The perfect pairing of coffee and donuts is embraced in Belfast's Oh Donuts | Courtesy of Oh Donuts
For a city that loves a good cup of tea, coffee culture is (perhaps surprisingly) booming in Belfast. Dr Gareth Patterson, founder of Northern Ireland Coffee Maps, takes Culture Trip through the best coffee shops and cafés in Belfast.
Dr Gareth Patterson started NI Coffee Maps to share his passion for a good brew, detailing where visitors can find the best cup of coffee in venues ranging from speciality third-wave shops to more traditional family cafés. His aim is to promote the best of locally owned, locally run places “that can connect Belfast with the rest of the world,” and help caffeine aficionados discover an alternative to chain cafés. Here Patterson shares Belfast’s best coffee shops with Culture Trip.
Patterson describes Established Coffee, set in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, as “the driving force behind third-wave coffee in our capital city”. When owners Bridgeen Barbour and Mark Ashbridge put their savings into opening a coffee shop in 2013, business was stalled by a paramilitary bomb two blocks away – not your usual new business concern, but one that didn’t deter the determined pair, or the Belfast locals who continued to come in great numbers. The brightly lit, minimalist concrete space has a chic industrial feel, but the vibe is anything but sterile. The focal point is a large communal table which is always full, giving the shop a real community feel. Although the complicated list of coffees may at first seem intimidating, the baristas are always happy to chat about their drinks and recommend the right one for you. Visit after 3pm on a Sunday for the “Pie and Drip” – a new, freshly baked pie every week paired with a complementary, single-origin drip coffee from a guest roaster. For any other time, opt to soak up your coffee with the perfectly spiced cinnamon bun.
On the other side of St Anne’s Cathedral is another of Belfast’s unique coffee shops, Curated Kitchen. Since opening in 2018 it has established itself as one of Belfast’s most notable cafés, winning the accolade of Best Cafe in County Antrim. The first thing you will notice about the red-brick café is a wall-to-wall section overflowing with cookbooks. Founder Alan Cahoon was eager to explain that he curates the menu on an ever-changing basis by selecting a cookbook of the month and opting to run a “customer-led kitchen”, meaning he is always open to suggestions from visitors on the things they like, or would like to try. The coffee, of course, is made with the same care and attention to detail as the menu, and there’s always a new roast or drink to try. As Patterson explains, at Curated Kitchen, “no two weeks are the same, and the coffee selection follows suit”.
This small donut shop near Belfast City Hall, run by Lois and Tim Graham, is known for freshly baking the brightly coloured treats every morning. “With a multi-generational baking heritage,” Patterson says, “these guys are more than familiar with the skills required in making that perfect, puffy, sugary dough.” Quirky, Instagrammable illustrations of a character known as Derek (created by Timothy Farrel) are stamped on the napkins and walls, but the elevation of the traditional American coffee and donut pairing proves that this venue doesn’t prioritise style over substance – or sustenance. Once more, you’ll likely find yourself sharing a communal table, in what feels like a bright hideaway in the often-rainy city. Menu highlights include the espresso ice-cream donut and the Vegan NOh!tella, which draws in the non-vegans as well. For a celebratory treat, you can’t go wrong with the Oh Donut birthday cake.
Opened in 2018 in East Belfast by Ulster Rugby stars Callum Black and Darren Cave, Guilt Trip is another haven for donut-lovers in the city. Black had already built a following for his self-taught coffee skills, sharing his passion on a cheekily named Instagram account called Baldy Barista. He brought his teammate (who shares his love of caffeine) on board for a roaringly successful launch, serving up donuts and quality single-origin coffee. “The first few months were renowned for queues of donut-loving coffee drinkers, who would wait unwaveringly in line,” says Patterson. Featuring dark interiors and moody graphics, all illuminated by neon signage, Guilt Trip lives up to its motto of “All Thrills, No Spills”. Don’t know which donut to go for? Try the bailies mousse with dark choc drizzle for a decadent treat or the vegan espresso glazed donut with cookie butter for a double-dose of caffeine. There’s no need to feel guilty when the treats are this good.
When Sam Alexander and Curt Wigwam opened their café, tucked cosily among the Victorian redbrick houses of Stranmillis and a small row of shops, they didn’t bother promoting it. And they didn’t need to; Patterson describes it as a favourite “local café” that is always bustling with visitors seeking a great cup of coffee. Originally known as “the café with no name”, until locals started referring to it by its address on Lockview Road, this small space makes the most of every inch. Its proximity to the Lagan Towpath, popular with dog walkers, means its a prime location for people-and-pup-watching. Since launching, the small team has expanded with the help of chef Tim Fetherston to open General Merchants and General Merchants 361, but squeezing into the original is always preferred.
Another mini-chain you can find in Belfast is Simon Johnston’s Root & Branch, which first opened as an espresso bar and small roastery but has expanded rapidly in the last few years to be one of the main coffee suppliers in Belfast. The coffee is roasted right here in Belfast, and stored in whiskey casks to soak up some of the flavour. The red-brick Ormeau Road branch has a Scandinavian farmhouse feel, while the café in Ormeau Baths co-working space has more of a tech-startup vibe – but Patterson is most excited by the newly opened Portview Trade Centre, “housed in one of our city’s iconic spinning mills”. It’s a coffee enthusiast’s dream, hosting workshops and tastings, and Patterson also shares that they’ve got serious eco-credentials. “They are one of the first roasters in the world to sell coffee in fully recyclable (and reusable) cans,” he says.
To get a real feel for the Belfast coffee scene, it’s well worth a visit to this original Belfast coffee shop. S D Bell has been roasting coffee since 1887, and is still run by the same family today. While it may not be as trendy a spot as others on the list, it gives a sense of how established and important coffee is to the local community. On a Saturday you can book in for free live jazz while you enjoy your coffee or visit the stall in St Georges market, which offers the same freshly roasted coffee. A strong, hot cup of this coffee is best enjoyed with a traditional Northern Irish traybake.
Though not strictly a coffee shop, honorary mention must go to White Star Coffee. Co-founded by James Price and Phillip Chick, it’s one of Belfast’s most prestigious roasters, winning a host of barista awards. It’s also housed in a former Victorian school, only recognisable by White Star’s pink van outside. Price is exceptionally enthusiastic about creating a quality single-origin roast; a former shower room has been transformed into an experimental “UV lab” where Price examines each bean under a light for defects. “Just one dodgy bean can ruin the profile of a coffee,” he says. ‘‘If we didn’t take that time over the crop, we wouldn’t be honouring the farmer who grew the coffee or the barista who will brew them.” You can’t go to White Star coffee’s roastery unless it’s for an event (which NI Coffee Maps is starting to help organise), but you can try the coffee in many of Belfast’s best coffee shops, including Coleman’s Garden Centre. It may not seem the natural destination for speciality coffee lovers, but it’s owned by White Star co-founder Chick’s father and was the first place to give the startup a chance – demonstrating just how important family is to the Belfast coffee story, from more traditional cafés to sophisticated roasteries.