Another year, another London Coffee Festival come and gone. This time last week I was right in the thick of it, just about to throw myself into the third of four days of this year’s London Coffee Festival. Yes, that’s right, this year, for the first time ever, I attended all four days, both industry days on Thursday and Friday, and the two consumer days on Saturday and Sunday.
Just as for previous years’ festivals, I’ll be writing a series of themed Saturday Supplements, each covering a different aspect of the festival. Today’s Saturday Supplement is a general round-up, including what I made of the festival, the highs and lows, and what differed from last year. The remainder in the series, to be published over the coming weeks, will cover automated filter machines, cups, coffee kit, my coffee experiences and the coffee itself.
Something that I’ve noticed is that the organisers of the London Coffee Festival do seem to learn from experience and listen to feedback. Several issues from previous years have been addressed and while the festival is not perfect, it keeps on going from strength-to-strength as it continues to grow. This year, with over 30,000 visitors, was easily the biggest so far.
You can see what I found after the gallery.
When I first went to the London Coffee Festival in 2013, it occupied a number of zones on the top floor of the Old Truman Brewery on London’s Brick Lane. Back then it was a rather cramped and crowded affair, but over the last three years it has steadily expanded as visitor numbers have increased. In 2014, the Milk & Sugar zone, dedicated to fashion and lifestyle, was added downstairs and in 2015, this was joined by the VIP area.
This year the London Coffee Festival has gone one better and effectively taken over the entire ground floor of the brewery, adding a vast new area. Not only has this provided much-needed extra capacity, but it’s also allowed a general re-organisation of the entire space. As a result, there was a more logical layout of the stands, with more clear themes in each of the areas.
Downstairs seemed to be the preserve of the larger brand names and manufacturers, such as Bonavita, Faema, Nuova Simonelli and Sanremo. This was the realm of large, professional-looking stands, arranged around a purpose-built stage for the Coffee Masters competition. However, there were a few smaller stands (housing roasters such as the Electric Coffee Company) dotted around which rather threw me. Towards the back of this new area was the House of Coffee, which housed the Scandinavian Kitchen and a cupping & roasting area, neither of which I managed to spend much time in, despite being there for four days.
This extra space freed up a considerable amount of room upstairs. Although the Hyde Park zone, which I’ve always thought of as the mainstream, commercial zone, was little changed, the rest of the upstairs benefited the most from the downstairs expansion. Organised around the twin hubs of the True Artisan Café (in the Soho zone) and the competitions stage (which this year welcomed back the UKBCs after a year’s absence), I consider it to be the heart (and soul) of the coffee festival. In previous years, this has been an extremely crowded area, very hot, humid and claustrophobic, and while it was still busy, it was much improved this year. The stands seemed to have a lot more space around them and there was both room to move and to linger the stands without being in the way, which hadn’t always been possible in previous years.
One of the biggest improvements was the food. In 2014, Milk and Sugar housed the amazing St Ali pop-up café, which was a great place to chill out. Sadly this was missing in 2015, but this year, Gather & Gather had been invited to fill the spot, which was a major improvement. Last year, food village has been done away with, replaced by the White Label Kitchen, four (small) food stands tucked away at the back, with no seating and a limited vegetarian choice. This year, the White Label Kitchen had been much expanded. There were still only four stands, but this time they had their own dedicated space, with plenty of room to queue, plus a separate, dedicated seating area, as well as a bar, which also served food. Best of all, three of four stands offered a wide range of vegetarian and vegan options.
You can take a quick tour of the festival after the gallery
A quick tour of the Festival
The entrance to the coffee festival is the same as ever, on the Hanbury Street side of the Old Truman Brewery. However, whereas in previous years you went immediately upstairs to the main hall, now you go into the main downstairs area, where the Coffee Masters competition is dead ahead.
At this point, it’s worth adding a note about queueing: these days I’m a bit spoilt with my press-pass, which allows me to use the VIP entrance at the back (although even there I had to queue on the Thursday). However, this was nothing compared to the queues at the main entrance on the public days. When I arrived on Saturday morning after my pre-festival visit to Fix 126, I ran into the queue, which went down Hanbury Street, around the block and then disappeared off into the distance. My friend Bex, who had arrived at 10 o’clock for the morning session, reported that it had taken 20 minutes to get in, while fellow-blogger Jade Derrick spent a full 40 minutes in the queue. I suspect that anyone in the queue by the time I got there would have lucky to get in for 11 o’clock, which is a bit hard when the session only runs until one!
However, once you had safely negotiated the entrance, there was the whole downstairs area to play with, plus, off to the left, another new area, the House of Coffee. This included the Scandinavian Kitchen (coffee & food pairings) and the roasting/cupping area. Loring was giving live roasting demonstrations and there were regular cuppings taking place throughout the festival. A couple of routes led into Milk & Sugar, which, in previous years had been the only thing downstairs and therefore had the potential to be a bit of an afterthought. This year, everyone was funnelled through here on their way upstairs which must have improved the footfall. I also feel that the stairs acted as a bit of a capacity throttle to the upstairs zones, which were nowhere near as busy as in previous years.
Once upstairs, the layout was similar to the previous years. To the right, the main hall houses big industry names, including Starbucks, plus the main stage, where various bands played throughout the weekend. I didn’t spend that much time here this year, only popping in to visit my friends at Hope & Glory, Cakesmiths and to check out the La Cimbali stand.
Ahead is the True Artisan Pop-up Café, which has seen a bit of a revamp this year, with the addition of the Roasters’ Village, allowing smaller roasters the chance to exhibit. This is lined by stands from some of the larger independent roasters and equipment supplies, plus hot chocolate suppliers, Kokoa Collection.
