a stellar sunset view.
London House of Coffee
The father and son duo behind London House of Coffee had one vision: to bring back the iconic coffee culture of the mid-1800s to modern-day Sri Lanka. With the supervision of agriculturists and coffee specialists, they now grow their organic coffee in the wet, central highlands of the island, and translate that into a coffee bar in the city.
Housed in a beautifully restored building with granite exteriors, London House of Coffee is located in Colombo 07, one of the greener parts of the city. Dark wood interiors with large lavish sofas provide a cozy vibe inside but you can also grab a spot in one of the comfy couches in their open-air balcony.
There’s an ever-evolving list of single origins to choose from, which expands beyond double espressos, macchiatos, hazelnut lattes, and flat whites while caramel cappuccino remains the bestseller. Beyond coffee, they also take pride in their organic smoothies, flavored tea, and an all-day menu crafted with locally-sourced ingredients. Try a bowl of penne pasta with creamy mushrooms, a slice of their Death by Chocolate, and the cafe’s in-house cheesecake.
The ever-smiling friendly staff are crowd pullers at the shop. Dressed in white shirts with long sleeves and an iconic red tie, roasters and baristas are happy to chat with you about their specialty coffee or the brand concept.
A decade ago, Rukshi Nethicumara was a home baker who sold her cakes in a weekly market in Colombo. Her brainchild Butter Boutique started out of pure love for cakes and coffee. Nethicumara’s first encounter with Niccolo Coffee (a Melbourne-based roaster) was during one of her trips to the United States. Later, she wrote to Davide Drummond, Niccolo Coffee’s founder. Inspired by Nethicumara’s vision, Drummond flew to Colombo to train the staff at Butter Boutique.
The cafe first occupied a tiny space with seating for 10 people, and Nethicumara believes that it was among the very first places in all of the Sri Lankan capital to specialize in coffee and cake. “I wanted to create an indulgent experience with a variety of flavors,” says Nethicumara. One of the first shops in the city to introduce latte art, Butter Boutique soon became a major destination on the Colombo cafe scene.
Now, this cake-and-coffee shop fills a much larger, no less quaint space down Rosemead Place. “Coffee beans are air-flown from Melbourne and we source some of the best ingredients for our cakes and desserts,” says Nethicumara. A pioneer in introducing new bakery flavors to the market, Butter Boutique was also the first shop to introduce tres leches in Sri Lanka four years ago. They’ve been out in front for a decade and continue to be among the country’s very best coffee shops, with outstanding cakes to match.
Coffee & Company
Nestled in a charming corner of Pedris Road, Coffee & Company is all about what the name suggests. Interiors here bring out a homely vibe with cutesy, Instagram-friendly decor. A large, old-school blackboard is hung above the main sofa which says “Know Your Coffee.” A small space, it’s easy to miss this house-turned-cafe, and there aren’t any cupping sessions, workshops or cutting edge coffee theories being experimented upon here. Instead what you’ll find is a relaxing space, great for first dates or seeking out a reading nook with a good book.
There’s a small menu which offers comfort foods, including sandwiches, pasta, and a few dessert options. I like ordering an Americano here, but they also make the city’s best hot chocolate. You’ll look cute here, your coffee will taste good, and your ‘gram will get a lot of hearts. What’s not to like?
Zinara Rathnayake is a freelance journalist based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Read more Zinara Rathnayake on Sprudge.