One of the disadvantages of having to miss the last day of London Coffee Festival to fly off to Thailand for two weeks is that it seriously messes up my posting schedule. So, with apologies for the delay, here’s my round-up of 2018’s London Coffee Festival. As in previous years, this will be the first in a series of posts on this year’s festival, and is a general round-up, including what differed from last year, what I made of the festival, finishing up with the highs and lows. Each of the subsequent posts, to be published over the coming weeks, will cover different aspects of the festival.
This year was my sixth London Coffee Festival. In previous years, I’ve either attended all four days of the festival, or, as I did last year, the Friday (the industry day), and the two consumer days (Saturday and Sunday). Obviously, with having to fly to Bangkok on the Sunday, I couldn’t do that this year, so went on the two industry days (Thursday and Friday) and the first of the two consumer days (Saturday). This, as you will find out, had both its upsides and its downsides.
So, on with the round-up. You can see what I found after the gallery.
Let me start by saying something that I’ve said for a while now, but is worth repeating: the London Coffee Festival organisers do seem to learn from experience and listen to feedback. Each year, several issues from previous festivals have been addressed and, while the festival is still not perfect, it keeps on going from strength-to-strength, while still continuing to grow. In that respect, this year was no different.
When I first went to the London Coffee Festival in 2013, it occupied a number of zones on a single floor of the Old Truman Brewery on London’s Brick Lane. Since then, it has steadily expanded as visitor numbers have increased. In 2014, the Milk & Sugar zone, dedicated to fashion and lifestyle, was added downstairs. This was joined in 2015 by the VIP area and, in 2016, a massive new downstairs area was added. This effectively took over the entire ground floor of the brewery, providing much-needed extra capacity, reducing the pressure/over-crowding in the upper areas and resulting in a more logical layout of the stands, with more clear themes in each of the areas. There wasn’t as much change last year, which was more a reorganisation of the existing space than the additional of anything new, although a small, outdoors VIP area was added upstairs.
The good news is that this expansion was continued this year with an entire upper floor being added. What impressed me most about this is that I had no idea that it was even there, so much so that what I’ve been referring to as the “top” floor for the last five years has, in fact, always been the middle floor. This additional floor was my favourite part of the festival this year, perhaps because not everyone knew it was there, and therefore it was a little less crowded. It also had high ceilings and, unusually for the festival spaces, plenty of windows, so it was light and relatively airy. Even better, there’s further room for expansion, with a large, unoccupied room still available upstairs.
The result of this continued addition of space over the years has had a dramatic, and positive, impact on the festival. There was a point, back in 2014, when I thought it might become a victim of its own success, cramming ever more visitors into a space too small for them. Fortunately, this fear proved unfounded, and 2014 appears to have been the low point. Since then, despite increasing visitor numbers year-on-year, each successive festival has felt (to me) less crowded, a trend that continued this year, and, I’m pleased to say, the discomfort I experienced back in 2014 has not been repeated.
You can take a quick tour of the festival after the gallery.
As long as I’ve been going to the London Coffee Festival, the entrance has been on the Hanbury Street side of the Old Truman Brewery, a narrow, often traffic-filled street that is high unsuited to the job. This year the entrance has been moved to the back of the brewery, where there is a large, open courtyard, plus the entrance itself is a lot wider, which is, no doubt, an excellent move, although I’m spoilt, since my press pass allows me the use the VIP entrance, which is a little bit further along at the back.
In previous years, there have been considerable queues at the public entrance, a major consideration if you have a ticket for a three-hour slot. After all, you don’t want to spend half an hour of your precious time stuck in a queue outside! Hopefully the new entrance has speeded up the whole process and cut down on the queues, but since I have no direct experience of using this entrance, I’m not able to say.
