Whether you’re a caffeine connoisseur – or just someone who sees a cuppa as an essential morning pick-me-up – it’s nice to know that whatever you’re drinking not only tastes good, but does good, too.
The best independent coffees can tick both boxes. You’ll enjoy carefully selected beans, often sourced direct or semi-direct from family growers, therefore supporting the ‘lil guys at the source. And, the little outfits here in the UK – indie businesses, from regional roasteries to neighbourhood cafes, that could use a lift after a trying pandemic year.
But it doesn’t stop there. Some independent coffees even let you get behind other causes you believe in, whether that’s sustainability – say, protecting wild birds – or economic equity (by paying above standard Fairtrade pricing, for example).
When choosing a coffee, you’ll want to consider your own tastes: the variety of bean, the country of origin and the darkness of the roast will all have an impact on final flavour, as well as how you brew it.
Like your coffee dark, chocolatey and rich? Try South American. Prefer bright, floral and fruity? Chances are you’ll be a fan of African. And the great thing with an independent roaster is that they can help guide you through the selection process. If in doubt, give them a ring and chat about what you like before you click and buy online.
We believe the best coffee comes from freshly ground beans, so we tested all the coffees below using just-opened bags of whole beans, ground electrically then brewed in a cafetiere. To begin with, we prepared them all using the same ratio of grinds to water – allowing for an even playing field – then, in order to choose our favourites, adjusted the quantities until we reached the optimum brew.
The best independent coffee brands for 2021 are:
- Best overall – Lost Sheep Coffee get to the hopper: £7.95, Shop.lostsheepcoffee.com
- Best for shelf style – Grind house blend coffee: £9, Grind.co.uk
- Best for big drinkers – Presto house espresso: £15.99, Presto-coffee.com
- Best for light-roast fans – Norlo organic caffeinated coffee tube: £9, Norlo.co.uk
- Best for sustainability – Bird & Wild espresso blend: £5.49, Birdandwild.co.uk
- Best for thoughtful sipping – Dark Arts Coffee cape fear: £9, Darkartscoffee.co.uk
- Best for espresso – Modern Standard momentum espresso: £6, Modernstandardcoffee.co.uk
- Best for flat whites – Climpson & Sons the estate: £8.50, Climpsonandsons.com
Lost Sheep Coffee get to the hopper
- Size: 220g
- Rating: 10/10
Ever heard of “specialty coffee”? It’s a grading term that identifies a coffee as being best-of-the-best quality, and only a fraction of beans grown in the world qualify. And every one of the coffees from Lost Sheep, a roastery and café based in Kent, bares this covetable standard, including the flagship “get to the hopper” blend.
With its dark fruity and milk chocolatey notes, and bright freshness, it’s a pleasure to sip black – best, we think, as an espresso. It’s a feel-good sipper as well, with traceable coffee beans sourced from Colombia and Brazil, for which farmers are paid up to four times more than they would be with standard Fairtrade pricing. And for the final (coffee) cherry on the cake, the packaging is fully recyclable, too.
Grind house blend coffee
Best: For shelf style
- Size: 227g
- Rating: 8/10
Grind wins top marks for packaging. Its pretty pastel pink tin is a great addition to your kitchen shelf, whether you refill it with bags of beans (as intended) or repurpose it as a container for other bits and bobs. As ever, though, it’s what’s inside that really counts, and Grind’s coffee happens to be excellent too.
Sourced from sustainable farms worldwide, each tin is delivered carbon-positive thanks to an off-setting project, Jara Pará, in the Brazilian Amazon. If you can’t make it to one of Grind’s central London café locations, whether it be because you live outside the capital or have traded the commute for perma-WFH, then order your fix of the smooth, medium-roast blend – all brown sugar and milky chocolate notes – online.
Presto house espresso
Best: For big drinkers
- Size: 1kg
- Rating: 7/10
It’s a medium-roast coffee but with an enticing dark profile: cacao, nut, caramel and red cherry waft from your freshly brewed cuppa. Presto’s house espresso is single-estate, which means it’s sourced from just one place – in this case Mogiana in Brazil – and wrapped up in 100 per cent recyclable packaging.
It’s all rather impressive for the price point and considering it’s readily available in a large format, ideal for coffee-fiend families or flatmates who have no problem burning through a standard 200g bag over a weekend. Just £15.99 buys you a full kilo of beans, or you can pick up six kilos for £82.99, and basically that works out at just a few pence per cup. Suddenly your caffeine addiction just got a lot more affordable.
