Get the skinny on Cork's coffee culture

Get the skinny on Cork's coffee culture
Alchemy Coffee and Bookshop. Pic: Damian Coleman.

HOT coffee is cool right now and there is no denying it, according to the Corkonian masses that keep the plethora of coffee shops in the rebel county buzzing with business.

Over the past few years, a number of independent artisan coffee hubs have opened up across the city, taking on the influx of chain stores, such as Starbucks and Costa, that have integrated into Cork’s social and coffee scene.

Intrigued by the growing number of coffee connoisseurs across the city, The Echo sat down with a few proprietors of the city’s caffeinated hot spots to talk shop.

Alex Bruce, of Soma coffee shop on 23 Tuckey Street said that cafes are the new pub.

“It is a more casual meeting place and especially for work-related meetings, it’s ideal,” Mr Bruce said.

John Gowan, who established The Godfather of Cork coffee, Cork Coffee Roasters, 14 years ago agreed.

“There is a lot of interest in coffee these days, which is great for the business. It’s a fantastic way to socialise and meet people.”

Mr Gowan said that love for coffee has definitely surged in recent years.

Nora Lewon at Cork Coffee Roasters, French Church Street. Picture Dan Linehan
Nora Lewon at Cork Coffee Roasters, French Church Street. Picture Dan Linehan

“I feel now we are really getting noticed for what we do, which is roast good quality coffee in small batches and delivering it to the market fresh and at a fair price.”

Quantity Surveyor turned coffee shop owner Paul O’Carroll, who has two very popular coffee shops in the city, The Bookshelf on South Mall and another shop of the same name at The Elysian, said he thought the move to hot, caffeine beverages over a more traditional cold pint was perhaps due to a shift towards healthier living.

“I think there is a definite movement away from pubs and bars and towards a healthier lifestyle.

“Especially with Millenials and Gen Z as they are called! The coffee shop has been able to fill that void for people to meet up.”

Mr O’Carroll said in his experience the coffee scene in Cork is definitely growing and the taste buds for good speciality coffee is a key element of this.

“I think that is down to the fact that when coffee is made well, it tastes so much better. Coffee up to five years ago was just a vehicle for caffeine to wake you up and people put lots of sugar in it to take the bitterness away. “Nowadays people realise they can get their caffeine, but it also tastes really good which has resulted in a lot more people drinking coffee.

“It’s a bit like the rise in small bakeries selling delicious bread in the farmers’ markets. People always ate bread, it may have been Brennan’s or whatever, but now people are more aware of what else is out there and these bakeries are selling out within hours of opening each morning which is great. All these small things help raise the standards for all of us in the food and coffee industry.”

Manager of Alchemy on Barrack Street, Emma Coughlan, said she thought the switch from alcohol to coffee beans also had to do with atmosphere.

Alchemy Coffee and Bookshop, Barrack Street. Pic: Damian Coleman.
Alchemy Coffee and Bookshop, Barrack Street. Pic: Damian Coleman.

“Personally I think people are choosing to socialise in coffee shops more because the pub always seemed to be the place to meet, but now people prefer a more chilled atmosphere.”

Ms Coughlan said: “Alchemy is like someone’s sitting room, people come for a coffee on their own and could end up sitting talking to someone they just met for hours.”

The manager of the coffee shop that has been doing business for the past four and a half years, said that this is an element of the shop that she really likes and in her opinion, adds to the appeal.

“It brings people together. I think that’s a feature not a lot of places have. At Alchemy we love coffee and we love our customers. We have so many different people (and dogs) come in every day and we have a lot of regulars who are now friends.”

Speaking about why he got into the coffee business, The Bookshelf’s Mr O’Carroll said he always wanted to work for himself and had a passion for food and coffee.

“I decided to try to open my own place to avoid having to emigrate as the recession put an end to my career as a Quantity Surveyor!

Paul O’Carroll, The Bookshelf at the Elysian. Picture Dan Linehan
Paul O’Carroll, The Bookshelf at the Elysian. Picture Dan Linehan

The Bookshelf on South Mall opened my eyes to the changing coffee market which really inspired our focus on speciality coffee and is how we developed our relationship with our coffee roasters in Berlin, The Barn.

Opening its doors to the public in 2012, The Bookshelf (South Mall) has had a dedicated partnership with coffee suppliers The Barn for the past four years.

“We have a dedicated partnership with The Barn. They would have a selection of five to eight coffee beans on offer at any one time depending on the season. We choose what we like and what we think our customers will enjoy.

“We sometimes throw in a super interesting natural processed coffee to see what people think and to showcase the hugely varying flavour profiles available in really high-quality coffee.”

Paying premium rates for good quality beans is a common trend with the independent coffee shops that spoke to The Echo about their businesses.

Mr O’Carroll said his partnership with The Barn included a good relationship with the coffee bean farmers who grow the crops.

The Barn, who recently won best speciality coffee roasters in Europe, buy directly from the farmers and pay premium prices for the high-quality beans they are producing.

“The Barn visit each farm personally and regularly pay well above the market rate for coffees in order to help the farmers improve their crop further for next season and in turn ensuring a high-quality product for us,” Mr O’Carroll said.

In Alchemy, an Irish Fairtrade company called 3fe is used. According to Ms Coughlan, it was an easy choice.

“3fe is a great company, They include the farms and the names of the families on that farm on the bags of coffee and the farmers are paid more than fairly. Colin Harmon the CEO has created something brilliant with how he works and what he does.”

At Soma, which is celebrating its second birthday in May, Mr Bruce said he likes to work with a number of speciality brokers, but said that ensuring the farmers receive a fair price is important.

Alex Bruce, (centre) owner, Soma Coffee Co.; Alex Sampson (left) and Matt von Zweigbergk, coffee roasters, pictured outside the Soma Coffee Company, Tuckey St.Picture Denis Minihane.
Alex Bruce, (centre) owner, Soma Coffee Co.; Alex Sampson (left) and Matt von Zweigbergk, coffee roasters, pictured outside the Soma Coffee Company, Tuckey St.Picture Denis Minihane.

“Our ethos is that all of our coffee is ethically and sustainably sourced for high-grade speciality farms and roasted by ourselves in house.

“We work with companies that specialise in direct trade, which is a process without any middlemen and gets more money to the farmer for a higher quality coffee.”

Mr Bruce, who has been working in the industry for over 10 years, said opening his own place was always the dream and they take the quality of their coffee very seriously.

“I am just back from Norway on a sourcing trip where I was tasting hundreds of coffees that we chose to be added to our future offering.”

At The Bookshelf, which also has a third shop in Tralee, Mr O’Carroll said being conscious of the environment is also becoming a priority.

“In the past 12 months, we have been trying to reduce as much plastic in the cafes as possible and have switched to mainly compostable materials for our packaging like cups, napkins, straws etc”.

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