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penny university

June 23, 2010


recently, i had the pleasure to begin my saturday at penny university in shoreditch with my fellow coffee-loving friend, matt. i enjoyed the experience and thought i’d tell you about it.

the name of this coffee bar comes from the old term for coffeehouses in london; a “penny university” was a coffeehouse where patrons paid 1 penny to enter instead of paying for their drinks.  the 2010 version opened just over a month ago, and it is run by london’s square mile coffee roasters, which has quickly become my coffee of choice at home (and wherever else i can find it).

what i really like about penny university is that they serve only brewed coffees, and there is no espresso machine to be found. for those of you living in the U.S., this is really no big deal. but upon my arrival in london last year, i immediately noticed the severe lack of good brewed coffee, which i could find in NYC and brooklyn very easily. in london (and throughout europe, i think), good coffee = espresso-based drinks only. i like espresso drinks, and i drink them often … but i really prefer a good filtered or brewed coffee. it is very hard to find that in london (aside from monmouth, which is out of my way) and so i usually drink most of my coffee at home, using a ceramic filter or a french press.

but penny university has changed that. as this article will tell you, it’s a brave decision for square mile. and i think they have nailed it. there are 6 seats at the coffee bar, and they obsessively brew only 3 coffees at a time (the coffees change periodically). each coffee is brewed using a particular method that is suited to the coffee type. matt and i decided to do their tasting flight (you need 2 people for this, given the amount of coffee you will drink). this way, we got to taste all 3 coffees, each paired with william curley chocolates. the pairings were spot-on. and the coffee was superior … they painstakingly monitor little things like temperature, brew time, and the volume of coffee grounds used. we were lucky to have the guru james hoffman brewing our coffee – he was excellent. he told us about the various beans, where they are from and how they are selected, and then explained the technicalities of the brew method, advising us to wait to enjoy a particular cup until it had cooled for the best flavor. it’s a fun, interactive experience and we both learned a lot. i certainly can’t wait to make this a regular stop.

you can also buy square mile beans and lots of very cool brewing equipment to use at home.  i’ve got my eye on an aeropress.

thank you, penny university, for fulfilling my wish to see more brewed coffee in london. let’s hope this trend catches on!

  1. June 23, 2010 7:23 am

    It looks like they have perfected the art and science of the coffee experience at Penny University, like a coffee lab. Very Cool. Nice photos as always Brian, I like how some of these are quite austere.

  2. June 23, 2010 8:01 am

    so glad you visited, brian. read about it in the nytimes and of course wanted to learn more.

    we’re visiting london for the first time in august, so i’m drinking in all of your local “reporting” (thank you)

  3. June 23, 2010 8:12 am

    Nicely captured again. It doesn’t matter what object, you always seem to capture it in the most amazing way.

    Another thing that strikes me is that you mention the “Square Mile” coffee. I read about this from a belgian blogger a year or so ago as well. It must be really good stuff if 2 of my favorite bloggerswrite about it !!

  4. June 23, 2010 8:16 am


  5. June 23, 2010 8:19 am

    oh Brian, this is just too good :)))

    coffee + proper chocolate…

  6. June 23, 2010 8:35 am

    my s and i would love penny university, thanks for sharing, b!. we’ll have to try to make time to do this while he’s on tour. x

  7. June 23, 2010 9:10 am

    Oh I have to try this out. Love the look of all that intriguing equipment. My local coffee place gets their coffee from Square Mile and it’s the best!

  8. June 23, 2010 9:21 am

    You captured Penny University beautifully. It seems so calm and still. Just lovely!

  9. June 23, 2010 9:55 am

    I can tell I would love this place. And this set of photos is brilliant!

  10. June 23, 2010 10:42 am

    i do love a good brew. and i know how lucky i am to live with a coffee nerd.

    love these photos, brian.

  11. June 23, 2010 11:05 am

    oh my, I have that same camera ( SX-70 ) but I can’t seem to find film anywhere- where did you find film?? I would LOVE to be able to use my camera again :)

  12. June 23, 2010 11:05 am

    i’m adding this to the list of places you need to take me in london.

  13. June 23, 2010 11:56 am

    OH MY! How DO you find these things? I’m so happy that the east end is opening up and all of these coffee shops are appearing. I’ve waiting very patiently for something like that to happen in London. You know, I walked into Monmouth in Covent Garden last summer to ask their opinion on the best coffee to brew for coldpress and they looked at me with the blankest expression. I bet if I went in now they’d know what I was talking about. Going to have to had to Penny University quick!

    Lovely, lovely, lovely.

  14. June 23, 2010 12:27 pm

    this place looks amazing! i love the photos.

  15. June 23, 2010 1:30 pm

    This is a beautiful series and Penny University sounds like a very cool place! I am a huge fan of drip coffee and that paired with chocolates by people who love and appreciate good coffee sounds like heaven. You gave a great description, much better than their current website!

