Chronicling the North's coffee scene

Feature by James Dawson | 01 Jun 2016

As part of our ongoing 'Pioneers' series that looks to champion the doers, thinkers and makers behind the region's burgeoning food and drink scene, we talk to the folk responsible for Coffee Shop: North, a new book chronicling the North's coffee scene. 

All chain coffee shops look alike; each independent is independent in its own way.

That the distinction between the two is often presented only as a choice between supporting local or big business shows a disregard for the importance of aesthetics in selecting where we consume food and drink. But talk to those who are part of the culture around coffee shops, and they will tell you that the evils of Starbucks owe as much to each shop’s sameness and stylistic mundanity as being a dreaded 'multinational'.

Graphic designer Dan Saul Pilgrim curated the recently published Coffee Shop: North book as a way of showcasing the variety of independent coffee shops around the North of England. He visited 23 shops in Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool, Hull, York, Newcastle and Harrogate alongside photographer and collaborator Justin Slee.

“The reason why I picked the coffee shops featured in the book is that there's a real visual mix; they all have their own aesthetic and they all draw different people depending on their customers' preferred style,” Pilgrim explains.

“Whether you like a Scandinavian-style clean, minimal-looking shop or a more ornate, higher-end shop, there's a lot of choice there that draws different people in. They each have their own identity, even down to the differing typography of their signs.”  

"There are more unique shops in the North. In Harrogate, there are only three independent coffee shops but they are some of the best in the country" – Dan Saul Pilgrim

Like many freelancers, 24-year-old Pilgrim's preferred place to work is coffee shops. He developed the idea for the book through his experiences of working and socialising in the Northern coffee scene, feeling that it deserved to be celebrated in print.

As well as photographs of staff, customers, and the shops' interiors and exteriors, the book features 13 essays from collaborators focusing on different aspects of Northern cafe culture, each accompanied by illustrations.

“I think there's more density and character to the eight cities I chose as opposed to London, where there's a coffee shop on every high street,” Pilgrim says.

“In the North there are more unique shops. In Harrogate for example, there are only three independent coffee shops but they are some of the best in the country, and they all approach coffee in a different way.

“I think more people are starting to become aware of what makes a good cup of coffee and moving away from high street chains, either for ethical reasons or for the quality of the product.”

Whether it’s to sit near the window watching passersby or under a certain light fitting, there's a reason we have our favourite seat in a coffee shop. You only need to check Instagram to find hundreds of pictures of cups of coffee and cafe culture, and to see that the aesthetic beauty of a coffee shop is an important part of the coffee drinking experience.

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In addition to photographs of the shops, coffee and equipment, Coffee Shop: North showcases the communities who frequent the shops. A former barista himself, Pilgrim places particular emphasis on the importance of a shop’s workers in creating its style and the experience.

“People forget that, for the owners and baristas, it's not just a job – usually the people who work in coffee shops are cultured in art and music, design and fashion and it's not a coincidence that these are things that tie together in cafe culture,” he says.

It's also no coincidence that Pilgrim is currently based in Leeds, where the coffee scene is enjoying a resurgence. May's Leeds Indie Food festival ran the 'Leeds Coffee Social', bringing together the city's indie coffee shops for a collaborative celebration of its scene.

Dave Olejnik, the owner of Laynes Espresso – one of the Leeds coffee shops featured in the book – has seen the scene grow around his shop since it opened five years ago. Olejnik emphasises the importance of independent owners influencing the style and culture of their shop.

“Every independent shop is owned by somebody with an idea of what looks good, and every decent shop owner will have their stamp to put on it,” he says.

“There's definitely an aesthetic in my shop. People recognise the branding and they associate the colour on the outside and the style inside with our look, which makes it stand out.”

Holly Bowman, who as director of Leeds' North Star coffee shop wrote an essay for the book about her journey through the independent coffee scene, stresses how a shop's vibe can help bring people into the scene.

“I think the style of a shop is what sets a place apart today and draws people in,” she says. “It's not the be-all and end-all because, ultimately, it's about the taste of the coffee itself, but I do think a shop's unique aesthetic is an important access point for people getting into speciality coffee.”

Coffee Shop: North is available now at, selected independent coffee shops and independent bookshops