Yes, Caffe Nero may be moving into the town centre, the next chain to bag a prime site, but there is still hope for those who like decent coffee and want to support independents. On London Road, opposite The Odyssey Cinema, you can find the small, but perfectly formed, Charlie’s Coffee & Company.
If you catch a train at St Albans City station you will already know Charlie Powell and the coffee she sells from the Piaggio van by platform 4. Six years on, the van is still in the same place and Charlie has many dedicated customers who love her excellent coffee, home-baked goodies and her cheery welcome (even on snowy mornings).
At last, Charlie has opened a shop, so for those not up early enough to find her at the station, you can find her at the shop from 11.30. It is a tiny shop, with seating for perhaps 10 people, and more stools outside, but this seems to lend itself to conversation, as wherever you sit you are within chatting distance from Charlie!
Charlie explained how she and partner Sue designed and built the shop themselves, including making the covetable lights. All the crockery is made in England and has a lovely, comforting retro feel.
But people go mainly for the coffee, which is direct trade, and is roasted by one of the UK’s most well-regarded micro-roasteries, Has Been. Coffee, like any crop, has seasons, and Charlie varies her coffee; when I went in she was using Costa Rica Finca De Licho Yellow Honey Villa Sarchi and Nicaragua Limoncello Washed Caturra. Charlie grinds it herself, and the freshness and flavour are worlds away from coffees you get elsewhere. Look out, too, for the photo of the cow on the counter: Charlie spent six weeks sourcing milk as she wanted to buy directly from an independent, rather than the milk conglomerates. The milk she found is from a small herd of Guernsey cows, who live 25 miles from St Albans and are looked after on a family farm. That is just one example of the care and thought Charlie has put into her business; she wants to do things as well as she possibly can, and her customers love her for it.
I was amazed to see that the tea is actually grown in Cornwall on a plantation called Tregothnan; it is the first time I have seen it sold anywhere.
The cakes and bakes vary daily, and Charlie makes many of them herself, or sources them locally; I saw gluten-free lemon, almond and pistachio cake, roasted veg and feta muffins, tiny pecan pies, and Blueberry crumble cake.
Charlie’s is also open on Saturday mornings (8.30-12.30) so if any commuters are missing her coffee you can now head there on the weekend. It is truly a neighbourhood cafe (and we can leave the chains to the tourists).