Coinciding with the beginning of UK Coffee Week, London Coffee Festival invites coffee professionals, fanatics and newcomers to experience the UK’s premier specialty coffee festival and if that wasn’t enough reason to go in itself, it might help to note that 50% of standard ticket sales are donated to Project Waterfall a clean water project run by the Allegra Foundation. So as your savouring your 9th shot of espresso in the same day, you can remind yourself that this unhealthy addiction to caffeine of yours is being played out in the name of charity.
I’ve been to many run for profit festivals in the past and many are guilty of providing poor service and very little other than the entertainment for the ticket price. London Coffee Festival however, is professionally run with great attention paid to the small details. The queue was well organised and wrist bands were handed out in advance, meaning that you were able to experience the entirety of your alloted time slot. Programme guides and maps were handed out for free along with free chocolates and at the top of the stairs we were handed free tote bags to carry our wares in, filled with tea, fliers and the odd can of pop.
The London Coffee Festival website was great this year for introducing you to all the goings on, with useful preview sections and timetables for when and where all your favourite shops and roasteries would be. For those that missed the website, the on site programme had plenty of information to point you in the right direction. It was easy to see the True Artisan Cafe being one of the major highlights this year, alongside Union’s pop up roastery, DRWakefield’s cupping table and for those with an interest in barista tradecraft the inaugural Coffee Masters event, that would go on to crown one expertly skilled barista as its first champion.
Arriving like a kid in a candy store, it was difficult to know where to start. Deciding to head straight to the True Artisan Cafe, it was clear that all parties involved were busy setting up and dialing in. It would be a while before they were ready to go head to head on espresso blends. So with UK coffee stalwarts Square Mile close by it was easy enough to find a suitable alternative.
Square Mile must be going through a French existential philosophers phase, that or they’ve drank so much coffee that they’ve gone colour blind because for them black was definitely the new black. From their new all black Victoria Arduino Black Eagle espresso machine, to their stylish new black and white packaging, even their Marco SP9’s set up was all in black. In contast tasting their recent coffee offerings has been a colourful rollercoaster ride of fruit and flavour. Today would be no different, Square Mile had set up a tasting flight exhibition of three of their current coffees, to be sampled as we were informed from our right to left.
Featuring their pulped natural yellow bourbon from Santa Lucia, Brazil, a classical affair of chocolate, sweet caramel and nuts with a buttery mouthfeel even when brewed with a V60. Their washed colombia and caturra from Los Monjes, Colombia, a bright fruity acidic coffee with a wealth of fruit flavours and a silky mouthfeel, incidentally one of my favourite coffees so far this year. Followed lastly by their washed heirloom and 1274 selection from Bifdu Gudina, Ethiopia, elegantly floral with such honest peach notes and a tea like mouthfeel. The tasting flight was expertly put together and helped to distinguish the individualities of the coffees in a way that highlighted the virtues of each. The baristas, who were also roasters at Square Mile were great at taking us through the coffees and the brewing method, showing real passion for the coffees they were working with.
Having attempted to swing by again at the end of our festival to pick up a bag of the Bifdu Gudina that had been plaguing my mind since tasting it, we found it unsurprisingly sold out! Thankfully I have some winging its way in the post to me, as I write this.
Cold brew was heavily represented at this year’s London Coffee Festival, with a lot of shops featuring their own attempts at cold brew. I must at this time point out that I don’t even like cold brew, I like my coffee hot and aromatic with steam rising up out of the cup. The cold brew I’d tried so far had often been flat and if im honest a little flavourless. That said I was hoping that someone at the festival might be able to convince me otherwise.
Earlier that morning we had been at Pump Street Bakery’s pop up store on Redchurch Street, round the corner from the festival picking up a delicious Pain Au Chocolat filled with 60% Ecuadorian dark milk chocolate, when we explained that we would be going to the London Coffee Festival. They were quick to exclaim that their highlight of the festival, in the few hours they had managed to pop away from the store, was Sandows Nitro Cold Brew. On that advice we made our way to Sandows to begin our cold brew adventure. On arrival Hugh Duffie welcomed us over with samples of their Colombian cold brew. What was immediately clear, was that this was the best cold brew I’d ever tasted. What was different about this cold brew was the bright fruity acidity, something that had been missing for me previously.
