Last year, three loyal blog fans banded together and approached us about creating a guest post. The topic: their favorite Birmingham coffee shops. At the time, all 3 were grad students for whom a good coffee shop -whether for studying, relaxing, socializing, or just grabbing a really great cup of coffee or snack – is essential. So you could say they had a real passion for the topic. Not surprisingly, what they created is a fantastic, curated description of our city’s best coffee drinking experiences. Enjoy!
Jesse Passler’s Picks
The Abbey is airy, bright, and inviting. The light coming in through the front and back windows on the light gray floor and sky blue wall is reminiscent of a clear spring day. The space is eclectic, with tables, chairs, and couches in a variety of styles, worn rugs, a piano (presumably for worship), and bookshelves with mostly Christian-based books. The coffee shop is part of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama (if you are interested, their website has the times of religious gatherings you can attend), however, regardless of your religious leanings the atmosphere is welcoming and peaceful.
There is a big emphasis placed on buying and eating local at the Abbey. They have homemade soups, sandwiches (served on focaccia from Birmingham Breadworks), and sweets/pastries. The BLT was hearty and delicious – I only have two words to describe it: BACON JAM. This makes it a great coffee shop to grab lunch.
The coffee beans are from Red Bike Coffee (from Irondale), which have a bold yet smooth flavor. The tea is from Piper & Leaf Artisan Tea Company (from Huntsville). As the barista explained to me, they brew their teas in-house as a concentrate, which is then used to prepare the hot or cold drinks. The Sassafras Strawberry green tea was surprisingly light and tame with only a subtle strawberry flavor (despite the light pink color) – it was so drinkable that the cup was done before I had remembered to snap a picture! There is also an excellent selection of cold smoothies; the Nutella Frosty had a satisfying mocha flavor that wasn’t overwhelmingly sweet, and with a shot of espresso it was the perfect treat for a sweltering summer day.
The Abbey is located in Avondale – need I say more? Obviously, you are in a forever-growing neighborhood with abundance of awesome food and drink spots, not to mention Avondale Park. There is a small outdoor area that is very peaceful, with herbs and vegetables growing, looking out on a gravel lot (there is excellent parking at the Abbey) and Avondale brewery. Indoor seating includes tables, chairs, couches, you name it. This makes it one of the few coffee shops perfect for lounging, easy to lose a whole day reading a book sprawled across a comfy couch. Towards the back of the coffee shop there is a relatively separate space with two large couches, a large table, and several board games. So, along with studying, reading, writing, or daydreaming, it’s also a great place to kick back and relax with friends. For those who are easily distractable, it is one of the quietest and most relaxing coffee shops I’ve been to, so it’s a great place to get in the “zone.” There are minimal outlets, but you can likely create your own work/relaxing space as I’ve never seen the place overrun with people (as their website says, as a nonprofit project they focus on offering “a place of hospitality and conversation to the community”). Everything about the Abbey is laid back and welcoming.
Hours are Monday-Saturday from 7am – 7pm, Sunday from 10am-3pm
There is password-protected, guest Wi-Fi
Octane in Homewood
Walking into Octane is a pleasing experience. The space is open and bright with a tasteful industrial and modern flair; bright wood elements are mixed with exposed brick, concrete flooring, and an open ceiling. A glass wall even lets you witness the on site made coffee-perfecting experience first-hand.
Octane has various coffee drinks (obviously), loose-leaf teas, and breakfast, lunch, snack foods, and sweets/pastries. This makes it a good place to park for extended working, reading, or relaxing. It also has a separate, fully-stocked cocktail bar, so you can transfer seamlessly from work to play.
The black coffee on ice (it was a sweltering day!) was slightly sweet with a subtle finish and no bitterness, great for multiple cups. The mocha was smooth and creamy with a balanced cocoa flavor. As a tea lover, I was especially excited about the many loose-leaf teas, and I was not disappointed. Octane allows for one of the best tea drinking experiences. The loose-leaf teas are perfectly steeped before being poured and brought to you – no guesswork or timing on your part, just wonderfully balanced flavor (and the perfect temperature). Once you’ve finished your first cup, the friendly baristas are happy to re-steep for a second cup.
