Last weekend I made my annual visit to the Manchester Coffee Festival (Cup North as was), returning for a fourth year and, for the third year running, gracing the halls of the Victoria Warehouse. This year, it occupied the same space as before, a minor bonus that meant I could find everything that little bit more easily. It also felt slightly bigger, but without sacrificing the relaxed, friendly nature which marks it out as one of my favourite events of the year. As a sign of my dedication, I flew back from Chicago especially to attend, arriving in Manchester at 7 am the day before the festival!
All the usual suspects were there, with roasters and equipment manufacturers leading the way. Milk was also important, with several non-dairy alternatives featuring strongly. There were various food-related stands and a small selection of street food stalls located outside. Making a triumphant return for the third year running was my favourite coffee competition, the UK Cup Tasters’ Championship, while there were plenty of talks and cuppings going on. As usual, over the two days, I saw almost everyone I wanted to, but there’s quite never enough time to get around all the stands!
I’m going to kick-off this round-up with a brief review of the venue itself, before going on to report on the Cup Tasters’ Championship. In Part II, I look at all the roasters, while in Part III, I’ll round up everything else.
The Manchester Coffee Festival seems to have found a permanent home in Stretford’s Victoria Warehouse, which welcomed the festival for the third year running. Right by 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 venue itself was, as the name suggests, an old warehouse, recently converted in events space and a hotel and is a short tram-ride from the city centre.
Although this was the festival’s third year in the Victoria Warehouse, this was the first time that it has occupied the same space, having started off in 2015 in the hotel-part of Victoria Warehouse before moving over to the events space in 2016. This year it was back in the same space, off to the right of the main gate, occupying a series of interconnected areas. Essentially, the Festival occupied four sides of a large square, with the middle taken up by the toilets. In addition, there was another space at the top of the square, and a further one off to the left at the top left-hand corner.
Entering in the bottom-right, you were immediately greeted by the admin and merchandising desks, where you traded in your ticket for a wrist band. Off to your left, two rows of stands ran along the bottom of the square, while on the right there was the seating area for the sustainability talks (of which I managed to make two this year, which is two more than last year!). The left-hand side of the square housed the other seating area, which once again hosted the Cup Tasters’ Championship. Finally, the top side of the square had another dual row of stands, which extended off to the left, while there was a further dual row of stands at the top of the square.
This layout made it easy to move around the various spaces. You could do a sweep of all the stands and seating areas in a couple of minutes just by walking in a figure-of-eight. Even those stands tucked away in the corners or at the ends of the rows seemed to be constantly busy, with no dead areas.
The final part of the festival space is actually outside in the main courtyard to the right of the door. Just as it was last year, this is where the street food vendors could be found, with three stands offering a range of food for those brave enough to queue up in the cold. There was also an outdoor seating area for the really hardy folk, plus a bar if you fancied something stronger than a cup of coffee.
It’s well established that I’m not a huge fan of watching coffee competitions, the one exception being the Cup Tasters Championship, a head-to-head competition where the participants are either right or wrong. The first time I saw it, I was surprised by the intensity and tension and have been hooked ever since. Rather than repeat myself, I’ve written a detailed description of the competition instead.
This year there were 33 competitors who went off in 11 heats of three in the first round, which took place on Saturday. The top 21 competitors went through to the second round on Sunday, from where they were whittled down to the nine semi-finalists, before the top three went through to the final. As always, it’s not the winners of the individual heats who go through, but those with the overall best scores in that round (the scores from previous rounds don’t count).
There were some interesting names in this year’s competition, including defending champion, Freda Yuan from Caravan, as well as Katelyn Thomson (Coffee Curation), who finished second in 2015 and Sonali Tailor (Has Bean), who finished third that same year. Unusually, the other finalists from last year, Nicole Ferris (Climpson and Sons) and Will Sumner (Steampunk Coffee), hadn’t returned for another go. What was interesting was that over 50% of the entrants worked for just four companies, with Taylor Street Baristas, Origin and Bewley’s all having five entrants, while Climpson and Sons had three.
The first round was really competitive, with five people scoring a perfect 8/8, including Freda and Sonali. However, out in front was Denes Biro of Taylor Street, who took less than four minutes for his 8/8. The cut-off score for progression to the second round was 5/8, with Ian Kissick (Taylor Street again) squeezing in with time of 5 minutes and 17 seconds.
Of course, the previous round’s scores count for nothing and so when the competitors reconvened on Sunday morning, it was with a clean slate. With just nine of the 21 going through to the semi-finals, the competition was even tougher. Early front-runners included Denes, who followed his first round 8/8 with a 6/8 and in a much slower time, demonstrating just how hard the competition was. Katelyn Thomson was also up there with a 6/8, following a creditable 7/8 in the first found. However, Freda was soon back on top, with a score of 7/8 in just over four minutes, where she was joined by Don Altizo of BaxterStorey. They were joined by Marshall Kingston of the Speciality Coffee Blog, another who had scored a perfect 8/8 in the first round, backed up with a 7/8 in the second round, but no-one else managed to get more than 6/8.
The competition continued with some notable names crashing out with poor scores. Meanwhile, another ex-finalist, Sonali, scored 6/8 in just over four minutes to work her way towards the top of the leader board. The final three semi-finalists were Ed Greenall (Has Bean) and two of the Origin posse, Simon Humes and Jesse Dodkins.
The draw for the semi-finals threw up an interesting head-to-head in the first round with defending champion Freda up against Katelyn and Sonali, who finished second and third two years ago. Freda put in another perfect 8/8 in under four minutes, while Katelyn had a second 7/8, setting themselves as the early pacesetters. They were joined by Don in the second heat, who stormed to his 7/8 in under three minutes, an incredible pace. Unsurprisingly, these three made up this year’s finalists.
For the second year running, a delighted Freda (one year, I will have to video her celebrations), was the clear winner in the finals, with a score of 7/8 in just 3 minutes, 11 seconds, rounding off an incredibly consistent performance which saw scores of either 7 or 8 in each round, with her time improving in each round from a starting point of 4 minutes 38 seconds.
Katelyn finished second for the second time, with 6/8, while Don was third with 4/8, albeit in a blisteringly-fast 2 minutes 44 seconds. Congratulations to Freda and all the other competitors, who made it such a compelling event. Also thanks to Mat North and Rob Ward for organisation/commentary, plus sponsors Bunn and Campus at Union who roasted all the competition coffee.
Check out Part II of my Manchester Coffee Festival round-up, where I meet up with various roasters. Alternatively, for some other perspectives on the festival, check out the following articles:
- Five Ounces’ look at the Festival, including North Star on the Oatly Stand
- Commodities Connoisseur’s round up of all the roasters
- Dog & Hat were also doing the rounds
- Best Coffee had a quick round up of the festival
- Climpson & Sons recounts its fourth appearance at the festival
- From even further afield, here’s Origin’s account of the festival
If you’ve written a review of the festival and would like to be featured, just drop me a line.
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