Last weekend saw my annual visit to Manchester for self-styled two-day Northern Coffee Party, Cup North. Regular readers will be pleased to learn that, true to form, it rained almost constantly, stopping for brief intervals so that I could pop outside to visit the excellent food stalls. The rain also obligingly held off for the first-ever UK Coffee Throwing Championships (more of which later).
Last year, Cup North was my favourite coffee festival, small, friendly and intimate. This year, it’s taken things up a notch, with a new venue and a significant increase in size. While retaining its friendly nature, it felt, with its multiple spaces, more like a mini-London Coffee Festival. Having come from the smaller, more intimate Glasgow Coffee Festival just a few weeks earlier, it took a while to get my head around the change of scale.
There was, of course, that much more to see and, sadly, I didn’t make it to everyone, so please accept my apologies if I didn’t catch up with you. For now, let’s kick-off with this, Part I of my round-up, with a look at the venue, kit and competitions. Parts II and III will focus on the coffee & food.
You can see what I found after the gallery.
The Victoria Warehouse in Stretford was home to this year’s Cup North. Next to the Manchester Ship Canal, next door to Old Trafford (football) stadium and around the corner from Media City, it might not be in the heart of Manchester, but it’s not exactly out in the sticks either. The warehouse itself was, as the name suggests, an old warehouse, built in the 1900s to serve the Manchester Ship Canal and recently converted in event space and hotel.
An impressive, large rectangular building, Cup North only occupied the ground floor, and, unlike last year’s event, which was effectively a single space, this year Cup North was split over several inter-connected spaces, which made it feel much more like a mini-London Coffee Festival. You entered at the far end, through what felt like an old loading dock, a flat expanse of concrete, with a few scattered chairs and tables, a common theme of this year’s event. Crucially, the dock was undercover, an important consideration for Manchester.
A rather nondescript door at the far end led into Cup North proper, and the first of several spaces, which spread out behind you and to the left, housing various exhibitors and the Conti Coffee School (which I failed to visit). Ahead to the left was the boutique cinema, while to the right was a fully-stocked bar. The cinema was showing A Film About Coffee, Caffeinated and Barista (aka Drip), none of which I managed to see.
A long corridor ran between the two, leading to the second of three exhibition spaces. Along the way, there were plenty of chairs (another bonus:places to sit down are important – London Coffee Festival take note!), including a lovely, large sofa, and, on the left, a canteen area which hosted the UK Tasters Cup on Saturday (which I did catch some of) and, on Sunday, the Tamper Tantrum talks, which I failed to see any of for a second year running. Also off to the left, a corridor gave access to the food village outside, which had a number of interesting food trucks and tents.
The second exhibition space was least cluttered of the three, sensibly so since it formed a major thoroughfare for the entire weekend. From here, the main doors opposite led to the final space, three long rows of exhibitors, the most crowded, and London Coffee Festival-like part of the space. To give you an idea of just how big it was, I came through the first space, made a note to come back to visit the stalls there, went into the rest of the festival to explore and only emerged the following day!
In contrast to last year’s festival, where all the stalls were essentially the same size, this year, there were definitely bigger and better located stalls and some that suffered from being tucked out of the way. Next year’s exhibitor’s take note!
Anyway, enough of this. What was it that I actually saw? We’ll start, after the gallery, with some of the interesting kit that was on display.
One of the first stalls I came across was Oomph. If you’re not on social media, you might not have noticed Oomph, so just in case, it’s a new portable, hand-powered coffee maker. I should confess that my response on first hearing about it was a rather weary “do we really need another method of making coffee?”. Having met the Oomph team at Cup North, I’ve put my scepticism on hold. The design, which struck me as akin to an advanced Aeropress, was impressive, although I’m still to taste any coffee made by one, which is the ultimate make or break decision point for me.
It’s interesting that Oomph’s aiming firmly at the portable coffee market; an all-in-one coffee making system, complete with cup that you can drink your coffee from. Now, I’ll admit that it’s neat, but I’m not really the target audience here. Oomph’s website puts it very well:
“you could of course combine some old favourites such as the Aeropress […] with a portable cup […], but who wants to carry around multiple different devices – risk losing them or worse still breaking them? Plus imagine all the kit you’d need if you were brewing on a train journey…”
The answer to the first question is me, of course. And I don’t need to imagine: been there, done that. Not a problem. So, in terms of unique selling point, it doesn’t really appeal to me. What does appeal is the idea that it’ll make better coffee and that’s something I’ll put to the test as soon as I get my hands on one.
In the meantime, Oomph is going into production via the tried and trusted method of the Kickstarter, which will be launched on November 27th, with a launch event in Manchester.
From one end of the price/portability scale to the other with the Domo Bar range of home espresso machines from VBM, being marketed in the UK by Coffee Omega. Now, you know me, not one to have his head turned by anything as superficial as a shiny espresso machine… Well, maybe just a little…
And you have to admit that the Domo Bar, with its E61 group head, is very shiny indeed. And a very interesting bit of kit, with a decent spec, particularly at the higher end, where there’s a dual-boiler option. It also comes with a price tag to match, putting at the top end of the market.
