12 April 2017

The London Coffee Festival 2017

Last week, when my colleagues asked what I was up to at the weekend, given the brief burst of warm sunshine in London, they were probably expecting me to list a few outdoor activities. Instead, I said I would be drinking coffee all weekend at the London Coffee Festival. To be fair, I spend most weekends drinking coffee, come rain or shine, but the Coffee Festival is special. For one thing, there's a lot of great coffee in one place (Shoreditch's Old Truman Brewery) and for another, there are a lot awesome people to meet who work in coffee and/or just love coffee.

The festival runs for four days (two for industry, two for the public), and I usually buy a ticket for one of the three-hour sessions, which isn't enough to see the whole festival — or even to get your bearings sufficiently to know what you might be missing. This year, the kind London Coffee Festival folks gave me a press pass and I visited a few times: on Friday evening, Saturday 'brunch' (by far the busiest) and most of Sunday. By Sunday afternoon, I had got the hang of the festival's labyrinthine layout and could navigate confidently among the various areas.

As well as tickets for individual sessions (cheaper in advance than on the door), you can buy an all-day VIP ticket, which gives you, among other things, fast-track entry, access to the VIP lounge (including a free cocktail) and a copy of The London Coffee Guide. The festival was busier than ever this year and it was nice to spend a few minutes relaxing in the lounge and catching up with some fellow coffee bloggers, the full Bean There at team (who have already written up their festival visit) and the titular Brian of Brian's Coffee Spot (whose festival round-up is here).

I've divided this festival review into three categories — experiences, coffee and kit. I also have one or two more posts planned, covering some more specific stories in greater detail. The TLDR, though, is that if you love coffee and will be in London next April, you should put 12–15 April 2018 in your diary right away.

One benefit of attending multiple festival sessions was that I could attend a few of the diverse programme of talks held in the Lab without missing out on vital coffee time. On Saturday, I went to a workshop run by Ben Townsend, formerly of The Espresso Room, who gave us a brief intro to tasting coffee like a pro — or, at least, looking like we could taste coffee like a pro. I've been to a few cupping sessions but I still learn something new each time — this time, it was how to slot two spoons together to achieve the perfect 'scrape'. Later, Anke Erichsen spoke about the work the International Women's Coffee Alliance (IWCA) is doing to empower women in coffee — training women in the Dominican Republic to roast artisan coffee for local consumption, for example. It was an inspiring and informative talk.

I also enjoyed Professor Jonathan Morris's talk on UNESCO and the culture of coffee, and Italy's work to apply to have Italian espresso culture join Turkish and Arabic coffee cultures in the UNESCO listings. I love to travel and one of the reasons I don't take coffee-making kit with me when I do is because I enjoy experiencing coffee in the way it is consumed locally — I like to seek out third-wave cafes too, but I couldn't go to Vietnam without trying ca phe sua da or egg coffee.

On Sunday afternoon, I went to a fun session about the bridge between coffee and cocktails, with David Jameson from Campus at Union Hand-Roasted Coffee and Martin Hudak from the American Bar at the Savoy. They made the interesting point that you should feel comfortable entering a high-end cocktail bar and ordering an alcohol-free cocktail or a speciality coffee shop and asking for an extra-hot, half-caf, skinny, caramel latte without fear of judgement. Both baristas and bartenders do and should continue to focus on putting customer service and customer satisfaction at the heart of what they do, the speakers said. Then they made us a really nice Union Coffee/Monkey Shoulder cocktail.

I always enjoy watching latte art pros in action, especially now I have an espresso machine at home and a lot to learn. This year, there were demos throughout each session, and I was transfixed by the talented Shinsaku Fukuyama, who created designs from snails to elephants with great skill and flair. I also watched Coffee Lab's Dhan Tamang in action again — I might have to check out his book when it's released in October. I didn't catch much of the Coffee Masters competition, but I did look in while I was passing the arena, enjoying the theatre and still trying to pick up home-brewing tips.