We discussed with Hugh the brewing process, which sounded somewhat ridiculous with him and his partner Luke completing everything out of their basement to the point of sticking on the labels themselves by hand. Producing their cold brew by immersion batch brewing, which helps to bring out the fruity acidity and sweetness of the coffee, rather than by slow drip. Their 2 day process of taking the roasted coffee to a fully formed branded bottle means that a lot of their time is taken up brewing to fulfil their weekly orders, but it is clear that this is work they love and it is beginning to reap rewards, as customers recognise the quality of their product.
Not satisfied with just producing quality bottled cold brew and having learnt some techniques from the beer industry, they began experimenting with CO2 and Nitrogen in order to produce their Nitro cold brew. Adding Nitrogen to their cold brew helps to move it from a iced tea like mouthfeel to one closer to a light ale. The textural difference is very interesting and definitely adds a new dimension to the cold brew. In the end I preferred the bottled cold brew, as exciting as the Nitro was, due mainly to a preference for the Colombian coffee used to brew the bottled, rather than the Peruvian used for the Nitro. Both opened my eyes however, to the potential quality and desirability of cold brew.
Having swung by at the end of the festival to pick up a bottle to take home, we again found another great product sold out. Thankfully Sourced Market in St Pancras station has an eye for quality produce too, so we picked one up there before our train home.
One of my favourite coffee shops in Leeds, my home city, is Mrs Atha’s where they house their gorgeously appealing Slayer espresso machine. It would be rude therefore, not to visit the makers of such an attractive machine. Unfortunately we had missed Matt from local roasters Maude Coffee pulling shots on the machine on the Friday. Fortunately the stand had been resupplied with expertly skilled baristas from the Coffee Works Project in London, who were more than willing to show us around the machine. Explaining our fascination to Peter at the stand, he explained that the Coffee Works Project had been the first shop in London to install a V2 Slayer Machine and Mrs Athas had spent some time playing around with it before deciding that they loved it too.
Peter invited us into the stand to take us through the espresso making process, first grinding and weighing out 20g of coffee with the hope of pulling 34 grams out. Tamping the coffee down, he locked the basket into the group head, explaining that he would be immersing the coffee under 4 bars of pressure for 4 seconds by placing the brew actuator into the middle position, before moving the actuator to the left in order to apply 12 bars of pressure for around 20 seconds. It all sounded very technical, but was performed with such ease, no doubt after much work dialing in the machine and coffee in the morning.
Placing the scales underneath the cup Peter was able to weigh out the return from the machine, receiving the desired 34 grams out. Not satisfied with his first pull, Peter threw the first espresso away, explaining it had taken a long time to pour through, suggesting that the coffee may have been tamped down to hard and therefore been compressed too tightly to extract in the desired time. We talked about the value of baristas being willing to throw away coffee that hadn’t met their own high standards, as every customer deserved to be treated with the same respect that they, as baristas, showed to their coffee. So if you’ve ever seen your barista throw your espresso away to make another, be glad, its a sign of a great coffee shop.
Much happier with the second shot, Peter passed it around for us to taste. Now im naturally more of a fan of filter and brewed coffee than espresso, but this was one of the best espressos I’d tasted. Initially sweet like caramel, It had a mellow but long fruit acidity to it, which developed throughout the sip, less punchy than most espresso I’ve had, this was well balanced and well rounded from start to finish.
I’m not really one for milk in my coffee either, but Peter set about making a piccolo for us. Again I was surprised to find how good it was, still very balanced in milk it added well rounded acidity and a sweet caramel to the cup, that was equally good if not better than the espresso without milk. I asked how he knew when the milk was ready for using for latte art, he explained he just knew by ‘feel’, ‘around 65oC, but you get used to it, so you just feel it’ he said as he cupped the base of the milk jug with his hand.
What I learnt here, was how many variables there are in producing good espresso based drinks and how all the great baristas have to master these variables by working tirelessly on each shot they pull, eventually getting a feel for their coffee, their milk and most importantly their machine. So next time you’re in a coffee shop, if its not busy, ask your barista what they’re doing and why, you might just enjoy hearing the answers.
Now I just need to figure out, how to afford one of these.