Image description: a coffee mug on top of a tablecloth in the sunlight
A good coffee is something like alchemy — people in the industry obsess over incremental adjustments in roasting, dosage, grind size, extraction rate, and a myriad of other factors which dramatically change the drinking experience. I’ve had coffees that tasted like blueberry tea, clean and fruity, and coffees that have tasted like munching on a chocolate chip cookie. I’m not a coffee snob per se, but when I came to Oxford, I was rather disappointed at first at how infrequently I was able to access good coffee.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy spots like Pret, Nero, and Starbucks for the kind of coffee that they offer, which in my view is simply cheap, convenient, mediocre coffee to scratch the itch. But what I’m looking for when I say ‘good coffee’ is simple — interesting flavours, ideally locally roasted, ethically sourced, and made with good technique. This last criterion means, with milk drinks, well-textured, pillowy milk (I’m a cappuccino fan) with microfoam at the perfect temperature that complements the espresso. With filter coffees, my favourite cups have been almost tea-like, with interesting and unexpected flavour notes coming through and dancing together elegantly with each sip. All of the cafés I’ll mention will fulfil these criteria in different ways and won’t disappoint.
But something ought to be said also about the vibes in each of these cafes. Cafés are, in my opinion, versatile spaces — some are perfect for introversion, others for sunshine-soaking, while yet others might be good for a lovely chat to start your day with. Along with my opinion on their coffees, I’ll also say a thing or two therefore about how I like to enjoy each of these cafes, and you can take your pick.
What I’m looking for when I say ‘good coffee’ is simple — interesting flavours, ideally locally roasted, ethically sourced, and made with good technique.
Gail’s (Jericho, Summertown)
Although I hardly frequent Gail’s nowadays, I’ve got a soft spot for Gail’s for serving me the first ‘good coffee’ I’ve had in Oxford. It was on an unexpected December afternoon in Summertown while waiting for a friend to get her nose swabbed #justpandemicthings. The latte was a treat yoself moment — small and drastically more spenny than good ol’ Pret (which, if I recall correctly, was free for me at the time, on my second false identity). It arrived with a silky, glossy surface, and pleasing latte art (a symmetrical rosetta with good contrast) — a sign of well-textured milk. It proceeded to live up to my hopeful expectations at the perfect temperature and texture, with a classic espresso flavour profile. I can imagine this being the perfect spot for a lazy start to your day. My friend tells me that the Gail’s croissant is probably the best he’s had recently, even after a gap year in France. He tells me fondly that in Michaelmas term he and his partner would begin their Sundays by splurging on croissants they couldn’t afford, sitting on a bench nearby and silently eating their pastries. Gail’s is the spot for a slightly indulgent, classic slow morning, with freshly sourced and prepared coffee and baked goods.
Mostro Coffee (Cowley)
I’m going to just come right out and say it — I think that this is the best coffee in Oxford, though I’m open to changing my mind. The baristas here take their time perfecting each step of the coffee-making process, measuring their doses, extraction times, etc. The result is a well-balanced, perfectly textured, yummy coffee every time. They source their beans from Quarter Horse Coffee Roasters in Birmingham. The last time I went, they had a classic single origin Columbia on for espresso, and they often use different beans in their batch brew. The first time I went, the barista told me he was really enjoying the filter that day and persuaded me to try it. It was one of the cleanest filters I’ve had to date.
Associated with the Truck Store, a local indie music hub which hosts weekly live gigs and sells records, the vibes in this place are immaculate. It has good tunes, good sound system, and a real sense of community next to peacefulness and inwardness. This is my favourite café to work in, although the small seating area means that it is sometimes hard to find a spot. I enjoy coming in with my work, sitting at one of the bar seats, and taking mini people-watching breaks as the café has floor to ceiling windows that look out onto the corner of Cowley Road and Rectory Road.
The vibes in this place are immaculate. It has good tunes, good sound system, and a real sense of community next to peacefulness and inwardness.
Green Routes (Cowley)
This place is a bit of a hidden gem, nestled on Magdalen Road within a lovely neighbourhood. It’s got deep ties with the community both on the levels of the individual and local businesses, with many regulars who live nearby, and a working relationship with Hamblin, a bakery just a minute away on Iffley Road. Green Routes is a collaboration between two events companies; Routes Coffee, a local roastery, handles the coffee while Greenbox handles the food. It’s great on sustainability — it serves a delicious seasonal vegan brunch menu, has a selection of plant-based milks alongside dairy which can be chosen with no extra charge, and serves all takeout items in biodegradable wares. Its vegan loaf cakes and brownies are baked fresh by the head barista’s partner, who uses spices to create sweet treats that are really complex in flavour.
Alternatively, take a trip down to Hamblin before 1pm (when the bakery closes) after your coffee for some of the best baked goods I’ve ever had (but be quick, they often sell out). The café often brings in fruitier single origin guest espressos that I love trying. I’ve recently been loving the Uganda Guest in an oat cappuccino. The staff are always having fun and down for a chat, and the outdoor tables are usually soaked in sunshine. This café is definitely the most friendly and energetic of all my suggestions. My Green Routes trip often consists of a chat with the barista at their takeaway hatch, followed by a couple of minutes of tranquillity staring at the top of one of the bushes on Magdalen Road in the sunshine, against a blue sky, absent-mindedly sipping on a takeaway cappuccino.
A special mention has to be issued to the coconut matcha, which in my opinion is a bit of secret menu item, and has once been described to me as tasting like ‘a baby having a dream’. On a weekday, it’s also a lively place in which to get some work done, although they don’t have Wi-Fi.
My Green Routes trip often consists of a chat with the barista at their takeaway hatch, followed by a couple of minutes of tranquillity… absent-mindedly sipping on a takeaway cappucino.
Horsebox Coffee Co. (Uni Parks)
This place pleasantly surprised me on my walk on the way to Uni Parks. Like Green Routes and Columbia Coffee Roasters in the Covered Market, their beans are roasted in Oxfordshire. I don’t frequent it as much as I do Mostro and Green Routes, but I remember it being simply a dang good takeaway cuppa joe. Classic espresso flavour profile, great milk texture. A great spot near the centre for a cuppa to pair with your uni parks walk/chill/frolic.
Society Café (City Centre)
Nearly missed this one but thought I ought to try it out as research for this article. I’ve only had one cappuccino from here, but in short — it’s immediately obvious that they care about their coffee and do it well. It shows in the handwritten detailing of flavour notes on display for both their guest and house blends, and in how the baristas work. For a small chain, it also really foregrounds the staff and has obviously cultivated a sense of identity and community. I really enjoyed my coffee. It was flavourful and each sip had something new to offer in taste and flavour. It also had a nice, well-lit interior with a fair amount of seating space. Definitely come here if you’re in the centre and craving a quick, quality fix, or a nice place to work!
Apart from coffee spots, I’d also like to mention one of my favourite ways of having coffee in Oxford: home brewing. For a while I had a French press and have since moved on to my trusty Bialetti Moka Pot. Oxford has some seriously sick local roasteries with plenty of variety from which I enjoy getting beans to play around with, both in terms of flavour and drink-type (Vietnamese Egg Coffees or Pumpkin Spice Lattes, for example). The Missing Bean, Colombia Coffee Roasters, Horsebox Coffee, and Routes Coffee all have local retail locations from which you can buy coffee beans and have them ground on site for your brewing method of choice. The other coffee spots mentioned in this article also stock coffee, although not roasted in Oxfordshire. Altogether there’s a wide world of flavours which await you, and you get to support small local businesses while you’re at it!