This change in entrance has necessitated a reorganisation inside. Previously, the VIP entrance led, not unreasonably, to the VIP area, but this year, with the main entrance next door, the VIP area was moved upstairs, the House of Coffee taking over the space. This was like a mini-festival area in itself, with a bar, roasting displays and a mix of stands, including equipment and roasters. However, I felt it suffered from being by the entrance, with lots of people passing through but not actually returning. That was certainly the case for me; on each of the three days, I came in, headed off somewhere to meet someone and on each day I made a mental note to return and explore. And I never did.
The old entrance led you onto the ground floor, but the new entrance takes you into what’s known as the Upper Ground Level, home of the Milk & Sugar area, which also hosted the very popular Latte Art Live shows. Beyond that, at the back, were a cluster of stands.
In many ways, the Upper Ground Level is the logical place to start, since it’s the hub of the whole festival, connecting all the levels. From here, steps lead down to the Ground Level (as the ground floor is called), which is still largely the preserve of the larger brand names and manufacturers, such as Bonavita, Conti, Faema, Mahlkonig, Nuova Simonelli Sage and Sanremo, all of whom were clustered around the Coffee Masters arena, along with well-known roasters such as Caravan, Climpson and Sons, Square Mile and Volcano at Home/Assembly. At the other end there were a few smaller stands, with an interesting collection of roasters and smaller outfits selling all sorts of coffee-related kit.
Alternatively, from the Upper Ground Level, you can head upstairs, to what is now Level 1 (and what I’ve been mistakenly calling the “top floor” all these years). Here the layout hasn’t changed that much. To the right, the main hall (Hyde Park Zone) houses big industry names, including Taylors (of Harrogate), plus the main stage, where various bands played throughout the weekend, while the La Cimbali stand, always worth a visit, is off to one side.
The other half of Level 1 is occupied by the likes of the Soho and Shoreditch Zones. Soho is home to the True Artisan Pop-up Café, lined by stands from some of the larger independent roasters (Grumpy Mule, Union Hand-roasted and Taylor Street Roasted) as well as equipment suppliers, plus hot chocolate suppliers and old friend of the Coffee Spot, Kokoa Collection. Shoreditch meanwhile, is, these days, largely given over to coffee-related products, such as cakes and non-dairy milk alternatives, although you’ll still find the odd roaster there. This year it was home to old friends, Cakesmiths, who’d moved from their previous pitch in Hyde Park.
There are still a couple of narrow corridors, lined with stands on both sides, now the only real bottleneck in the whole festival, beyond which is one half of the Roasters Village, home to many of the smaller, independent roasters. At the far end is one of my favourite places, the White Label Kitchen, four large food stands in their own dedicated space, with plenty of room to queue, plus a separate, dedicated seating area, as well as a bar. Best of all, there was a wide range of seafood, vegetarian and vegan options, so no-one goes hungry!
The new floor, imaginatively called Level 2, can be accessed via the main staircase (which in previous years had been blocked off by an artificial wall, so I’m inclined to forgive myself for not noticing it was there) or via a smaller staircase off to one side of the Soho Zone. It was split into two main rooms, the first of which housed an expanded Innovation Zone, home to most of the reusable cup manufacturers, as well as old friends, B-Tempted, a gluten-free cake bakery, exhibiting for the first time. The Innovation Zone shared the space with the competition area for the UK Barista Championships, back after missing a year, and the UK Brewers Cup, while off to one side was a much expanded Lab area, which hosted all the talks and had previously been squeezed in on Level 1 between Shoreditch and Soho.
The second room housed the other half of the Roasters Village, which last year had been over-run in the Milk & Honey Zone and was now much more relaxed, and an expanded VIP suite, a vital escape area if, like me, you’re there all day long!
I’ll leave you with some observations about festival, which you can read after the gallery.
I started by saying that I had to miss the Sunday of this year’s coffee festival. Traditionally, Sunday has been quite a big day for me, although I’ve always had mixed feelings about it, which I’ll come to in a moment. On the plus side, Sunday evening, when everyone is packing up, is often a good time to pick up goodies. Roasters, in particular, are keen not to return home with multiple bags of coffee, so there are bargains to be had. It’s one of the reasons that I usually return from the festival laden with coffee! However, this year, with me having to head off to Thailand the following day, I was actively trying to avoid picking up too much coffee, so in some ways was quite glad to miss the final day.