I don't travel much in the UK outside London, Oxford and Cambridge (I blame the train fares), and I loved sampling a number of new-to-me UK roasters. With Nottingham-based roaster Outpost Coffee, I came for the pink cups (and pink-accented retail bags) and stayed for the exceptional Rwandan Kilimbi coffee, which was one of the stars of the festival, with its strawberry notes. I currently have the beans in my hopper at home and they are tasting great both as an espresso and a piccolo. It was also nice to finally meet Outpost's Chris, whose Instagram photos I regularly like.

I also tried coffee from Leicester-based St Martin's (their Friday St. blend was very drinkable), Horsham Coffee Roasters (where I sampled another Rwandan as a filter coffee) and North Star, who are based in Leeds and whose Ethiopian Ambela washed variety, with its notes of bergamot and jasmine, was so nice I bought some beans to take home. Locating the North Star stand also allowed me to finally find Curve Roasters' nearby base. I stopped for a quick chat and an iced coffee with Teresa, and promised to return soon to their pop-up brew bar in Camberwell.

Plenty of London roasters and cafes attended the festival too, of course, and Climpson & Sons, Taylor Street, Caravan and Coffee Island provided some of the many excellent coffee samples I tried during the festival. When I bumped into Daniel from the Cups of London Coffee blog on Friday, he took me straight to The New Black's stand to try the delicious and unusual Truth Coffee they were serving. I really enjoyed the unique taste of the Resurrection blend, although the Deep, Dark & Twisted was interesting too (the twist being that one of the coffees in the blend is a...robusta!). If you missed it at the festival, you can sample Truth Coffee at the New Black's cafe in The City.

It was also great to meet Michael from Assembly Coffee, a roaster of which I've been a huge fan since I had a killer Kenyan coffee at last year's festival. I've been enjoying some lovely Rwandan Buliza coffee at home in my Aeropress, and it was nice to hear about Assembly's plans — and the plans of their sister brand Volcano, who have just launched a new range of Nespresso-compatible and fully compostable coffee pods. I tried a 'Reserve' espresso blend, which was nice, although I'll leave the full review to my dad who is the Nespresso-machine owner of the family.

My kitchen already contains too much coffee-making paraphernalia, but I couldn't resist a little window-shopping. There was a beautiful stand near the Coffee Masters arena that had some nice coffee- and tea-making kit, but I didn't note down the name. I also eyed up some of the colourful Eureka grinders, and met the lovely Rebecca, who came all the way from Bondi to talk about her beautifully designed hand-blown-glass SoL Cups. You can read more about SoL Cups online, or if you ask nicely, Brian might give you a demo.

A little out of my budget, but I also loved Rosalie McMillan's Java Ore jewellery, produced using a material created from recycled coffee grounds (courtesy of Green Cup). Of course, a legion of La Marzocco Linea Minis were in action at the festival, but I managed to exercise some restraint — especially now that most of my small kitchen is occupied with my espresso machine, grinder and other coffee-making kit. But a girl can dream...

There were still plenty of things I missed at this year's festival, including many of the tea and food concessions (I don't drink tea and although I quite like cakes and sweet treats, there are other opportunities to indulge). I did stop for brunch at Grind's pop-up restaurant, though. I enjoyed my poached eggs and avocado toast and — to aid a journalist friend with some research (honest) — tried to order a beetroot latte but they were (fortunately, perhaps) all out... They were also doing a three-course coffee–food pairing menu for £25, which sounded lovely but I needed to save room — and time — for more coffee.

I had a wonderful time at the London Coffee Festival and loved meeting so many people who are as passionate about coffee as me. I've posted some more photos on my Flickr account, and if you're interested in exploring the London coffee scene further, you can check out some of my London coffee shop reviews here.

Disclaimer: The London Festival organisers kindly provided me with press access to this year's festival. All opinions are, as ever, my own.

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