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Independent Coffee Shops – Please Brum, can we have some more?

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Yay, first post on a clean new blog.

When a whole city is spread out before you, it’s hard to know what to focus in on first.

The first thing people notice about Brum is the shopping (the Bull Ring, the Rag Market, the Fish Market, New Street yadda yadda). I have to say that this is the thing that will start to bore you first, living here. The crowds are horrendous (Primark any time after Tuesday afternoon is just asking for perdition and should therefore be avoided at all costs), the shops mostly chainy (the recession has hit hard here with some much lamented casualties) and the emphasis is on mindless consumerism.

After an hour in the trenches of the high street, some form of restorative beverage is needed. Sure you can go to the many out-posts of Starbucks, Costa and Nero that pepper the centre but you take your chances here. I can attest (after much caffeinated research) that the coffee shops near the er… shops are as crowded as the shops themselves. Comfy and cosy it is not.

Cue the role of the indy coffee house; those mythical sanctuaries for the broad-minded, the quirky and those who actually want to find FILTERED COFFEE in this country. I swear there used to be way more of these in major cities but during the last 10 years they have become a dying breed (the coffee houses, not the coffee – coffee snob husband reliably informs me filtered coffee has NEVER taken off over here). The leases for city centre retail space have not been lowered to keep the high street afloat during the economic climate (a no-brainer, surely), pushing the independents to the fringes of the shopping areas or out of business completely. It is here we should take a moment to pause and remember the dearly departed 90 Day Cafe (and their delicious cupcakes) and Shakes.

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BUT  fear not, a quiet coffee revolution is in our midst. There are some small coffee shops that are thriving in Brum. Go, enjoy, support.

This is my new favourite little find. It is teeny, tiny and has been going about a year now. It delivers filtered coffee (hurrah) without any unnecessary fanfare. The baristas are friendly and remember regular customers. They also serve a to-die-for chocolate Guinness cake that I bought a platter of when they held a stall at this year’s A Taste of Birmingham event (it wasn’t all for me, I promise). The shop has a basement where you can hold private events and has been used for tango workshops, food events and art exhibitions. Oh and the best thing about this place? When I first walked in they were playing an old album from The Beat. Good music = good atmosphere = good coffee house in my opinion.

With two locations (the other one is in the Jewellery Quarter), Urban Coffee Co is rapidly becoming a major success story in the independent coffee market. I love that they have a handmade look to their premises (shabby chic), as if they are merely very responsible, creative squatters. An eclectic customer base is always a good thing too. On week days, you get computer-programmers working remotely alongside office coffee–runs and dreamers such as myself. Again, the staff is happy to start a conversation with you (especially if you are a smiley new face) and the radio plays in the background with regular news bulletins. Did I mention they do fabulous red velvet cupcakes? And there is a knitting group on Saturday mornings (heaven)? They also meet the gold standard of indy coffee shops in that yes, there is FILTEED COFFEE!!!!!! Here they make it a little showier by pouring it through elaborate china funnelled filters but my husband assures me that the end result is like caffeine heroin. The husband was so chuffed with this discovery (until this point we had yet to find filtered coffee outside of London) that he provided a video clip for UCC’s Birmingham Business Award nomination film (I hid – it was NOT a good hair-day).

An honourable mention for this place. It is convenient for the morning coffee run and prides itself on its coffee cocktails. It hosts networking events, music nights and arts events and for that I salute it. The trouble is I think they could do better. The atmosphere isn’ t that relaxing, the chairs are more sleek than comfy,  there is no filtered coffee (I mean come ON) and I once heard the staff tell a Japanese tourist that they didn’t know what afternoon tea was (I really think it was this event that swung it for me). For the size of the place they could be doing more in the way of food. There is another branch in Manchester and I suspect this could result in a chain of Café Blands Blends, that could be an upmarket Starbucks. Ok-ish.

  • Coffee Time, The Square, B4 7LG (sorry no website).

This one I haven’t had a chance to visit yet but I keep hearing good things. It’s tiny and situated just behind The Oasis alternative indoor market. The food and drinks are very reasonably priced (something that alas, is not the norm with coffee shops) and lots of power points for you mobile workers out there. Would love to hear people’s experiences here as it sounds unpretentious and cute.

Sadly I can’t think of any more cafes in the centre that aren’t chains right now (Bebo and Gusto are chains – who knew?) so I hope the coffee and economic gods will hear my fervent prayer: please, please, pretty please  indy coffee shops, could you come to the Broad Street – Mailbox area? We are not all beer-guzzling, hen partying louts. A lot of us make our homes here and we need you in our community! For our sanity.

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