Octane is conveniently located next to Steel City Pops, you know, just in case you need a popsicle break, and the up and coming Red Hills Brewery. There are a few two-top outdoor tables when it is a pretty day or to people watch the busy Homewood strip, however a garage door opens Octane to beautiful weather even at indoor seating. Indoor seating is tables and benches, so don’t expect to lounge out on a couch to take in a book, but there is a better-than-average outlet to table ratio to keep your laptop plugged in for an all day work session (approximately 1/3 of the indoor seating has access to outlets). Overall, Octane manages to balance a lively and laid-back atmosphere well, appropriate for those who want to study, relax, read a book, or meet with coworkers or friends over caffeine or cocktails. The music is often played a little loud, so if that is distracting to you, I suggest bringing ear phones. Other important notes:
Hours are Monday-Friday from 7am – 9pm (10pm on Fridays) and weekends 8am – 9pm (10pm on Saturdays)
There is password-protected Wi-Fi
There is another Octane location in Uptown
Urban Standard is a relaxing environment that is open and bright with a laid back feel. The space is decidedly industrial with exposed brick, unfinished walls, and concrete floors, but it also has the feel of a European café; faded maps, clean artwork, and antiques make up the décor. Their website states that the owner grew up in Poland and purposely wanted to create a unique space reminiscent of the European café culture to feature his artwork and that of local artists.
Urban Standard has homemade soups, salads, sandwiches (with a focus on Polish-style eats), and sweets/pastries (it is vegetarian friendly). And don’t be mistaken, this isn’t your forgotten about microwaved food found at some coffee shops – the food is thought up by the owner and his friends, well-prepared, and downright delicious (perhaps worthy of its own post)! I personally had the best dark chocolate covered coconut truffle I’ve ever had at Urban Standard (I like to consider myself somewhat of an aficionado of coconut-based sweets, but I digress…). This makes it a great coffee shop for lunch or dinner in and of itself. There is also wine and local beers available.
The coffee beans are from Counter Culture (based in Durham, N.C.), which are quite delicious. No flavor stands out over any other but rather there is a perfectly-balanced, soul-comforting overall coffee experience. Prepared drinks include macchiato, cappuccino, latte, Americano, café au lait, mocha, hot cocoa, and chai. There is also a decent selection of loose-leaf teas (hooray!) which are steeped by the baristas.
Urban Standard is located downtown on 2nd Ave N – yes, that is the same 2nd Ave N with Das House, Rouge Tavern, Pale Eddie’s, El Barrio, and Bamboo on 2nd (not mention walking distance from Carrigan’s Public House, Tavern on 1st, Collins Bar, Paramount, and the list goes on). So, obviously, you are right next to a plethora of awesome food and drink spots. There are a few two-top outdoor tables, but not many. Indoor seating includes tables (in an eclectic variety of styles), benches, and a couch. Outlets are minimal, so you may want to make sure you have a charge before attempting an extended work session. Overall, Urban Standard effortlessly creates a relaxed atmosphere that encourages focus – it is the perfect place to study, relax, read a book, write the next great novel, or meet friends (and as previously mentioned, just to get a bite to eat!). Important notes:
Hours are Monday-Friday from 7am – 8pm, Saturday from 8am-8pm, closed Sunday
There is password-protected Wi-Fi (you have to buy something)
Christina Jagielski’s Picks
Church Street Coffee and Books
Church Street is my studying home away from home. Nestled in the heart of Crestline Village, this coffee shop gem is a perfect place for a casual coffee date, studying or my favorite, reading. Owned by Heather and Cal Morris, this lovely spot, which was formerly a Starbucks features a welcoming and relaxing atmosphere, with friendly and helpful service, free parking and wifi and an assortment of delicious drinks and baked goods to serve your every need. They also feature great hours of service, important if you planning a long study session.
