Coffee places: Prufrock at Present, Shoreditch

21 Jan 2018

Flat White might have opened in 2005, bringing the eponymous drink to these shores, but it wasn’t until 2010-ish that ‘artisan’/’third wave’ coffee shops started to go mainstrem - and a small concession in the front of a men’s clothing store seemed to play a significant part in this. ‘Prufrock’ was a coffee machine and a counter located in the front of a clothes shop called Present, in an area of London called Shoredtich. Prufrock influenced the rise of artisan coffee shops, punching well above its weight in terms of its physical size (there was a bench outside the store that could accommodate 2-3 people, and a single counter with a coffee machine in the front of the clothes shop). Why was this?

The coffee was really good. International-level good. Gwilym Davies was one of the founders of Prufrock, and he’d been running a successful coffee cart in an area of London called Whitecross Street for a while before winning the world barista championship in 2009. He set up Prufrock with (I think) Mattias Björklund in 2010, and I saw Jeremy Challender working in their a lot. These people really knew how to make a great cup of coffee.

There was a growing interest in great coffee from consumers (like me) and baristas at around this time but there remained a lack of people and places where you could learn more about it. Gwilym, Mattias and Jeremy seemed to be particularly generous with their time and support, and Prufrock became a bit of a mecca for coffee people who wanted to try the drinks and ask for tips. Speaking to people at the time, I think that lots of folks got help and support from Gwilym, Mattias and Jeremy, the tiny Prufrock concession creating a big impact.

I worked round the corner from Prufrock, in a place called Hoxton Square, and used to visit often - it’s one of the reasons I’m in to coffee now. I published a (now defunct) blog on coffee at the time, recording my exploration of this drink, and remember Jeremy Challender kindly agreeing to let me pick his brains about coffee. I was a complete n00b at the time, without a clue what I was doing, but he didn’t mind and chatted to me whilst making drinks. Someone from Keep Cup came in, and he generously told them I was a ‘coffee writer’ and they should speak to me, which set me up for my next interview. This seems to be a similar experience for a lot of people - Gwilym, Mattias and Jeremy being generous with their time, and generous with their support.

And then Prufrock moved. It’s now to be found in much larger premises (as befits its popularity) on Leather Lane. The teaching and support is now an explicit part of their business model, with a coffee school being run from their basement. What I find interesting is that you’d never really know about their roots in the concession of a clothes store in Shoreditch, as the internet has a pretty short memory. Lots of the posts written about it at the time are no longer accessible because the blogs that published them are defunct. I did manage to find this article on ‘The Cafe Hunter’, and this article in the New York Times. The real legacy, however, is in the coffee shops in Shoreditch itself. The digital and media crew working in Shoreditch had (and have) a huge appetite for coffee, and Prufrock helped pave the way for independent coffee shops in that area. Between 2010-ish and 2012/3-ish, it felt as though Shoredtich had stolen Soho’s crown for the largest number of independent coffee shops. Whereas Soho’s Italian-style independent coffee shops had been shrinking for years (I think the last one has finally closed), Shoreditch became the UK’s home for Aussie and Kiwi-style coffee shops. That’s not the case any more, they’ve spread across the UK since then, but for two or three years Shoreditch was the home of artisan coffee in the UK, thanks in part to a modest coffee concession in a clothing store.