It’s got to be pretty tough opening a coffee shop at the moment with the recession, cost cutting and belt tightening. Yes, Starbucks are cutting back and not just on quality, Costa have just shed a load of concessions (here’s a concession – I’ll think about drinking in Costa when it’s free). So this might give a plucky upstart start-up a chance to break in, but with blisteringly fierce competition on quality, a vastly better understanding of the bean and a near scientific approach to making the brew, only excellence will do the job in the independent coffee shop club, a membership which is becoming harder to get. With all this in mind and the bar set high enough to give Sir Ranulph Fiennes vertigo, I popped over to The Espresso Room on Great Ormond Street to speak to Ben Townsend and find out what the hell he was thinking by opening his place in this day and age!
When I arrive a television crew are leaving, “Hey ho”, I think, “This place is bigger news than I gave it credit for!” It turns out they are making a documentary across the road in the children’s hospital. The sign outside reads ‘The best coffee in Bloomsbury* – *probably”, so no pressure to deliver then. It’s late afternoon and I time my visit to cause the least disruption to Ben. I’ve walked past in the mornings and the queue runs out the door.
His place is quite small, there’s enough room for maybe five people to sit down inside and that would be very cosy although the high ceiling gives it an airy feel. I thought Dose was pretty small but The Espresso Room wins the top trumps on this one. The layout is neat and tidy, food is handmade daily on the premises with top quality ingredients and supplemented with the likes of brownies from Bea’s of Bloomsbury. The main coffee is sourced from Square Mile (yes, the White Griffin of SM is winking at me yet again from the shelf) and a couple of other places which I’d mention here but the bloody White Griffin magic has made my notes illegible – The Espresso Room also does tea!
As you’d expect, Ben is a personable, knowledgeable and passionate chap. He learnt his trade in Australia (Melbourne to be precise) while studying multimedia and it looks like they teach some fine fundamental coffee lessons down under. Ben took a Barista course while studying and had an epiphany. “This might be it” he said while recanting his early passions for creating the perfect coffee. This is something that comes up again and again, the passion for coffee. It’s like a bug that independent Baristas get and just can’t shed. He knows all the top coffee houses in town, Flat White, Bea’s Of Bloomsbury (who have been shut nearly a week at the writing of this article – boo!), Dose and A Taste of Bitter Love, and he talks about the coffee community with affection. He makes it sounds simple “Science + art = craft”. In most industries you find your secret sauce and you sit on the recipe, not so the London coffee scene apparently. The first thing you do is blog about your latest incarnation or discovery, then you chat with your coffee peers about it, then you make sure everyone else knows what you’re doing and eventually the big industry boys start to pay attention.
Ben shows me his brewing machine, it’s magnificent, and then proceeds to baffle me with science. He’s got a thermo couple that can control the temperature of the water to within one tenth of a degree – and depending on the age of the roasted bean he’ll tweak the heat accordingly. Apparently the manufacturers don’t drive these cool innovations, it’s the coal faced coffee shop workers who try to improve the drink that bring about change. “Bottom up change through long hours and hard work” says Ben as he makes another flat white. It’s unlike any other industry; the community spirit would put Facebook to shame. We get onto the subject of cheese, it’s not just coffee Ben knows about, which is fine with me but I save him from my ‘cheese board at Claridges one afternoon’ story – a lucky escape.
Not compromising on price, maintaining quality and crafting each drink with care and attention has kept The Espresso Room busy and apart from the run of the mill cafes. So what’s the verdict? It’s not hard to find good coffee any more if you know where to look and The Espresso Room is certainly on the map for that. The brew is good and up there with both Flat White and Bea’s (Bea’s would be Ben’s closest competition). On top of all that the reward card gives you about 15% off (buy six get one free) and so makes a £2 coffee pretty good value. If you like coffee you should go, if you love it and you work or live near Great Ormond Street it’s a must. I’ll probably see you there.
The Espresso Room is open Monday to Saturday from 7am to 5pm. 31-35 Great Ormond Street, London WC1N 3HZ. Website: www.theespressoroom.com.