Church Street serves Octane coffee and offers a full espresso bar as well as coffee served with the pour over method. They also serve an assortment of delicious hot teas. In addition they carry a wide array of non-coffee drinks as well, great for that one friend we all know who doesn’t like coffee or tea (no judgement). For milk alternatives they offer soy or almond milk.
Alright, let’s talk food. I have two top reasons that I love Church Street. The first reason is the food. Everything is made fresh in house by their pastry chef Heather Morris. As someone with several food sensitivities/allergies, Church Street is in my opinion the best in town for catering to people with different food preferences, without sacrificing one ounce of flavor. As a baker myself, I hold coffee shops to a high standard in this area. Whether it’s the treehugger (pictured), the gluten free chocolate-orange mini or sunrise cookie, or their big claim to fame, the breakup cookie, you cannot go wrong with any of their items. I can attest to that as I’ve tried them all. My latest favorite is the chocolate-orange mini which features two cookies with a macoon-like texture and sandwiched between them is the tangy flavor of orange marmalade, all of which has been dipped in chocolate. It’s everything I need in one bite. Church Street labels all of their foods clearly as being gluten free, lactose free, vegan and cane sugar free.
But it’s not just a coffee shop. Church Street offers a collection of books from the latest YA novel, to children’s books to many of the top non-fiction titles, all available for purchase. Even when I’m just there to study, there’s something special about being surrounded by books. It’s like being at an extra cozy library, but with great food too. They even have a children’s section complete with beanbags.
The other reason I love Church Street is the ambience. Downstairs is an area with ample seating, great for meeting up with friends. There is lots of natural light indoors, and a small patio out back. But upstairs is my favorite. There is a spacious area that was newly renovated as a quiet study space. It’s great for meeting up for a study group or working alone. My favorite spot is a little hidden nook in the corner that looks out a window. The space can be reserved for groups as well.
You can tell when you walk in the door that Church Street puts an emphasis on service. Everyone, from the owner who is frequently out front, to all of the other baristas have consistently been warm, friendly, and willing to answer any questions whether it’s about the books they sell or ingredients in their food or anything in between.
Hours are Monday-Saturday from 6am – 10pm, Sunday from 7am-10pm
There is password-protected, guest Wi-Fi
Oh how I value a coffee shop that provides an escape from everyday life. There is so much to love about the Hoover Public Library. A spacious, open, illuminated space, the library has become one of my favorite spots to get away to read, write or study. What many people don’t realize is that is also hosts a lovely coffee shop that specializes in international cuisine. To be fair, Customs Café is much more than just a coffee shop. Formerly named Coffee-ol-ogy, this family run business is owned by Teresa White and her son Craig Casiday, two people who truly value sharing the world of food. The café features a special menu from a different country each month. White and Casiday both value educating the public about the world of food and thus offer presentations about the history of each culture the first Sunday of every month. Don’t forget your passport. Custom’s Café features a loyal program where customers can get their passport stamped each month and receive five percent off with each additional visit that month.
The café serves a variety of cold and hot beverages, including your classic café au lait, mochas, lattes, etc and also feature hot chocolate, smoothies and milkshakes as well. I tried the Jet Setter (pictured here) and found it a perfect blend whipped cream with coffee and chocolate.
Customs Café’s most unique quality is the variety of food available at a very affordable price. They have a standing menu available throughout the year (including one of the best strawberry cakes that has ever graced my mouth), but the real highlights are the monthly international cuisine. June featured a Taste of France. The flavor combination of the Monte Cristo sandwich was perfect and oh my goodness that roasted pear tart was amazing. Truly there are no words. Vegan and vegetarian options are available.
