At No. 51 Old Compton Street in Soho, painted in a pillar box red, in clear contrast with the rest of the much more modern looking establishments on the street, is one of the best coffee shops and roasteries in London, Algerian Coffee Stores. This is a coffee haven for all those who love a good cup of “devil’s brew.”
I first tasted their coffee a long time ago when I was working at Oddbins in Wardour Street. Tuesday was our delivery day and because at that time the Wardour Street shop was one of the busiest branches of Oddbins, the deliveries were huge. So every Tuesday we started at 9am and began unloading crates after crates after crates of wine. By lunchtime we all were sweaty and exhausted, ready to go home. To brighten our mood and encourage us to work harder, our boss invented the “mid-delivery treat” (seriously that’s what we called it). At exactly 1pm she brought in a full cafetiere of superb, black, fragrant coffee of devilish strength, made from beans roasted at Algerian Coffee Stores, usually purchased about 15 minutes earlier. Sometimes the coffee in the pack was still warm from the grinding, and the aroma of it followed our manager from the street to the kitchen, making us all salivate. By the time she brewed and served the coffee we were all drooling. The first week I worked there I had no idea why everyone was so excited about delivery day. In other Oddbins that was the least favourite day of the week… but that was before I tasted my first cup of this fabulous North African style coffee. After that I, too, was volunteering to work on Tuesdays. I think I got hooked for life.
The story of the Algerian Coffee Stores starts some time in the 1880s when Mr. Hassan left Algeria and decided to try his luck in London. It was a time when rents in Soho were still much cheaper than the city and where coffee was experiencing a renaissance, being drunk by the gallon by bohemian painters and writers to spark creative thinking. In the Victorian era Soho was loved by artists, coffee vendors, casinos, cabarets, theatres and … immigrants. Mr. Hassan started his shop in 1887 and ran it until 1926 when he handed over to Mr. Berman, a Belgian gentleman. In 1948 Mr. Berman sold the shop to Mr. Jones and it is still in the hands of the same family. Mr. Crocetta, Mr. Jones’s son in law, ran the shop for over 40 years until his daughter Marisa, the current owner, took over.
One of the greatest charms of this unique place is that the shop Mr. Hassan opened still looks the same as it did 120 years ago. It has the original Victorian interior, the wooden counter, shelves and cabinets – all kept in perfect condition. On the walls are old photographs of the shop and the owner’s family running back 100 years, showing a bit of Soho long gone now, and next to those one can see old posters and price boards straight out of 1940’s documentary films. The store is crammed to the rafters with the various types of coffee and tea paraphernalia, scales, grinders, interesting confectionary from all over the world and of course, a thousand coffee and tea jars.
Algerian Coffee Stores – it’s one of the leading coffee experts in the UK. They use their century old experience to sort the finest coffee beans in the world, roasting and blending them to create new and exciting blends ready to satisfy even the most demanding coffee geeks. They sell 80 different coffee types and over 120 teas from all over the world: fabulous African, Colombian or Peruvian coffee, the ‘cat poo’ coffee (Kopi Luwak), rare Jamaican Blue Mountain, fair-trade coffees, organic coffees, flavoured such as one I got recently, the five-spice Arabica! Though my favourites are still the classic Arabica coffee blends; call me a conservative if you like.
This place is also a paradise for tea lovers. They stock traditional and specialist teas from Sri Lanka, India, China, Formosa, Japan, organic and decaffeinated tea, white teas, red teas, Argentinian mate, matcha green tea, herbal teas, loose and in bags, flowers and petals, fruit and rose infusions, but also rarities such as pink Earl Gary or oddities like Genmaicha- a green tea with puffed rice and popped popcorn.
One of the most amazing things about this place is that it isn’t overly pricey. They do probably the best and the cheapest takeaway coffee in Soho. You can get a single or double Espresso for £1 and a latte or cappuccino for £1.20! Coffee here is only takeaway, and comes only in one size, with no fancy milks and toppings but you don’t need it, its a marvel as it is. In here, you will get a simple but fabulous coffee.