  16. June 23, 2010 2:32 pm

    When visiting the uk I was surprised at the lack of brewed coffee available…looks like a cool spot

  17. June 23, 2010 2:43 pm

    Brian, Grindsmith on Thomas street in Manchester have a similar theme, great atmosphere and gorgeous art on their walls. It’s not only great coffee, but an experience.

  18. Zanni permalink
    June 23, 2010 2:56 pm

    love your photos brian, they inspire me to rummage through my parents house in search of an old film camera. If youre thinking about an Aeropress, get one! I have one at home and it makes fantastic coffee in as much time as it takes to boil water.

  19. Christophe permalink
    June 23, 2010 3:10 pm

    Beautiful post mate…if we hadn’t done what we did for Sundays this would have been more than ideal I reckon…really need to head over there soon too. Full marks!

  20. June 23, 2010 3:41 pm

    lovely photos! i spent three months in italy last year (i live in the us) and i have the opposite problem in that now i totally miss espresso-based ‘caffe latte.’ sigh!

  21. Lee permalink
    June 23, 2010 4:32 pm

    Looks like my idea of heaven. Each photo is better than the last.

  22. June 23, 2010 5:40 pm

    Ugh, I so remember my first week living in London and getting so frustrated when my request for coffee was met with, “what type?” Even Starbucks didn’t have drip coffee! I feel your pain, but this place looks amazing. I wonder if there is anything like it in NYC. I particularly love the idea of the tastings.

  23. June 24, 2010 7:41 am

    That’s interesting, I confess as a non-coffee drinker (not by choice, I react to it) I hadn’t even thought about how you can’t get brewed coffee over here very often. Now you say it, it does seem strange it’s not more common.

  24. June 24, 2010 9:20 am

    I’d love to know your favorite brewed coffee places in New York. I’m a San Francisco transplant and I’m only amassing go-to coffee places slowly.

  25. June 24, 2010 6:51 pm

    Combining my love of photography with my love of coffee – excellent! Wonderful photos as always!

  26. June 25, 2010 1:03 am

    Damn that coffee brewed looks good.

  27. June 25, 2010 5:53 am

    That coffee spot looks lovely. I like drip coffee over espresso (most of the time) myself.

  28. June 25, 2010 8:08 am

    That was the one sore point on my visit to London…..all my requests for drip were met with blank stares. It got really old after a while! I just returned from 6 weeks in Italy and can report the condition there is much the same….espresso EVERYWHERE, but good old American coffee spots few and far between, and mostly bad. This place looks great and I really love that beehive-esque pot. Beautiful photos.

  29. June 25, 2010 2:06 pm

    Wonderful post. Sounds like an amazing day and education.

  30. MelD permalink
    June 26, 2010 8:26 am

    That would be because Europeans consider US coffee to be horrible stuff.
    I have never ever heard of anyone coming back home to Europe and raving about the coffee in the States, on the contrary, they are glad to get something decent to drink!
    Coffee, even of the same brand, is roasted to suit the general taste of individual countries (no idea who defines this!), so living in central Europe, we are aware that French, Italian, Germand and English coffee (for example) all taste quite different. Maybe that has something to do with Nespresso’s success. Until they came on the market, drip coffee of superior quality was the norm everywhere. Now we all have capsule machines. Or else the old-fashioned Italian espresso maker.

  31. marthasnail permalink
    June 28, 2010 6:41 pm

    could coffee be any more gorgeous?

  32. June 29, 2010 2:35 am

    Ooh, I’m so jealous. I know sprink and am very good friends with her man and they directed me to your blog. What a fantastic place and your photos really capture the environment. I love the old stopwatch. I’ve met Mr Hoffman – what a lovely man, eh? I love the fact a former barista champ is running a no-spro affair. Marvellous.

    Funny you mention the sparsity of drip in Europe, but just look upwards (relatively speaking). The Scandinavians obsess about it and the Aeropress you’re eyeing up is very popular there to the point where you have coffee bars that only serve Aeropress coffee.

    I’m sure you were aware of the WBC in London last week and they also held the world Aeropress competition too! So there you go.

    I’m hoping to make it home next year (UK) so I can get to all these fantastic coffee bars emerging. If you want to try outside London for coffee, I know Brighton has a few opening up as well as a couple established: Red Roaster and 33 to name a couple.

    Oh, and I’m enjoying your summer afternoon music mix too! What a great find – I’ll have to thank Sprink.


  33. emily gordon permalink
    June 29, 2010 5:04 pm

    i thought that the term penny university referred to the newspapers – sold for a penny back in the day- that the cafe’s customers would read and discuss over their coffee.

  34. July 3, 2010 12:56 pm

    My espresso maker died recently after 8 years or so. I freecycled a cafetiere the other day, for a change of pace.

  35. erika le permalink
    July 7, 2010 1:24 am

    so calassically photos in here. I love the smell of coffee so much :)

  36. February 15, 2011 5:10 pm

    …..does this place still exist? I think I tried visiting with my brother last time I was down in London only to be disappointed by an empty shop (perhaps we got the wrong place).


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