The London Coffee Festival often seems to occur during my main holiday of the year — last year, for example, I was in Mexico — but I was able to book into one of the sessions of this year's event. Three hours isn't really enough to explore all the festival has to offer, but I did pack a fair amount into the Saturday 'brunch' slot, from 10 am until 1 pm.
I say that the session was three hours long but the festival has expanded since my last visit in 2014 and my brother, sister-in-law and I had to queue for about 20 minutes. Luckily, once the doors opened at 10 am, we moved fairly swiftly. The Truman Brewery event space is huge and the festival is divided into a number of different sections with stands manned by coffee shops, roasters and coffee (and coffee-related) equipment manufacturers, as well as The Lab (for talks and demos), and stages for the final stages of the UK Barista Championships and the Coffee Masters. There are also areas set aside for shopping and eating.
On arrival, we headed to Union Coffee's den where one of their founders, Jeremy, talked us through a roasting. I've seen a few roasting demos in my time, but Jeremy did a great job of explaining the process using really clear analogies that highlighted how coffee beans are like undeveloped photographic negatives and their complex, subtle profiles can be drawn out differently depending on the roasting technique. Quality and sustainability are both really central to Union's ethos and Jeremy's passion for what he does was apparent throughout.
They also had one of the most beautiful espresso machines I've even seen on display and were doing tasting sessions, but I'd had a go at one of those last time so we decided to move on.
I had expected the espresso tonic to be a big trend at this year's festival, but instead, cascara-related drinks were the hot item. Cascara is a fruity, refreshing drink made from the coffee cherry and I tried a few different variations, but Warwick Retail's was my favourite: a delicious combination of coffee, cascara, blueberry gum and floral tonic topped with nitrogen-infused espresso foam. Another great coffee drink I tried was a cocktail that involved coffee, gin, raspberries and rosemary. It was super-refreshing. Most of these drinks and samples were free with a donation to Project Waterfall.
Over at The Roasting Party's stand, latte artisan Dhan Tamang was demonstrating some of his beautiful, caffeinated works of art. It was incredible to watch, although the coffees were almost too pretty to drink — luckily, they made me a less artistic but very tasty macchiato instead.
The only café-roastery present with an eth in its name, Norð's baristas had travelled all the way from Oslo. I'm hoping to visit the Norwegian capital later this year and Norð is definitely on my list of coffee stops. I tried one of their filter coffees, which was excellent, and the design of their takeaway coffee cups is beautiful too.
Unfortunately, I couldn't make the preview event at The Gentlemen Baristas, where the Borough-based coffee shop launched its collaboration with Bulleit whiskey. But at the London Coffee Festival, I got to try both the bourbon-infused coffee (complex and interesting) and their fruity, smooth Bulleit bourbon / coffee cocktail. I adore both coffee and bourbon so the latter was, of course, delicious.
Another great London Coffee Festival collaboration was the wonderful union of cold-brew kings, Sandows, and doughnut dynasts, Crosstown. Most of the coffee samples I tried were free, but I decided that £4 was a reasonable price to pay for a generous serving of Sandows' beautiful, flavoursome nitro cold brew and a doughnut.
Downstairs, we watched the Coffee Masters at work for a while, and then visited a few more stands, including one of my King's Cross coffee favourites, Caravan, who made me an excellent macchiato, and Assembly. At Assembly, I tried a stunning Kenyan coffee, brewed through the Chemex. It was so good, I bought a bag of beans, which, by happy coincidence, featured my two favourite colours. Assembly's beans are on the pricey side (£12 for 300g), but the coffee is really good.
Finally, we stopped by the shopping area. I had been looking forward to buying one of the stylish and playful enamel mugs I'd seen on some of the festival's mailings. I particularly liked the "Pro-Caffeinating" design. Unfortunately, they were priced at a very cynical £15, which was way too expensive. I would have happily paid £10 for a cool and useful souvenir, but £15 was too much. I also thought about buying one of Eliza Southwood's stylish coffee prints, which were specially commissioned for the festival, but spent all of my pennies on coffee instead!
Unfortunately, I didn't have time to attend any of the talks or sessions in The Lab, and I was sad to miss the Meet the Bloggers session with Brian of Brian's Coffee Spot and some of the UK's other top coffee bloggers. Next year, assuming I'm not on holiday again, I'll try to go for more than one session so I can enjoy the experience more without rushing around like a caffeinated chicken.
Although it was very crowded, it was great to see so much interest in coffee and London's coffee shops. I suspect that many people will attend the festival once and then consider it done — even those with a modest interest in coffee may find that three hours is more than enough time. For coffee lovers like me, though, my session just left me wanting more. Oh, and despite all the coffee I drank, I still didn't get the coffee shakes; maybe that was down to the bourbon though!
If the London Coffee Festival has left you wanting to explore more of the coffee scene in London — or elsewhere — you might like to check out some of my coffee guides and maps. This post has ten starters for ten.