Just in front of Union’s pop up roastery was a cupping table, but unlike your traditional cupping table, where you taste multiple coffees to discover the best one, this table was designed for the coffees to discover the best single taster. Set up in a similar manner to SCAE UK’s Cup Tasters competition, challengers were presented with three triangles of coffee, where two cups were the same and a third was brewed with a slightly different coffee. The trick is to spot the odd one out, sounds easy right? Well it’s harder than it looks, the table was set out to get progressively harder as you went along, the first being the easiest and the third the hardest. To make it even harder, you’re tasting against the clock, in order to differentiate between those who get all the answers correct the fastest wins. With no prizes for second place you’re encouraged to taste quickly.
Now, I’m used to taking my time with coffee, slurping it throughout the cup, contemplating all the little intricacies and well, enjoying it. Here there was no time for that, snap judgements would need to be made and robotic like precision required for slurp, rinse, slurp, rinse, slurp, rinse and circle, all the while paying close attention to what you’re tasting. With the leader on the board with a time in the low 30 seconds area, that left around 10 seconds per set or around 3 seconds per cup and I’m no seasoned cupper. Whats more I was going head to head against my girlfriend, which creates a whole different level of competition to deal with.
The stopwatch beeped and I dove straight in, the first set was a little awkward, I couldn’t get into a rhythm of slurping and rinsing and I hadn’t figured out what to do with my pen or my scoring card. Still I suspected the first cup of three to be the odd one out, moving on at haste to the second. This one was more difficult, I couldn’t quite place the correct one, they were all very similar, but there was no time to reassess, I opted for the second cup. Onto the third, I knew I was struggling for time, but I was distracted by how good this coffee was, there was blackcurrants and strawberries, it was lovely and in retrospect I suspect it was Union’s Emporium natural caturra from Panama, at least one of them anyway, but which cup!? I retasted the second cup again, I was bound to be over time, still not sure again I selected the second cup. So how did I score, I hear you ask, the only bit you’re really interested in.
Well I got 1/3 right, the statistical average and calling my result average is probably a compliment. I have considered renaming the blog the amateur commodities enthusiast, but it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. To add insult to injury it was the same score as my girlfriend and it had taken me 20 seconds longer than the leader to figure out that my tasting skills weren’t up to scratch. So what did I learn? I learnt that I have a long way to go if I have any right to be calling myself a connoisseur, I learnt that winning tasting competitions takes a lot of practice and finally I learnt that cupping, especially at speed, is a skill that deserves a great deal of respect, particularly for any winners.
The True Artisan Cafe was designed to showcase some of our best cafes and coffee shops, featuring espresso based drinks alongside the guest’s signature drinks. During our stay we were lucky enough to be greeted by Glasgow coffee roasters Dear Green, Cornwall’s own Origin Coffee and East London’s Climpson & Sons. Three roasters I’d become familiar with at Cup North earlier the previous year. Rather than showcasing themselves as individuals, the roasters had gotten together to create 3 espresso blends featuring a mixture of coffees from each roastery, cleverly named Dear Origin & Sons for a battle of the blends. With that in mind I set out to discover, which had come up with my favourite espresso blend.
Hailing from Glasgow, Dear Green had travelled the furthest of the three to get to London Coffee Festival, it was clear that the journey hadn’t phased them, as they were all in high spirits as we approached the stand. Dear Green had opted for 40% of their own Rwanda Karengera, with an even 30% each of Origin’s Tanzania Tweega and Climpson’s Burundi Kayanza. To taste, the espresso was sweet, lightly fruity, well balanced and really quite enjoyable. I enquired as to whether they’d included a higher percentage of their own coffee on purpose, the answer was a resounding Yes! Still, it was quite an even split.
Moving on to Origin, who had arguably the best packaging for their espresso blend, which they were also giving away for generous donations to Project Waterfall. They had opted in favour of including a majority 50% share of Climpson’s Burundi with 35% of their own Tanzanian Tweega and finally a 15% drop of Dear Green’s Rwanda Karengera. To taste their espresso was deeper and darker than Dear Green’s, more complex and particularly well rounded. I can imagine that should I enjoy milk in my coffee, this potentially would have been the best so far.
Finally it was Climpson & Sons turn, whose signature drink by this point had completely sold out to high acclaim. They had opted for a majority share of their own Burundi, like Origin, with Dear Green and Origin making up the rest respectively. To taste their espresso was very bright and fruity, a bit powerful for my liking if im honest, not bad, but purposefully different from the previous two. No doubt it would have packed a punch in milk, but as an espresso it was a bit much for my palate to handle.
With all three tasted it was time to decide who had won the battle of the blends in my mind at least, which given my recent performance of the cupping table probably meant very little. I had managed to narrow it down to either Dear Green’s or Origin’s espresso, which were both good in different ways, with very little between them. In the end by a whisker I tipped the scales in favour of Dear Green’s espresso, tending to prefer the sweet, well balanced nature of their espresso. With Dear Green proclaimed my personal winner, the real winner here was the coffee industry. The greatest thing about this stand was that all three coffee shops had collaborated to make a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.
Having finished tasting the battle of the blends, we bumped into the enigma that is Brian Williams creator of Brian’s Coffee Spot, most probably the greatest coffee blog on the internet. There are no pictures for this section, as Brian is not actually an official exhibit of the London Coffee Festival, although if you ask me he should be. Though in fairness that might hinder his ability to wander around the festival and document it. One of the nicest guys in coffee, Brian is friendly, approachable and always willing to chat, although we did catch him with half a Crosstown sugar ring doughnut in his mouth when we found him.
Chatting to Brian already felt familiar after listening to him on Espressno’s Episode C podcast, either that or because he’s so disarmingly friendly. Either way, we jumped straight into chatting about how both of our days were going and how we’d both just finished the battle of the blends. Brian was equally impressed with the espresso collaboration of all three roasters, but I’ll leave it to him to explain to you which was his favourite. The conversation quickly moved on to the art of surviving London Coffee Festival, we were only there for a 3 hour window, Brian on the other hand had been there since Friday and was going to be attending again on the Sunday. The trick as he explained was to drink a lot of water if you wanted to avoid death by caffeine late on the Sunday night. Brian also went on to explain that this year he had set himself a decaf challenge as another way to mitigate the difficulties of drinking so much coffee in a day. We’d only been there a few hours and we were already pretty wired, not really having the option of taking it slowly.
Having both recently been to America for coffee tours, we discussed our mutual love of Brooklyn Roasting Company’s Jay Street branch, which you can read about here and here. Along with the perils of having visited America during snow season, Brian describing walking down certain streets with cars completely buried in snow with little chance of thawing out anytime soon. Fortunately we left snow in England and made it back just days before snow landed in New York.
Finally we talked about great coffee in the North and in particular about great coffee in my home city of Leeds. As fans of Brian’s you’ll be aware that he loves to visit cafes and coffee shops all around the country and none more so than those in Leeds, ok, so I might be putting words in his mouth there, but he does really like Leeds, he has no less than 8 separate articles from it. Talking to Brian for a while was lovely, we’re all lucky he never took up blogging about basketball instead.