While this can be a positive for the likes of me, who are there on multiple days, there is a downside that’s really apparent for paying customers who have booked the last session on Sunday. Having paid the same as everyone else, they deserve a full session, but for the people manning the stalls, it’s the end of a very long, hard four days. Everyone’s tired, a lot of people are losing or have lost their voices, and with the prospect of breaking down their stands, loading everything up and then, more often than not, facing a long drive home, they’re keen to be on their way and don’t relish having to stay until 7 o’clock in the evening before they can even begin the process of breaking down their stands… So, naturally, a lot of them don’t wait and, by the time the final session is drawing to a close, plenty of stands are empty, which must be frustrating for the visitors.
I think that there’s a strong case for shortening the final session, reducing its price, or, potentially, abandoning it altogether and maybe extending the afternoon session by an hour or two instead. Of course, all of these will reduce the over revenue of the festival, which will have knock-on consequences, but right now I don’t think the way the final session works is in anyone’s interest.
On a personal note, having been there on Thursday rather than Sunday, I much prefer the opening day to the final day. Everyone’s that little bit fresher, everything’s a little more relaxed, and the whole experience is better. I’ll probably end up doing all four days next year if I can, but if I had to do three, I’d much rather do Thursday to Saturday than Friday to Sunday, even if it means having to miss out on sacksful of goodies.
This year was also the year that I finally admitted to myself something which I’ve known for some time. I don’t go to the London Coffee Festival to visit stands and I definitely don’t go to drink/try coffee (this year I probably drank less coffee than at any previous festival). Instead, I go to London Coffee Festival to meet people, this year more than ever, since I had arranged to meet several people so that I could sign copies of my book, The Philosophy of Coffee.
This meant that I had even less time free than normal to visit stands. And you know what? It didn’t matter. Yes, ideally, I’d like to visit every stand and chat to every exhibitor, but that’s never going to happen at a festival this size. Instead, I’d much rather spend half an hour having a quality conversation with someone rather than running myself ragged or having a shouted few words over the noise of the background music.
Which brings me to a few of my personal bugbears. The first is the music, which, on the consumer days, can be too loud, although this year it didn’t seem too bad. Then again, I missed the Sunday, so maybe I just wasn’t as aware of it this year. 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. I understand the desire to use music to create an atmosphere, but at the volumes it is sometimes played at, it’s counter-productive. Hopefully this year wasn’t an anomaly and the music was a bit quieter. We shall see.
Another minor bugbear is the lack of a cloakroom and nothing’s changed on this front. Whatever you bring, you’re going to have to carry it around the festival with you. On the plus side, one of the things I’ve complained about in past years is the lack of water. This is much less of an issue than it used to be, and over the last three years, there’s steadily been more water available to the public, which is something the festival is to be congratulated on.
Last year, the festival took tentative steps with the introduction of coffee cup recycling bins, although there weren’t nearly enough of them. This year it was better, with many more bins available and on prominent display. However, as the photos in the gallery show, recycling bins are only useful if people use them and far too often, they don’t, with coffee cups going in the general waste. I appreciate that the London Coffee Festival is going in the right direction, but I think it needs to be much bolder and, following the lead of some other festivals, ban disposables altogether. We shall see, although I’m not holding my breath…
In closing, despite my minor moans, the festival was immense fun, even better than last year. Interestingly, the dates for next year’s festival haven’t been announced yet, so watch this space! In the meantime, check out the remaining Saturday Supplements in the series to see what else I got up to.
For other perspectives on the festival, check out the following reviews by Bean There At, Bex and the Commodities Connoisseur. If you prefer your reviews in video format, try these from Caffeine Magazine and James Hoffman, who has some fascinating insights into the festival. If you’ve published a review of the festival, drop me a line with the link and I’ll add it in.
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