The list of the UK’s coffee festivals is growing. First there was London, still the biggest of the lot, followed by the likes of Manchester and Glasgow. Then, last year, slipping quietly in, was the inaugural Birmingham Coffee Festival, which I completely missed. It has such a low social media profile that I almost missed it this time around as well, but I was saved from that ignoble fate by my friends at Cakesmiths, who clued me in.
As luck would have it, I was actually in the country for the event (the usual reason I miss coffee festivals is because I’m abroad: it’s why, for example, I’ve never been to the Edinburgh Coffee Festival), so I decided to attend. It was held last weekend in the Custard Factory in Digbeth, from Friday (industry day) through Saturday and Sunday (consumer days). I was working on Friday, but headed up to Birmingham for the Saturday. Not sure what to expect, I’d only booked for the one day, but I found more than enough to keep me occupied, so returned on the Sunday, although I suspect that the average consumer will only need a single day (or part day) to see everything.
As I usually do with festivals, I’ll publish several posts, each covering a specific aspect of the festival. This one, imaginatively entitled Part I, will be a general overview, which you can read after the gallery.
The first thing to say is that the Birmingham Coffee Festival is ridiculously good value for money, with a ticket for any of the days costing just £6.98 in advance (which includes a £0.98 booking fee) or £8 on the door for eight hours of coffee-based fun. At that price, it would be a shame not to go.
The event itself is an interesting mix of local and national, with a strong showing from Birmingham coffee shops, roasters and suppliers, mixed in with national roasters and brands, although compared to both the Manchester and Glasgow festivals, the balance was more in favour of local names. Perhaps the most interesting local/national mix was in fact local/international, with home-grown espresso machine manufacturers Fracino side-by-side with La Marzocco. There was also a mix of (for me) new names alongside familiar faces, all of which we’ll get to in future posts. In the meantime, on with the round-up.
If you’ve been to a coffee festival before, then Birmingham Coffee Festival will hold no great surprises. There were fewer events than other festivals I’ve been too, but that suits me since I rarely get to attend them anyway, being too busy chatting away at the various stands. These were predominately either coffee shops or roasters with oodles of coffee available to try, and, compared to other festivals, there was less emphasis on machines/equipment, making it much more focused on the consumer than the trade. It was also the best-catered coffee festival I’ve been to, surpassing Glasgow in that respect. As well as a large, outside street food area, with six stalls on each of the two days I attended, there were several cake/sweet thing suppliers inside. Again, these will feature in more detail in a future post.
In the meantime, you can see what I made of the venue itself after the gallery.
The venue, off the inner courtyard of the sprawling Custard Factory, is gorgeous. Not quite as gorgeous as the soaring hall of the Briggait, home of the Glasgow Coffee Festival, but definitely at that end of spectrum. Occupying a single-storey, roughly square building, with white-washed walls, the highlight is definitely (pun intended) the soaring saw-shaped wood and glass roof which simultaneously gave the festival an immense sense of space and light.
Sensibly, the festival had chosen not to cram too much in, with everything arranged around long, broad corridors with plenty of space between the stands. Even at its busiest, it was easy to move around and it never felt cramped. The layout was relatively simple, with a roughly square floor-plan, with a smaller square tacked onto the right-hand side at the front. For orientation, the door was at the front in the right-hand corner of this smaller square.
There was a U-shaped cul-de-sac of stands at the back of the smaller square, with the main body of the festival in the larger square, arranged along two broad corridors that ran front-to-back, one down the middle of the space (between the two squares, if you’re following my description), the other along the left-hand side. There were also three broad left-to-right corridors, at the front, middle and back. This made getting around the festival very easy indeed and there were usually at least two ways of approaching any particular stand.
On the whole, my experience was very positive. There was ample seating, both inside and out, plenty of food on hand, plus water was freely available from various water stations provided by BWT. My only complaints are relatively minor. The first was that once the sun came out, particularly in the afternoon, when the west-facing windows in the roof caught the sun, it did get rather hot, though never unbearably so. The organisers assured me that this was a one-off problem since by this time next year, air-conditioning will have been installed.
My second complaint is a perennial one from the London Coffee Festival: the music was too damn loud. In the case of the Birmingham Coffee Festival, there was a live stage in one corner, featuring a constant stream of local street musicians, in between which there was recorded music. I’ve nothing against music, but in this case, it was also broadcast by speakers throughout the festival area, so there really was no escape from it, even outside.
My main issue, though, is the volume. While not at the level of London Coffee Festival, it was still loud enough on many occasions to drown out my conversations, which, to me, is entirely counterproductive, since I see the main point of any coffee festival being to promote dialogue between the customers and exhibitors.
However, I don’t want to end on a negative note, particularly since I had such a good time. Don’t forget that I came with no great expectation, intending to only spend a single day there, but was so impressed that I stayed for two days. From almost an afterthought in my coffee-festival calendar, the Birmingham Coffee Festival has catapulted itself into a firm fixture and I’m already looking forward to next year.
For another take on the Birmingham Coffee Festival, see this report by Dr Jennifer Ferreira.
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