Coming into its third year Cup North had undergone a little rebranding, being labelled as Manchester Coffee Festival, but for me somehow I can’t help thinking of it as anything but Cup North. Remaining in the Victoria Warehouse, this year saw Cup North move into one of the adjacent buildings where the layout provided a more spacious feel and took a lot of the steamy heat out of the equation. I can’t help feeling that this year felt a little less organised and had been a little less enthusiastically promoted. This may however, have had some potentially unintended positives, the festival felt very relaxed this year, some might even say it felt casual and given that its main alternative is the hustle, bustle and high intensity of London Coffee Festival, I can’t help feeling that this was a welcome change. Thanks again has to go to Hannah Davies and Ricardo Gandara who in spite of having to work real jobs, manage to organise this wonderful festival in their spare time.
Walking into the festival we found the first row of stands to be quite busy, so made our way into the main hall where the first stand we came across was none other than Origin Coffee Roasters.
There was a billboard sat next to the stand advertising a Santa Elena cupping, which fortunately for us was just about to start. Hosted by Joshua Tarlo who we’d had the pleasure of meeting for the first time at Cup North two years previously, he was presenting a cupping of three coffees from the same farm. Here we had three coffees grown by Fernando Lima at Santa Elena all exactly the same except for the post harvest processing, being cupped here was a washed, a pulped natural and a natural process. Joshua explained that it can be very difficult for farmers to experiment with processing, due to the inherent risks with trialling new methods and so most stick to the methods that they know will guarantee them a certain quality of coffee, in order to make a safer return on their harvest.
What Origin had done, was to guarantee Fernando Lima that they would purchase his coffee in spite of any potential mishaps with the processing of the coffee, allowing him to experiment with his processing and potential provide Origin with a different or even better coffee than the one he was already supplying then. The first coffee we had the pleasure of slurping was the washed, which was the tried and tested method of processing from Santa Elena. As such, it was a very atypical El Salvadorian coffee, sweet caramels with a pleasant citrus acidity, something you would expect of a washed El Salvadorian. To follow were the more risky pulped natural and the full natural.
Now here’s where things got more interesting, the pulped natural was a fruitier more complex coffee than the washed, but the full natural was surprisingly similar to the washed tasting from my perspective at least, more like a washed than a naturally processed coffee. Joshua explained that the natural had been processed under very attentive and rigorous standards, producing a particularly clean coffee for a natural. The consensus from everyone around the cupping table was that the pulped natural stood out as the favourite, it seems we weren’t the only ones who thought so, Joshua explaining that this was consistent with others who’d tried the coffees already. Maybe next year we might see a bigger amount of the pulped natural on offer.
Having kept in touch with Cast Iron Coffee Roasters since meeting them at London Coffee Festival I was aware that they had a selection of Geishas from Panama on offer at their stand and with their somewhat notorious reputation for disappearing quickly, we thought it best to make them an early pit stop. The festival had opened its doors at 10am on Saturday morning and we were arriving at the stand at 11am, so I guess it should have been no surprise that they were down to their last retail bag of the natural Geisha already. Saying hello to Tara who we had met last time and Guy the head roaster who we were meeting for the first time, we grabbed a couple of tasting cups of the washed and natural Geisha from Morgan Estate.
Needless to say they were as good as we remembered, the most notable attribute of the coffee being its clarity in both the washed and the natural. The difference between these and other coffees had been described to me previously as the difference between listening to music on vinyl and listening to it on cd, a statement that’s hard to disagree with. Don’t get me wrong I love a lot of other coffees, but there’s a reason why coffees like these end up in brewers cup and barista competitions, it’s because they’re refined and transparent with lovely flavours that are easy to describe. Guy had done a good job of delicately roasting these beans to bring out the best in them and it was funny talking to him, because he hadn’t been sure that these coffees would sell.
At £20 for 250g of coffee, some would consider these a little on the pricey side and to be fair they wouldn’t be too far wrong and so Guy was a little worried about roasting too much and not being able to sell them. It seems though, that me and few others had considered the £15 price they were charging per bag on the stand to be a bargain, because they had sold nearly all of them only an hour into the festival. We picked up a bag of the natural and a bag of the carbonic maceration, which we’d tried previously, before sticking around to chat about the pleasures of bagging coffee, the fortune of having your wife’s sister live next door to Morgan Estate and the endless enthusiasm of ‘coffee people’.
Next we headed over to La Marzocco Kitchen to take a look at the Linea Mini, a dual boiler single group espresso machine designed for home espresso. The stand was being run by south coast stalwarts Small Batch Coffee who were also serving a washed Guatemalan coffee as espresso. Distracting us from asking too many questions they passed us a couple of espressos to savour, noticeably citrusy the espresso had a very distinctive flavour.
