The quest for the best cup of coffee in Glasgow and Edinburgh
Delivering the verdict on quality coffee dispensers in Scotland
Making good coffee can't be that hard … can it? Jay Thundercliffe tries his hand as a barista at Glasgow's Artisan Roast
Coffee drinking has become a serious business, with roasters, baristas and drinkers all equally concerned at the quality of the product. Shiny espresso makers with their levers and dials and steamy bits are a familiar sight, but they remain intriguingly archaic and complex. Anxious to find out how to make that expert difference, I headed along to the Glasgow branch of Artisan Roast to learn the mysterious arts of the barista.
My teacher is Michael Wilson, co-owner and chief roaster. First the basics: 'There are three essential things for good coffee. First you need good quality green beans,' Michael says with a handful of pistachio-coloured beans. 'Secondly, they need to be well roasted,' he adds, gesturing towards Simba, the coffee roaster. 'Lastly, they need good preparation, which is where you come in.'
First the beans are ground. 'The grinder is the core of good coffee-making,' Michael explains as the machine delivers a carefully measured dose of coarse and fine grains. After a rundown of the espresso machine, it's my turn to extract a shot. 'It's all about the order of chemicals and the resulting taste. First sour then bittersweet, then just bitter. Bitter coffee is due to overextraction,' says Michael as the thick initial drip changes to tiger stripes in a 'mousetail' stream. After 30 seconds the thinning or blonding signals the coffee is fully extracted and the mousetails begin to twirl. My shot comes out surprisingly well, except for some blonding on top of the crema.
Things get complicated when we move on to milk. 'Too many people overheat the milk, cooking the proteins and giving it a sweet, sickly taste,' says Michael in a flurry of swirling, pulling the steamer out for a second to create the all-important bubbles. He pours the milk over the espresso and decorates it with a fern frond.
'Latte art isn't showing off. It demonstrates a level of sophistication in the preparation.'
My attempt results in a nearly burnt hand and shouts of 'Your espresso! Your espresso!' as the bitter blonding ruins my shot. A second try improves but my artistic flourish looks more like an exploded marshmallow.
There's mild progress, but I'm no advert for sophisticated coffee preparation – something I'll happily leave to the pros.
Guide to Coffee terminology
Jonathan Sharp runs four independent coffee shops in Edinburgh, including Kilimanjaro Coffee, and was Scottish Barista Champion in 2009 and 2010. He gives us his dummy's guide to coffee terminology
Specific regions produce coffees with similar flavour characteristics. For example Indonesian coffee is dark, earthy and heavy-bodied. In a flat white it gives a deep full flavour and is the base of Artisan Roast's espresso blend. An Ethiopian coffee is more likely to be fruity and might give refreshing grapefruit or lemon notes in a cup of filter coffee.
Coffee beans arrive here from origin countries as unroasted green beans in sacks. The roaster's job is to source the best beans and transform them into the brown ones we are more familiar with. This job is far from simple, with a tiny variation in roast being the difference between a poor cup and a great one. I use small artisan roasters such as Artisan Roast in Edinburgh and Square Mile Coffee in London who are skilled in sourcing and roasting the best coffees.
People often wrongly associate a dark roast with strong coffee and a light roast with weak. Simply, the lighter the roast the more flavour is coming from the bean itself. In order to preserve the unique flavours within their beans small artisan roasters tend to favour light/medium roasts.
Roasted coffee is a fresh product – the biggest misconception here is the fresher the better. When roasted coffee is volatile and contains lots of undesirable gas, coffee just out of the roaster can make a particularly unpleasant cup. Roasted coffee is generally at its best between 5 and 20 days old.
Espresso or short black
Currently getting smaller and stronger but becoming less bitter in taste giving the purest coffee hit. It's traditionally served with sugar; however, the lack of bitterness in the best-pulled espressos means many drinkers now going without.
Double shot of espresso served in a small cup with steamed milk. Stronger and less foamy than a latte it also isn't too hot so can be drunk immediately.
Double shot of espresso served in a small cup with hot water. Forget the watery americano, this is a proper black coffee.
This refers to the amount of flavour we take from the ground coffee and is the most common reason behind a bad cup of coffee. Stop the shot too early and the espresso can be sour, let it run too long and you can be left with a very bitter cup. A well-judged extraction is required to make a great espresso-based coffee.
The rosetta or heart design found on the flat whites and lattes of the skilled barista.
Keen on the bean
Yes corporate coffee giants, you should be scared. The humble coffee bean is fighting back, breaking out of milky lattes and bitter espressos to become delicious in the hands of expert roasters and baristas. We've tasted the best cups of coffee from independent shops in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and now we're excited for more reasons than just a caffeine high. Try the places below for the real deal – coffee done properly.
The Glasgow branch aims to give an education as well as a coffee experience. Watch the beans being roasted on-site while enjoying arguably the best coffee in town, with a blend that is fresh-tasting and aromatic with plenty of fruity flavours.
15–17 Gibson Street. Mon–Fri 8am–7.30pm; Sat 9am–7.30pm; Sun 9am–6.30pm.
This Shawlands coffee house and diner is proving a popular choice despite being sandwiched between two older competitors. This is largely down to the quality of the coffee on offer and the expertly consistent preparation of the various drinks.
