Something’s happening in Manchester. Up here, at the core of what the London glitterati somewhat sneeringly refer to as the ‘Northern Powerhouse’, the people of this city are staying up late, dealing with constant headaches and getting the shakes on and off throughout the day.
Yes, Mancunians are drinking a hell of a lot of coffee these days, namely because – coinciding with the daily expansion of Pret, Costa, Nero, Starbucks and the rest across the city centre – Manchester is also playing host to a growing number of independent coffee shops as the months go by.
As I sit here typing, I’m aware that had I set out to write such a list even a couple of months ago, I’d have likely fallen short of recommending ten places to grab a brew. Should I revise this list in the months to come – and no doubt I will – chances are I’ll be adding to it, rather than refining it.
There’s more to a good coffee shop than just the coffee, however. Since going freelance, a large portion of my time has been spent in said establishments, laptop in hand and phone in pocket, looking not only for a free seat but also a spare plug and fast Wi-Fi. Manchester’s flourishing coffee scene is coupled with the advance of the creative and tech industries in the city; whether you’re designing an app, writing a book or working on the back end of a website, chances are a lot of that work is done while sipping on an espresso or two to an audience of bearded baristas.
If you’re yet to venture out of your office, apartment or workspace, I’d recommend any of the following as a suitable base for a caffeine-fuelled bout of creativity, though – such is the adaptability of a good coffee – they’re also perfect for a weekend treat, too.
So, check out all of the coffee shops below (listed in no particular order), give your thoughts and make suggestions of your own, if you like. This list is by no means extensive or final – my favourite seems to change week by week – but if the people of Manchester continue to rally behind the coffee scene as they have done in 2014, expect to see a swift follow up in 2015. Probably written in a coffee shop.
ONE: North Tea Power
Almost hidden away on Tib Street in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, North Tea Power could bill itself as Manchester’s original coffee house, with its tight and wood laden shop usually packed with a mixture of creatives and in-the-know tourists, all sampling the potent aroma of coffee and food, cooked and prepared right behind the counter.
It’s a good sign that North Tea Power is, more often than not, absolutely packed. Its focus on food means that it entertains a healthy breakfast and lunch crowd and, though power points are at a premium, it offers a good, vibrant work environment. Oh, and pretty damn decent coffee, too.
TWO: Grindsmith and Grindsmith Deansgate
Probably my favourite coffee in the city centre. Grindsmith started life as a crowdfunded pod technically across the border in Salford, which remains in Greengate to this day. In recent weeks, however, it’s also opened up on Deansgate attached to Barclays’ new escalator, offering a vastly expanded space that’s able to cater to a far bigger crowd. Oh, and it also does soup now, which is pretty damn tasty.
If you’re looking for somewhere with heaps of character and passion for coffee, then this is it; Grindsmith’s fresh venue resembles something of a mad scientist’s lab, with the kind of equipment on display that would likely make your committed coffee aficionado orgasm. With dapper (and often bearded) staff fitted out in wastecoats, Grindsmith is a personal favourite.
THREE: Idle Hands
The newest coffee shop on the Manchester scene, Idle Hands – which I frequently refer to as ‘Idle Thumbs’ for some unknown reason – currently sits in the glorious 1960s curve-o-rama that is Gateway House, on the approach to Piccadilly Station.
A starting base for what will hopefully become a Manchester stalwart, Idle Hands has a familiar feel if only because the folk behind it previously earned their stripes over at North Tea Power. As such, the coffee was always guaranteed to be pretty damn decent, and anyone who has lost many an hour/day/week sat in the aforementioned Northern Quarter staple will feel equally at home in Idle Hands.
This is one coffee shop Manchester should really rally around, too, given it’s surrounded by chains both inside and outside the train station, including a Caffe Nero within the very same complex and no less than three Starbucks, a Costa, a Pret-a-Manger and a Caffe Ritazza all within short walking distance. None of the above can compete with Idle Hands when it comes to quality and all are already packed full with customers, making this one fresh independent that deserves an hour or two of your time and a pound or two from your wallet.
Takk started life as an Icelandic style coffee shop. I know this because there’s a drawing of Iceland on the wall and everything.
In truth, Takk’s Nordic stylings may wash over you completely and, if you’re just looking for good coffee, they’re not especially important: much like North Tea Power, what draws people into Takk is the welcoming atmosphere and the fact that it’s almost always busy, packed with everyone from celebrated TV writers to a lone guy making an iOS app he’s convinced will be the next big thing.
Moreso than any other coffee shop on the list, too, Takk is a place where people will quite often talk to each other. I’ve made quite a few work contacts through simply being in Takk long enough to spark a conversation with someone. Oh, and it also has some of the friendliest – and beardiest – staff you’ll find at any coffee shop in the city.
FIVE: The Anchor
Set out in (what I assume) what was once a pub, The Anchor has a different feel not just because of the building it’s housed in, but also its location – this is a coffee shop that sits firmly in studentville. That means that it frequently feels like two different places in one; a country tea room a the front, with larger tables and plugs at the back playing host to Uni folk revising/endlessly refreshing Facebook with a coffee in hand.