Norlo organic caffeinated coffee tube
Best: For light-roast fans
- Size: 200g
- Rating: 9/10
A Nordic-inspired coffee might, at first, sound unusual but here’s the thing – Finland, Iceland, Norway and Denmark all consume more coffee per capita than any other country on the planet, so they know their beans. And Nørlo, while based in the UK, takes a page out of the Nordic style book with its smooth, aromatic specialty coffee, lightly roasted to let the natural flavours of the beans shine.
With beans sourced from farms across Ethiopia, Central and South America, the coffee’s floral, fruity and light palate gives way to a pleasant pop of acidity near the finish – we believe Nørlo when they say their beans are in the top one percent of quality worldwide. Other things we love? It’s certified organic, Fairtrade and all the brand’s coffee husks, a by-product of roasting, are used to create biodiesel.
Bird & Wild espresso blend
Best: For sustainability
- Size: 200g
- Rating: 7/10
While many independent coffees are doing their bit to minimise environmental impact, Bird and Wild has in mind the wellbeing of one demographic in particular – our feathered friends. Much of the world’s coffee is farmed in direct sunshine, which yields vast quantities but in turn harms the precious biodiversity of local mammal, insect and birdlife.
Bucking the trend, Bird and Wild is certified shade-grown coffee, which means it comes from beans grown the traditional way – under soaring tree canopies – where soil is protected, bees are encouraged and birds have plenty of space to nest. The coffee is organic, Fairtrade and flavourful too, and the espresso blend comes with a rounded sweetness undercut by a grown up, pleasantly bitter kick.
Dark Arts Coffee cape fear
Best: For thoughtful sipping
- Size: 250g
- Rating: 9/10
It doesn’t get much more east London than a coffee roastery that uses profanities on its packaging. But just because Homerton-based Dark Arts Coffee puts a dash of edgy fun into its branding, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t take its coffee seriously.
Rather the opposite; this Brazilian topazio coffee is sourced direct from a father-son duo and comes with a wonderful complexity: cranberry, cherry, hazelnut and citrus notes, with a sweet tropical mid-palate and some dark cacao nib notes. There’s plenty here to keep the coffee connoisseur interested for a proper meditative sipping session, but it’s also easy-drinking and approachable enough to share out with your coffee newbie friends.
Modern Standard momentum espresso
Best: For espresso
- Size: 250g
- Rating: 8/10
When it comes to supporting the environment, Modern Standard puts its money where its mouth is: as a member of “one per cent for the planet”, it donates a minimum of one percent of its annual sales to environmental non-profit organisations. The Scottish roaster, which is also one of the few female-founded coffee businesses in the UK, also donates post-roast coffee chaff as a fertiliser to community gardens and aims to be CO2 neutral by next year.
Of course, all that wouldn’t matter much if the coffee wasn’t tasty. But it is, intensely so – a blend of 70 per cent Brazil Santa Lucia and 30 per cent Colombian el Porvenir, it brings a smooth-drinking chocolatey and sweet caramel palate to your morning sipping ritual.
Climpson & Sons the estate
Best: For flat whites
- Size: 250g
- Rating: 9/10
Coffee geeks living in London are sure to have stumbled upon Climpson and Sons, because this Hackney-based brand is known for turning out some of the finest flat whites in the country. The secret is down to its exceptional coffee, sourced fresh throughout the year, blind-tasted to ensure quality, and roasted on site at Climpson’s Arch.
All this brand’s brews are pretty top-notch, but the estate, a single-origin espresso, is a winner in a flat white as the milkiness brings out its orange, toffee and chocolate notes. As you’d expect of a quality Ethiopian coffee, it’s bright, complex and crisp. The carefully sourced beans come from the Kilenso Mokonisa Cooperation, where super small growers work together to combine their hand-picked coffee cherries.
The verdict: Independent coffee brands
There is more choice in the independent coffee scene than ever, which is good news for your tastebuds, for small coffee growers, and for the planet. The exact independent coffee you’ll like best will come down to your personal taste, but for a brew that balances great flavour with top quality and solid ethics, our favourite was Lost Sheep. Like something with plenty of complexity? Try Dark Arts Coffee. Or if you prefer a lighter roast, Norlo.
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IndyBest product reviews are unbiased, independent advice you can trust. On some occasions, we earn revenue if you click the links and buy the products, but we never allow this to bias our coverage. The reviews are compiled through a mix of expert opinion and real-world testing.