Copr Brewed: Elizabeth Suggs gets a taste of history in a copper-themed Swansea bar
As you step into any cafe/bar, the first thing you experience is the fresh aroma of expertly prepared lattes or the harsh sweetness of a just-made cocktail. Exploring farther into the building, you may hear a clatter of steady voices, the clink of glasses, and the raucous laughter of enthusiastic guests.
Copr Bar, right outside the Quadrant in Swansea centre, provides such an atmosphere, only here everything is swallowed by copper, causing the whole interior to appear as though you have stepped into a mine.
The light fixtures are copper, the tables are copper, the floors, and walls are copper. Even Copper, the vizsla purebred, has a thick copper-coloured coat. The only things missing are matching cups. My drink order, a milky, chocolatey mocha, was served in a clear coffee mug.
However, if you want a copper-influenced drink, you simply have to order the Copr Ddraig, which includes DBL Copr Gin, orange juice, sugar, espresso, and tonic. It tastes like an orange latte with a hint of alcohol. Or if you’re feeling something lighter, try the Copr-exclusive beer.
And if you can’t decide whether to choose alcohol or coffee, West recommends an espresso martini, which includes an espresso shot with vodka and Kahlua or a hot chocolate piled high with marshmallows covered in chocolate syrup.
On the day I visited, the shop was quiet. Aside from the current owner, Lee West, a 40-something Welsh man with styled-messy hair and business casual dress, and me, two other guests sipped their drinks. But as I sat down in one of the soft cushioned couches that overlooked the street, more patrons entered, bustling with life.
The bar/cafe offers biscuits and an assortment of snacks and teas for any passerby who needs a quick fix before returning to the office. And if you need something to wind down after a long day, you can get 2 for £12 cocktails, an effort, West says, to bring life back after the pandemic.
West bought the cafe/bar back in 2019, right before the UK Covid-19 lockdown. Once the lockdown had come underway, West spent his time donating food to the nurses and doctors during the pandemic.
West donated pizzas, snacks, and his time for the tired NHS workers. He even pushed for donations to help the NHS and key workers. It was a way to give back for West, who is also a trustee of the local charity SA1UTE. Like his work with SA1UTE, this brought on a new rewarding challenge.
But it was good to open up again, says West, even if that meant to adhere to the UK Pandemic guidelines, he had to be the “bad guy,” telling patrons not to dance or chat with other tables and to navigate Copr Bar with the arrows stuck around the establishment.
The arrows are still plastered everywhere, but patrons aren’t required to use the arrows around the bar. And with things almost back to normal, West is cautiously optimistic about welcoming the nightlife with a selection of performances and events. Most notably, the upcoming “boss-day” features pints at £4, a two-for-one pizza night deal, a pizza with a pint special, and even a quiz night on Welsh history, where the winner gets a pizza and a pint.
The quiz had questions on the history of Wales and its present. For instance, participants were asked how many goals one Welsh player scored or who was the last king to win a throne in battle, and more. The quiz, like the copper-coated building itself, is West’s nod to the past and his own heritage as a Welsh-born-and-bred resident himself.
West grew up in Swansea and attended a school where both Welsh and English were taught. His family didn’t speak Welsh in his home, so when he went to the marines for seventeen years, speaking only English, he lost much of his Welsh knowledge. Copr Bar was a way to bring back that heritage for both the city and himself.
While the copper facade is aesthetically pleasing, there’s also a deeply rooted history behind the theme, and it is one of the reasons why West changed the coffee shop’s name from Copper to its Welsh’s counterpart Copr.
“I like that it’s associated with the rich heritage of copper,” West said.
Changing the name had two effects. It distinguished his bar from the past owners while also tying it more directly to the rich Welsh history.
The first copper works in Swansea was established in 1720, and by 1823, there were nine copper works in the lower Tawe Valley, making Swansea once the largest exporters of copper in the world. This had two huge impacts on the city.
The first was the new type of “reverberatory” smelting furnace. This used coal instead of timber, so Norwegian and Swedish copper that once supplied European customers became virtually obsolete. In essence, Swansea redefined how copper would be smelted for the next 200 years.
The second development occurred after the lifting of tariffs on imported ore in the 1820s. Ships could now carry copper ore to Swansea from the other side of the world from places like Cuba, South Australia, and most notably, from Chile.
For the next three decades, Swansea Copper was the gold standard (or copper standard, if you will). Thousands of tons of this metal were bought and sold from around the world for the purpose of production.
Copper was so profitable for the town that eventually, Swansea was given the nickname “Copperopolis.” But the copper industry in Swansea would soon expire. By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, new and more fuel-efficient variants of the production method chipped away at Swansea’s success. Eventually, new electrolytic methods of refining copper emerged, causing the whole rationale for smelting copper in a coalfield location unnecessary.
“A lot of people don’t know the importance of copper in Swansea,” West said.
Some may have forgotten what copper meant to Swansea, but the city hasn’t forgotten. One just needs to go into the Glynn Vivian Gallery, which holds painted feather replicas, notes by the Cape Horners for their families during long sea journeys, to be reminded of Swansea’s success and determination.
Even something as simple as getting a drink at Copr Bar has a touch of that near-forgotten history.
West hopes his patrons can learn more about the lustrous history of copper in Swansea, and if not, they can at least enjoy a cup of tea.