Though a bit of a trek for anyone who resides in the city centre, The Anchor is a worthy port of call for anyone venturing south down Oxford Road. Also, the coffee is served in non fussy, non pretentious mugs. Makes for a refreshing change.
SIX: Caffeine & Co.
You could easily have walked past the original Caffeine & Co just off John Dalton St. and not realised it – it’s a tiny little store that, though it has its committed fans, is not an ideal place to work, with just a small bench facing a wall able to handle any kind of laptop. However, the coffee is excellent and, as such, Caffeine & Co. has become a coffee-to-go haven for those working in the city centre.
Having also briefly had a second pop up store in Spinningfields, Caffeine & Co. recently branched out to open a new coffee shop in what was Granada TV Studios, sat on the ground floor convenient opposite the equally fresh collaborative workspace Hello Hub. Up there with Grindsmith in terms of serving up a decent brew, its new store is the perfect work space for anyone who needs a flat table and a plug – though you’ll need to bring your own Wi-Fi.
Also, try the soup. No, really, try the soup.
It’s only recently that I’ve been popping into Oklahoma for a coffee at the weekend and, though on the outside it may look like it can’t compete with the big boys in the Northern Quarter (Oklahoma is, in fact, a quirky gift, knick-knack and souvenir shop, with the vegetarian café sat at the back), its coffee and cakes defy such expectations.
Oklahoma’s coffee shop is about as relaxed as it gets, with the colourful, unconventional furniture marrying brilliantly with a back-to-basics approach to its coffee: there’s no latte art to be found here, but when the brew in your cup is as rich and tasty as the coffee Oklahoma serves up, that’s something most will be more than willing to overlook.
As I’ve discovered, it’s also the perfect place to wind down on a late Saturday or Sunday afternoon, with the sun beaming through the store’s big windows and bouncing back off its wood interior creating a friendly, warm atmosphere as a healthy dose of caffeine slides down your throat. It’s perhaps not the best place to take your laptop to catch up on work, but that’s not really the point: Oklahoma is a welcome beacon of rest within the increasingly swamped Northern Quarter with the kind of effortless charm and character that many of its newer rivals lack.
EIGHT: Pot Kettle Black
There have been whole weeks where I’ve spent pretty much every day sat in Pot Kettle Black working away on my laptop. Only recently open, PKB is like the hot new celebrity on Manchester’s independent coffee scene, founded by two St. Helens rugby players and sitting quite beautifully within Barton Arcade off Deansgate, in all its Victorian splendour.
As well as some excellent décor and branding – the red and black look mirrored in everything from the paint on the cast iron columns holding the building up to the cups they serve the coffee in – PKB’s unique selling point is that it serves coffee that isn’t that strong. It’s an attempt to move away from the idea that the only good coffee out there has to be strong and potent: PKB favours milder, but still damn tasty, blends.
It’s good stuff, too, and with a blitz of media spots and promotion in recent months, Pot Kettle Black has quickly become one of Manchester’s go to places, whether you’re looking for something tasty for lunch or you just fancy sipping on coffee after coffee all afternoon.
Oh, and they also sometimes put bears on top of your latte if you ask nicely.
The newest player on the scene and, as a result, probably the coffee shop in the city centre I’ve visited least, the few times I’ve been there I’ve been rather impressed.
Firstly, the coffee is very good, and secondly, there’s a definite Shoreditch vibe to the fixtures and fittings inside. Thirdly, it has a great view. Though looking at the back-end of the Arndale – the one side that hasn’t been updated since the 1996 bomb, Federal nevertheless has an almost 180 degree view of the busy street it sits on at the edge of the Northern Quarter. The perfect people watching spot, then, with some damn good coffee on offer to boot.
Probably the most original of all the ten coffee shops on offer is Rapha, which combines excellent coffee with a love for bikes. Sat upstairs in amongst all the kind of expensive paraphernalia that bike enthusiasts spend a vast amount of money on is a nicely stylised coffee shop, which overtly echoes all things sleek and Italian.
On the walls there’s pink, there’s grey, there’s white, and actually encased in the tables are racing jerseys. On, and there’s some rather good coffee on offer, too. Not really a hot spot for the workers, then, but a definite go to at the weekend if you’re after something a little different.
Honourable mentions also go to part record shop, part coffee shop Eastern Bloc in the Northern Quarter, Java in Victoria Station, MCR Coffee Co. on Oldham Street, Home Sweet Home in the Northern Quarter, the recently refitted Common in the Northern Quarter, Fig & Sparrow also in the North Quarter, and fresh outfit Mug just down from Caffeine & Co. on John Dalton St. There is basically a lot of good coffee to be sipped on in the city centre.
And, if you’re new to the city and find yourself in Manchester without any clue where you are, the four EAT stores – two inside the Arndale – are easily the best chain establishments Manchester has to offer, both in terms of service and quality of coffee.
This post was originally published in December 2014. Updated in April 2015.