Today’s Belfast is brimming with exciting cafés, says TAUREAN COUGHLAN. Here’s his ultimate guide to the city’s best brewmakers…
I remember when it all began… I was starting my first day at a global media communications office in Melbourne; one hand shaking with nerves and the other clutching a venti caramel macchiato from a nearby American coffee chain. Suffice to
say my first day went very well. However, my colleagues were quick to point out that if I was to really submerge myself in all things Aussie, I had to ditch the “coffee milkshakes” I was drinking immediately and throw myself into the world of “real” coffee. You see, Australians don’t do coffee chains; and with the wealth of amazing independent cafés around the country, they don’t have to. Melbourne, in particular, is noted as the café capital of the world, and having lived there for four years, I was sad to leave it behind. Fast forward a few years, and living back in Ireland, I craved that café culture more and more.
Nothing excites me more than walking into a great space oozing with personality and individuality; serving great food and that perfect cup of coffee. So imagine my surprise when on a quick trip up North, I came across this burgeoning café culture in Belfast that reminded me so much of what I had left behind in Australia. Incredible interiors, innovative menus and a cracking atmosphere in each spot.
Each trip up North begins with a visit to Established Coffee (established.coffee) Situated in the Cathedral Quarter, the café was set up by Mark Ashbridge and Bridgeen Barbour in 2014. Polished concrete floors, minimalist décor and dark muted tones evoke a real sense of the Melbourne café scene, and it’s a wonderful spot any time of day to enjoy a freshly brewed filter coffee and one of their scrumptious cinnamon buns. Its airy space and large communal bench (with ample sockets) is perfect for whipping out your laptop while you get your caffeine fix.
Belfast is undoubtedly a work in progress, and that is seen during a walk from the central business district towards Ormeau Road – home to some of the city’s best cafés, including Kaffe O (kaffeo.coffee). Inspired by the amazing coffee culture and design in Copenhagen, Kaffe O was set up by Orla Smyth, a former lawyer who decided to open a café in her hometown after developing a real passion for the café scene in Denmark. Now with a second location on the equally beautiful Botanic Avenue, Kaffe O’s menu features Danish influences with an overarching principle to produce fresh homemade food using the best ingredients from local suppliers.
Across the road and down a little is Root & Branch (rootandbranch.coffee). My heart skips a beat with even the slightest glimpse of the beautiful exterior here. The love that was evidently put into restoring the exterior of the building is nothing compared to what can be found inside. Small in size perhaps, but the passion that exists in this micro roastery and coffee bar is immense. Pop in on a weekend afternoon, grab yourself a coffee made with beans roasted onsite, and take a seat in the courtyard whilst live music is performed all afternoon. Having had the opportunity to work with Root & Branch in my own café, I can honestly say that I have never met two people with such a wonderful appreciation for what coffee is and what a café can achieve in a neighbourhood location.
I remember walking towards General Merchants (generalmerchants.co.uk) for the first time – it was a bustling Sunday morning, and as we joined the crowd outside to wait for a table, I took a peek at the menu and thought to myself, this place is something special. The space, its design and atmosphere inside really made me feel like I was back in Melbourne. It possessed all the qualities one would expect from a world-class Australian café, and for good reason – head chef and co-owner Tim Fetherston lived in Melbourne for ten years working in the industry. Superb coffee and a vibrant all- day menu had me jumping for joy. Perfect sweetcorn fritters and that Aussie staple: smashed avocado on Vegemite toast.
Not too far away is 5A on Lockview Road in Stranmillis (@5ACoffee), a tiny spot with a few tables inside and a few benches outside – the café shares its DNA with General Merchants. Weekend brunch is big at this little spot, and the people of Belfast are willing to wait long and hard for a table.
Taking traditional dishes and giving them their own spin, the café has become an essential part of life for those living nearby (and further afield).
Botanic Avenue is another bustling hub south of the city’s main shopping district and home to several great cafés. The Pocket is one of the latest to open in the area and has already developed a legion of fans that adore its prominent location overlooking the garden of Queens University. Like Established, they use 3fe as their main coffee roaster and offer a small breakfast and lunch menu with delicious bread from renowned baker Zac’s Bakehouse and a range of sweet treats from Man Made.
A quick stroll down the road is Town Square (townsquarebelfast.com). With former Established barista Nathan Reid at the helm, you can expect great speciality coffee, delicious food and a cracking space to enjoy both. The café was designed with the vision of creating a space for both professionals and locals to gather in a casual setting, promoting the best of Belfast and produce from surrounding areas. Coffee is sourced from Wicklow- based roaster Roasted Brown, and each week the team offer coffee tasting events to further expand their customers’ knowledge of speciality coffee and brewing methods.
Whilst Belfast’s café culture shows no signs of slowing down, Northern Ireland itself is seeing a sort of speciality coffee and food revolution. Areas such as Coleraine, Ballymena and Portrush are now home to several incredible establishments offering excellent coffee, innovative food menus and exciting spaces that are drawing locals and others visiting from afar. Ballymena in Co Antrim is home to three wonderful spots, Middletown Coffee Co, Refinery and Follow Coffee. Coleraine is home to Lost & Found, which serves several exciting roasts from Sweden’s Koppi and the UK’s Workshop, alongside a food menu that changes weekly to include treats such as caramelised apple French toast and huevos rancheros. Portrush is a sleepy seaside town that comes alive in the summer months; however, there’s no shortage of customers at Babushka Kitchen Café throughout the year, and for good reason – a gorgeous seaside location, high quality produce, and excellent coffees sourced from some of the best roasters worldwide (such as Bonanza from Berlin and Tim Wendelboe from Norway) are always in rotation.
Time off is a rare occurrence these days, but when it does arise, it’s definitely up North where you will find me.