To the left is the competition area for the UKBC, complete with more stands and a couple of narrow, connecting corridors (the Innovation zone) lined with stands on both sides, containing smaller equipment and service suppliers. The Innovation zone was the only area retaining the same, crowded, can’t move feeling that used to be the norm upstairs.
The remainder of upstairs was given over to the lab (where the talks are given), the newly-expanded White Label Kitchen and the Shoreditch zone, with the rest of the exhibitors. Ironically, while this was the part of the festival that most benefited from the extra space and freedom to roam, I probably spent less time up here than I had in previous years!
Check out all the things I didn’t get to see after the gallery
What I didn’t get to see
A big part of the festival each year is what I didn’t get to see. Even though I was there for all four days this time, I still didn’t make it to everything. Partly this was down to just how busy things were: despite wanting to go to a particular stand, I’d often arrive and find it two- or three-deep with paying customers, so I’d go away again. Although I meant to go back, in some cases I just ran out of time! In other cases, I never actually found the stand until after the show had ended. This included some European roasters I’d been hoping to see, including Amsterdam’s Screaming Beans, Denmark’s La Cabra or Oslo’s Nord. I must do better next year!
I also didn’t get down to the House of Coffee, failing to catch up with Colonna Coffee, which was launching its range of Speciality Coffee Capsules, nor did I get to see any of the roasting demonstrations or cuppings.
A second category were roasters I decided to skip this year. Mostly this was because I already knew them, and their coffee, well. This included Clifton Coffee Roasters, Grumpy Mule and Small Batch, all of whom were clustered around Artisan Café/Roasters’ Village, and Caravan and Ozone, who were tucked away in parts of the festival I rarely got to. Meanwhile I caught up with the Isle of White’s Island Roasted and Pact at last year’s festival.
There were quite a few exciting espresso machines being unveiled at the festival this year, but while I managed to get a good look at all of the automated filter coffee machines [you’ll have to wait until a later Saturday Supplement for a full run-down on these], I failed miserably with the new espresso machines. Oh well, I’ll just have to wait until they hit the coffee shops before I can drool over them.
The other main area I completely missed out on was the coffee competitions. I’ve explained before that while I see the value (and attraction) of competitions, they’re not really for me. With so much else to see and do, I decided to give them a miss this year, which was a shame, particularly as my friend Alison, from BLK Coffee, finished second in the Brewer’s Cup, and Dan Fellows, who I met at Origin’s Charlotte Road shop in London, won the UKBCs.
I’ll leave you with some of the highs and lows of the festival, starting, after the gallery, with the lows.
The Highs and Lows
In previous years, I’ve complained about the lack of a cloakroom and nothing’s changed there. So whatever you bring, you’re going to have to carry it around the festival with you. I have to say that this wasn’t such a problem this year; whether people have finally cottoned-on and weren’t bringing large bags, or whether it wasn’t as crowded so this wasn’t such an issue, I don’t know.
I’ve also complained in past years about the lack of water. Again, this is less of an issue, partly because more water’s now available and partly because, once again, it wasn’t so crowded, so it wasn’t as humid this year.
However, a major bugbear of mine is the music and it’s something that plenty of other people complained to me about. Put simply, on the consumer days, it’s just too loud, particularly in the True Artisan Café and Roasters’ Village area. This has been a problem in previous years, but this year it reach new volumes. To me, the whole point of the festival is to encourage engagement, but it’s very hard to engage when you struggle to make yourself heard over the ever-present music. Almost everyone I spoke to on the stands was hoarse by the end of Saturday and I found I couldn’t stay up there for more than half an hour without getting a headache. I understand the desire to use music to create an atmosphere, but at the volumes it is currently played at, it’s counter-productive.
However, I’m going to leave you with some highs and, as much as I dislike “top 10” or “best of” lists, the following is a quick rundown of my personal favourites from this year’s festival which stood out from the crowd. So, my favourite:
- Filter Coffee: Bulleit-infused coffee from The Gentlemen Baristas
- Flat White: Strangers Coffee, Rocko Mountain
- Coffee Beans: Pharmacie, Ethiopian Guji
- Gadget: the Marco Beverage Systems bean-counter
- Cup: the Kaffeeform cup, made from recycled coffee-grounds
- Food: Arancini Brothers’ mushroom & zucchini burger
- Addition: Roasters’ Village (and the whole new area downstairs)
You can read all about these and what else I got up to in the remaining Saturday Supplements in the series, starting with all the automated filter machines I found.
In closing, the festival was immense fun, even better than last year. It’s on again on the same weekend next year, so put the dates 6th to 9th April in your diary right now!
For other perspectives on the Festival, check out the following reviews by Bean There, Bex, CoffeeGirlNeeds and Jade Derrick, while the Commodities Connoisseur has produced another of his extremely thorough festival reviews, which has, in Coffee Spot style, been split up into four parts. For a different perspective in a different medium, check out Episode 24 of The Right Roast on You Tube.
For more kit for the festival, Perfect Daily Grind has produced a list of seven products to watch, while Jess of EatingEast, also writing for Perfect Daily Grind, reported from the festival, looking at why baristas went into coffee.
Meanwhile, you can see what Square Mile made of the experience of exhibiting, while another exhibitor, Hope & Glory, also gave its take on the festival. Another perspective is provided by writer, radio producer and DJ, George Luke, courtesy of London’s Best Coffee, while there’s also this by Charli Nice in Adventures of a Nice Girl.
If you’ve written a review of the festival, drop me a line with the link and I’ll add it in.
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