Now where to eat? You have lots of options. Inside their spacious seating area, out in the library by the floor to ceiling windows, or perhaps you’d like to dine on their lovely patio? My favorite spot was always under the quiet and peaceful canopy, a perfect place to rest, savor delicious food, and if you’re so motivated, actually get some work done.
And finally, the service. You don’t have to look hard to find the owners. Normally one of them can be found either out front or back in the kitchens and are always happy to chat and answer questions. Once you meet them you can instantly feel how much they value quality, service and sharing their love of food.
So maybe we can’t always hop a flight to our desired international destination at a moments notice, but thanks to Café we can always find a little taste of the world in Hoover, Alabama.
Customs Café 2016 monthly menu:
July: American Classics
Address: 200 Municipal Dr, Hoover, Alabama 35216
Hours: Mon-Thurs: 10:00 AM – 7:00 PM, Friday-Saturday: 10:00 AM – 5:30 PM, Sunday: 2:00 PM – 5:30 PM
The library offers free wi-fi.
Christina Mueller’s Picks
Seeds Coffee Company
You’re not likely to find Seeds in passing, but it is worth the drive out to Oxmoor Road. The coffee shop has its own large parking lot, and you will be sure to find a spot. You can park your bike here, too.
I visited on a Saturday afternoon, and Seeds was lively but did not feel crowded. The store was well staffed and waiting times were short. The demographic consisted of students and young professionals, as well as families with children. The store was clean and decorations are modern but inviting. There are tables with chairs, couches, and even floor cushions, or bar stools at the coffee bar and at windows facing outside if you like to people watch.
The staff at Seeds are very friendly and the service is outstanding. The baristas know their coffee roasts and were able to recommend a brew according to my tastes. All standard espresso-based drinks, and notably pour-overs, can be prepared hot or iced. Seeds offers coffee from different origins such as Colombia, Guatemala, or Ethiopia. Brewed coffee starts at $3.50 during daytime hours and weekends, but commuters can pick up their morning coffee for $2.50 on weekdays between 6-10. Almond or soy milk is available for 75c extra, and flavored syrups can be added to any drink for 50c. The baristas can prepare espresso-based drinks using different techniques, such as AeroPress and Chemex. Ask them for details about how this works.
If you don’t like coffee, you may like to try their whole leaf tea that includes black, green, herbal, and fruit varieties. Notably, Seeds also sells beers from local breweries such as Good People and Full Moon, as well as soft drinks. There is no food menu.
I recommend Seeds if you’re looking for a place to get work done. Every indoor table is within reach of power outlets, so you will never have to compete for one. Fast and reliable wifi is available via Facebook check-in or by connecting directly to the Seeds network. Check out the books and board games if you’re relaxing or have come with friends.
Seeds regularly hosts music events featuring both up-and-coming and established artists. Check out their website or facebook page for details.
O’Henry’s in Homewood is an old-school coffee shop serving gourmet coffee and cakes. I come here often due to its convenient location and friendly atmosphere.
There is plenty of on- and off-street parking, or you may happen to stop by during a stroll through downtown Homewood. O’Henry’s has plenty of inside and limited outside seating. A handful of tables have access to power outlets. Interior decorations give the store a homely feel, with heavy books, photographs, and antiques lining the walls.
Hot and cold espresso-based drinks, an assortment of teas, frappes, smoothies, and soft drinks, are available. O’Henry’s rotates through their menu to offer different varieties of brewed coffee each day. You will be able to choose from medium, dark, and decaf roasts.
The large selection of coffee roasts prepared in-store is also available to purchase for your home. Seasonal and holiday varieties change throughout the year.
I recommend the Homewood location for evening coffee dates. O’Henry’s is so popular with students that it can get crowded during the day, but the atmosphere relaxes considerably during late hours. You will be able to unwind and have conversations (or, if all else fails, cake) in delightful company.
Opening hours (Homewood location):
O’Henry’s has other locations in Brookwood and Highland Park. Check their website for opening hours.