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Edinburgh Restaurant Review: Brew Lab – Great coffee, good food, but trouble is a-brewing…

Brew Lab coffee machine.
Coffee syphon action (courtesy of Brew Lab website).

It’s a horribly wet Wednesday morning. I am en route to a training course, so my normal morning work routine – coffee from my usual supplier, and maybe a pastry – is totally out of the window. I need caffeine before I am imparted with the secrets of writing a killer CV. And I need it NOW!

Fortunately, I’m in the very centre of Edinburgh’s university quarter. This means I have time to swing by the achingly cool speciality coffee shop that is Brew Lab (6-8 College Street, EH8 9AA) to pick up a latte, prior to the commencement of my morning’s instruction. This would be my second visit to Brew Lab this week. Later in the day, a lunchtime meeting there with a colleague will be my third. As you will find, like a decaying radioactive element (well it is called Brew “Lab”), each visit will have diminishing returns.

Located in a two conjoined, traditional former shops, Brew Lab serves a fantastic range of artisan coffees. And I really emphasise that they are fantastic. The bar brews two rotating single origin coffees every day, as well as its own custom espresso blend. As you enter the venue the “business” area has an intentional scientific influence. There is a coffee menu on the wall behind the baristas that resembles the periodic table. As well as a very high-end espresso machine – located on a facsimile of a lab bench – punters have options to have their java delivered by intriguing methods of distillation. It gave me flashbacks to biochemistry 101. Beyond the ordering section, the seating area takes distressed to the extreme. There is stripped back chic and then there is “are the builders still here?” chic. Not unpleasant, though.

My first visit to Brew Lab on Monday this week was great. A beautiful flat white accompanied great banter with a food-writing colleague.  The coffee was some of the best I have tasted.  This morning, I was in a rush for a takeaway. No real queue at the “lab”, just a chap in front buying a dozen pastries. But whilst waiting to be served, witnessing an ongoing chat between baristas about how sweet the coffee is, before my order is taken, is not a great start. Neither is being informed that the coffee is “so sweet, it doesn’t need sugar”. That’s my choice. I do not wish to enter a debate about it.  It did have a natural sweetness, but after a couple of sips – once I left the shop – it became apparent that a wee pinch of sugar was needed to meet my personal taste.

Back at lunchtime, I grabbed a very good baguette and some water prior to meeting a colleague for a catch-up coffee. The sandwich combined really fresh bread, lovely Emmental, and tasty salt beef. I needed to scoff, swig and check emails. I asked about the WiFi password – but the WiFi wasn’t on. As the venue’s website indicates, “From Monday 16 September, to ensure that everyone that wants to have lunch at Brew Lab can do so, our wifi will turn off automatically from 11:45-14:00 Mon-Fri during term-time”. How would I know this before dining – I had no internet connection?! Plus the walls are so thick, mobile connections are very patchy. “It’s to ensure we converse over lunch” is what the students on the table next to me assumed. No, it’s a cynical attempt to maximise covers at the expense of customer satisfaction, I might wager.  This really must be the only coffee shop in Edinburgh not to offer WiFi to its customers at peak times.  And what really gets my goat is that it isn’t made absolutely obvious that there is no lunchtime WiFi, prior to punters purchasing coffee or food.  A sign, making this glaringly obvious, is badly needed…

When my colleague arrived, I trotted off to the lab/barista area to order coffees and cake – the gluten free Bakewell tart is superb. However, Brew Lab doesn’t go for table service, but rather a system of ordering at the bar with subsequent delivery to the table. This is a big mistake. I do not wish to wait for ten minutes to be served whilst the two punters before me dance a tango with a front of house person continually rebooting a totally erratic card machine. This being whilst the other six staff working the “lab” area appeared oblivious to the, increasingly fractious, cash laden queue.  The way service operates means at busy times – and the place was packed on this particular lunchtime – punters either have to take a chance on buying “sit-in” coffee and food but having nowhere to sit, or (as I witnessed) place an order then skip off to check there are seats, before this is processed. Whilst customers who have bagged tables are left queueing to place orders…

To be honest, I am annoyed, because this place could achieve so much more of what it promises. Maybe it’s my age and the fact that the weather was rubbish. But I have experienced similar, equally impressive, coffee bars in the USA and Europe, each of which are very much better in how they deliver the customer experience. The base product – drinks, pastries, and sandwiches – cannot be faulted. The coffee is amazing. But this is not a place that should be run like a student union canteen. It positions itself as a top end coffee joint. Well, it could be…

Food 7.5/10
Drink 9.5/10
Service 4.5/10
Value 6.5/10
Ambience – A scruffy yet posh coffee shop, without WiFi at lunchtime.

Brew Lab Artisan Coffee Bar on Urbanspoon

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    March 28, 2014 at 10:49 am

    Hi! Hope you're having a good Sunday! I have nominated you for the Liebster Blog Award! Check out my last wee post about it for more information, would love to see your entry ^ ^

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