However, just like the Oomph, the proof of the pudding (coffee) is in the eating (drinking) and, as with the Oomph, I didn’t get a chance to play, so I can’t say how it compares to my own Rancilio Silvia espresso machine or the current market leader (in my eyes), the Sage range of single and dual boiler machines. If you’re interested, you can find all the details on the Coffee Omega web site.
Regardless of whether you get an Oomph or a Domo Bar, you’ll need a grinder, which brings me to Knock. Regular readers will know that I caught up with Knock at the Glasgow Coffee Festival, where I parted with my beloved Woody, the world’s first wooden feldgrind (now known as the feldwood). This was so that Knock could fit him with a handsome new metal baseplate and a metal lid, which stops the beans from flying out when you’re grinding.
Modifications complete, I was reunited with Woody at Cup North and it’s great to have him back. In the meantime, I’d been lent a red feldfarb, (the feldfarb being a range of powder-coated feldgrinds in various colours). The feldgrind/feldwood/feldfarb all have the same burr set and capacity and, having used both Woody and the new feldfarb extensively, I am confident that they are the best hand-grinders on the market in their price range. They grind beautifully, quickly and consistently, knocking the socks off any ceramic hand-grinder I’ve used. They are also incredibly easy to adjust, and will grind for anything from cafetiere to espresso. If you want a hand-grinder, then I unreservedly recommend them.
Finally, for Part I, Cup North hosted two competitions, the Tasters Cup and the Coffee Throwing Championships.
I’m not a huge fan of coffee competitions as a spectator, but I’ll make an exception for the Tasters Cup, which I found to be a fascinating experience. The set-up is simple: faced with three bowls of coffee, the competitors have to select the odd one out. Get it right, get a point. Nothing subjective or interpretive involved.
Three competitors at a time went head-to-head, each faced with eight groups of bowls. Working their way along the bowls, once a competitor had chosen the odd one out, the bowl was placed beyond a blue line (and, once moved across the line, couldn’t be changed). Accuracy is all important, with the aim to get a perfect score, but speed is also important; if anyone is tied, then the winner is the one who took the least time.
There were 24 competitors in all, who went off in eight heats of three, with the top nine scores (rather than the winners of individual heats) going through the three semi-finals of three, before being whittled down to the final three. I really enjoyed watching the individual rounds and there was genuine tension, especially at the scoring stage, when each bowl was checked to see if it was right or wrong.
I had some personal interest as my friends Alison (BLK Coffee) and Katelyn (Avenue Coffee) were competing. I missed their first round heats, but was pleased to see that for a long time, Katelyn, with a score of 7/8 in 4 minutes, 53 seconds, was at the top of the leader board. Alison didn’t do so well and admitted to me afterwards that going into the competition hungry was not the best idea…
With her impressive score, Katelyn stormed through to the semi-finals (it’s worth pointing out that Katelyn had spent the evening before telling me how woefully underprepared she was, having only accepted a place in the competition that week when someone dropped out). Katelyn kept up her good work in the semi-finals where she scored 7/8 again, this time in just over five minutes. This placed her just behind Gayan, who had an impressive 8/8, and just ahead of Sonali, who had 6/8.
The three of them went head-to-head in the final when it became clear just how good Gayan (whose day job with UCC Coffee involves cupping coffee all day) scored another perfect eight, while Katelyn and Sonali (who works at The Brass Rail in Selfridges) only managed three each, Katelyn coming in second on virtue of a better time. It was an amazing performance from Gayan, a very deserved winner, and very creditable performances from both Katelyn (competing for the first time) and Sonali, who I also believe was competing for the first time.
However, that wasn’t it for the competitions, because, that evening saw the UK’s Coffee Throwing Championships. This took place outside, in the dark, but fortunately not in the rain, and featured some of the top names in the UK coffee scene (and beyond). It was event in which the spectators were in direct physical danger, with some of the bags of coffee landing BEHIND the thrower having first achieved considerable heights.
I’ll be honest and say that you really had to be there… However, it was good to see the lighter side of an industry that is sometimes (falsely) accused of taking itself too seriously. The event was excellently compered by Colin Harmon of 3FE who confirmed my suspicion that you should never trust a man wearing red trousers…
If you’ve enjoyed my write-ups of Cup North, don’t forget to check out Part II and Part III of my Cup North round-up. Cup North won the 2015 Coffee Spot Award for Best Saturday Supplement. You can also see what happened when I returned in 2016 for the now-renamed Manchester Coffee Festival.
Don’t just take my word for it: read what these lovely fellow bloggers have to say about Cup North: yummyfoodmakesmehappy, Commodities Connoisseur, Ellie Gibbs, The Manchester Tart, Gin Fuelled Bluestocking, Sip Scoff Scribe. If you’ve written a blog on Cup North and I’ve missed you out, do let me know.
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