Having a nearly £3000 price tag you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was an extravagant investment piece for your kitchen counter top and the more I asked questions the less I suspected this machine was best designed for home espresso use. Featuring a 2.5litre water reservoir in the back behind the tray stand the Linea Mini can be used without needing to be plumbed in. It’s also got a dual boiler, which means your machine wont lose temperature stability when you’re trying to use the steam wand for your milk and on top of that it’s quite light and portable. I started to look about the room and noticed a lot of different Linea Mini’s around on different roasters stands.
Wait a minute I thought, this isn’t a home espresso machine at all, especially when (while maybe not the same quality) the Sage Dual Boiler machine costs nearly a third of the price, it’s a coffee festival machine or a portable cafe for food trucks, pop ups or specialty coffee vans. This is a machine for those not willing to compromise on the quality of their espresso, but for those that need to take that espresso to different places, those without necessarily a fixed location or for people where coffee is secondary to their main business like cafes and food trucks. It’s a great piece of machinery, but for someone with a preference for filter coffee it’s a bit beyond my requirements, but I wasn’t surprised to find myself drinking espresso from this machine more than a few times before our festival was over.
It wouldn’t be Cup North without Manchester based roasters Heart & Graft and this year they were teaming up with their friends at Conti espresso, who were showcasing their lever espresso machine and the ‘Purple Giant’ Conti’s Monte Carlo multi boiler espresso machine donned in Heart & Graft’s home colours. Before leaping into the chaos and the madness at their stand we were drawn over to the side where there was a lovely display of coffee flavour related produce and some rather shady looking bottles of acid!
Like a mini make shift Q Grader school if it were cobbled together by some poor student with his part time barista cheques, I ignored its home stylings and dove straight in. Citric not a bad place to start, after all I know what lemons taste like right? Yep tastes like citric acidity, as I spit it out into a spare cup, next Malic, like a really sharp apple, so this is what those tasting notes writers are looking for when they’re writing their acidity profiles on bags of coffee. Tartaric, the sharpest of the lot for me, harder to place than the last two, grapes maybe. Lastly Lactic acid, isn’t this in milk and cheese? well it was definitely the creamiest of the four and also the most mellow, but hard to place in terms of coffee flavours. That’s when the ever cheerful James turned up, Heart & Graft’s head roaster, mainly to check that I hadn’t been swallowing the acids, not that it would’ve killed me he adds (killed me!), before explaining a bit about the acids.
Lactic acid he explains isn’t just about flavour, it’s about mouthfeel too, he looks excited (I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him unexcited) as he explains that for the first time he’s thinking about roast development not being the only factor in mouthfeel, how it’s about acid profiles too. Coffees high in lactic acid have a tendency to have a creamier mouthfeel, something I’ve come to associate with things like brazillian coffee and some natural coffees that feature strawberry like flavours. He talks us through the other acids too, every time I see James at Cup North its like he’s revealing this biochemical bigger picture when it comes to coffee, about the soil compounds converting into the organic compounds in the coffee bean that begin degrading as the cherry is picked/killed, which are then reenergised by the roasting process and finally unleashed by the brewing process, there’s a lot of chemical reactions taking place between terroir and the flavour in your cup of coffee. James points out that the reason why the pineapple is taking price of place is that they’ve finally been roasting coffees with pineapple flavour notes. Without delay we head to the espresso machine.
It’s time to pull a shot of Heart & Graft’s Honduran espresso on Conti’s lever machine and we’re encouraged to do this ourselves. I pass the reigns over to my girlfriend who’s excited at the prospect of becoming a Neapolitan barista for the first time. Here Chris from Conti takes us through the process, dosing and tamping the ground coffee into the portafilter basket, before it’s placed into the group head. There’s not much messing about here, the lever activates a loaded spring within the machine that’s set to produce 9 bars of pressure, pull the lever to start the infusion then let it go to activate the spring. There’s no water dosing here or gravimetrics, so it’s either a scale and beverage weight or removing the espresso by eye as soon as the stream starts to get light or cream up.
There’s a lot of theatre and this isn’t meant to be a mass market machine, but the espresso I was about to taste was the best one I had at the festival, which might say more about the coffee than the method and the inexperienced hand pulling the lever, but I suppose there’s a reason why every espresso machine in Naples is a lever machine. The espresso was bright complex yellow fruit, really sweet and with a wonderful coating mouthfeel. With everything going on, this wasn’t our last trip to the Heart & Graft + Conti Espresso stand, it wasn’t even our last go on the lever espresso machine.