17 Skirving Street, 632 3466. Mon–Sat 9am–6pm; Sun 10am–5pm
Coffee, Chocolate and Tea
Set up by McCallum's fishmongers on the site of its old shop, this small café punches above its weight thanks to daily roastings in store. Rich, chocolatey and perfectly balanced, the house blend is hard to beat.
944 Argyle Street, 204 3161. Mon–Fri 8am–6pm; Sat & Sun 10am–4pm.
Coffee-lovers flock to this café thanks to the comfortably bright and airy ambience as well as the quality of the drinks served up. Smooth and fresh-tasting brews mean that you can happily sip away over a long lazy weekend.
3–5 Gibson Street, 341 0110. Mon–Fri 8am–10pm; Sat & Sun 9am–10pm.
The Glassford Street and Clarence Drive branches of this deli chain have tables for sit-in food, well-prepared coffee, pro barista staff and plenty of beans on sale to take home afterwards.
61–65 Glassford Street, 553 0666, Mon–Sat 8am–midnight, Sun 9am–11pm. 43 Clarence Drive, 357 2909, Mon–Sat 8.30am–midnight, Sun 9am–midnight.
Various other locations. www.peckhams.co.uk
Tapa Bakehouse & Tapa Coffeehouse
Both premises are supplied daily by the Bakehouse's own micro-roaster, ensuring some of the freshest and best coffee in town.
21 Whitehill Street, 554 9981, Mon–Sat 8am–6pm, Sun 9am–5pm / 721 Pollokshaws Road, 423 9494, Mon–Thu 8am–6pm; Fri–Sat 8am–9.30pm; Sun 9am–6pm.
Glasgow's three branches are showcases for the Matthew Algie coffee company so expect a good-quality cuppa to be served up by well-trained baristas. Everything that can be done with coffee, whether hot or cold, seems to be on the menu.
189 Byres Road, 339 3108. Mon–Sat 7.15am–11pm; Sun 7.45am–11pm. Various other locations.
The flat white is made with absolute passion, resulting in a smooth, complex flavour and creamy consistency. The aroma alone is enough to satisfy your craving.
57 Broughton Street. Mon–Thu 8am–7.30pm; Fri 8am–6.30pm; Sat 7am–6.30pm; Sun 10am–6.30pm.
An excellent cup of Square Mile Coffee Roasters coffee, and one of the best flat whites to be found, with beautifully smooth rounded flavour and texture. Perfect city-centre hotspot for your daily hit.
33a George Street, 225 6854. Mon–Fri 7.30am–7pm; Sat–Sun 8.30am–7pm.
Based near the University and popular with students fond of a caffeine buzz. Its espresso's indulgently thick crema cradles sugar for a few precious moments before it sinks through into the inky depths below. Superb.
104 Nicolson Street, 662 0135. Mon–Fri 7.45am–8.30pm; Sat–Sun 8.30am–8pm.
New kid on the Bruntsfield block, this stylish addition to the Edinburgh coffee scene seems to be getting things right. Its creamy latte has a pleasing texture which doesn't drown out the roasted coffee aroma.
192–194 Bruntsfield Place, 229 6758. Mon–Fri 8am–6pm; Sat & Sun 9am–5pm.
This latte has a lovely texture and temperature. Round, nutty Union Coffee Roasters flavour cuts through the milkiness without any bitterness. However, loses major points for using Nescafé instant decaf, especially when UCR's is very good.
25 Dundas Street, 652 3715. Mon–Fri 8.30am–4.30pm; Sat 9.30am–4pm.
Fruitmarket Gallery Café
Green Mountain Coffee is the order of the day at the Fruitmarket Gallery Café, with sweet nutty undertones and a creamy finish. Cappucino comes with a generously chocolate-sprinkled top.
45 Market Street, 226 1843. Mon–Sat 11am–5.30pm. Sun noon–4.30pm.
The best cups tea in Scotland
Why should coffee get all the good press? We root out the best teashops
Over 80 varieties of tea, shishas and vegetarian food, plus an extremely active calendar of music, poetry and storytelling events. An ideal accompaniment to an afternoon's browsing on Otago Lane.
42 Otago Lane, Glasgow, 357 4524.
Willow Tea Rooms
Designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh over a century ago, the Willow Tea Rooms offer elegant surroundings in which to enjoy a tea break from Glasgow's busiest shopping streets.
217 Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, 332 0521/ 97 Buchanan Street, Glasgow, 204 5242.
Billing itself as 'tea, cupcakes and delights', Cup aims to bring high tea out of stuffy, overpriced hotels and back into the hands of the tea-drinking proletariat. Vive la tea!
311 Byres Road, Glasgow, 357 2525.
Eteaket aims to rekindle Britain's formerly passionate (and now quite workaday) relationship with tea, by offering quality international brews alongside kitschy collectible tea sets.
41 Frederick Street, Edinburgh, 226 1982.
Tea Tree Tea
With a view to world domination, Tea Tree Tea ships via the internet to locations around the globe and uses its Bread Street premises to flog brews with names such as 'Russian Caravan' and 'Funky Oolong'.
13 Bread Street, Edinburgh, 228 3100.
Loopy Lorna's Tea House
Lorna's constantly bustling premises is a testament to the quality of tea and atmosphere provided; no mean feat when catering to the tea-quaffing Morningside Ladies market.
370–372 Morningside Road, Edinburgh, 447 9217.