This time last week I was at the third annual Birmingham Coffee Festival, taking place at the Custard Factory in Digbeth, Birmingham. I went for the first time last year, enjoying it so much that I decided to return to Birmingham this year, even though it meant missing the World of Coffee in Berlin. In all I spent two days there, Friday and Saturday, skipping the final day (Sunday). Of the two, Friday was much quieter, as you would expect.
If you’ve attended any of the UK’s smaller coffee festivals (Manchester or Glasgow for example), then you’ll know roughly what to expect: coffee, coffee equipment and handful of related stands. Alternatively, if you’ve been to London Coffee Festival, then the Birmingham festival is much smaller and far more relaxed, featuring mostly local roasters and coffee shops, with a handful of national names.
As I usually do for coffee festivals, I’m going to write up my visit over a series of posts, starting today with a general round-up of the festival and the space. Subsequent posts will deal with the various roasters I visited and there’ll be a general round post covering everything else (including tea of all things!).
Knockbox Coffee is one of those legends of London’s speciality coffee scene that I’d assumed had been around forever. It was therefore a bit of a surprise when I finally called in one quiet Bank Holiday Monday in May to discover that it had only been around since 2014, although in today’s fast-moving industry, that makes it pretty venerable.
Located at the southern end of Lamb’s Conduit Street in Bloomsbury, there’s not much to Knockbox, a simple, square space offering limited seating around three of the four walls, while two picnic tables and a bench provide outside seating. The coffee is from local roasters, Workshop, with its seasonal single-origin espresso forming the bedrock of the simple coffee menu. This is joined by a wide array of teas and smoothies, plus an equally wide selection of cakes and toasties, which are joined (at weekends only, I believe) by a two-item brunch menu.
Welcome to another in my new series, Travels with my Coffee, where I take my coffee to all the best places, particularly when there are no speciality coffee shops to be found. This is the third Travels with my Coffee of 2019, which got off to a good start with my road trip through Arizona & New Mexico in January, followed by a trip to Shanghai in March.
Today it’s the turn of the five-week trip I took to the USA in April, which turned out to be a bit of an epic journey, starting in New Orleans and ending at the opposite end of the country in Chicago. In between, however, I flew to Los Angeles, took the train to San Jose, spent two weeks in the Bay Area, then took the train all the way to Chicago!
As ever, I was joined by my trusty Travel Press, Aergrind and Therma Cup. I also brought, for the first time ever, my rCup, a new reusable cup made from recycled paper coffee cups, which I’d picked up at the London Coffee Festival shortly before leaving on the trip, which doubled as a test-drive for the rCup.
Since 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 or Bristol festivals and why I missed Glasgow this year), I decided to attend. Not sure what to expect, I initially only booked for the one day, but I really enjoyed myself, finding more than enough to keep me occupied, so returned the following day.
Next weekend, the festival is back for its third year in the Custard Factory in Digbeth, running from Friday to Sunday. Once again, I’m in the country, so I’ll be heading up to Birmingham on Friday for the festival (although I won’t be there on Sunday).
Second Shot is somewhere that’s been on my radar ever since it opened on 21st May 2016 (which means that I missed its third birthday by just four days!). A small multi-roaster café, with limited seating outside and not much more in the small, but uncluttered interior, it’s right in the heart of Bethnal Green, around the corner from the underground station and midway between Cambridge Heath and Bethnal Green stations on the overground line.
When it comes to coffee, Second Shot stands on its own two feet, up there with some of the best in London, offering a different roaster on espresso and filter, along with a small brunch menu and a selection of cake. However, where it differs is that it was set up by founder, Julius Ibrahim, as a social enterprise to employ people affected by homelessness, giving jobs in the short-term and careers in the longer-term.
Mouse Tail Coffee, which started life as a coffee cart in Peckham in 2012, has been on my radar for a while. These days, in addition to the cart (now at Canada Water), there are four bricks-and-mortar stores under the name Mouse Tail Coffee Stories located in and around East and South East London, plus a coffee van at Canary Wharf.
The Whitechapel Mouse Tail Coffee Stories has been going for 4½ years, one of the area’s early speciality coffee pioneers. A small spot in a row of mostly sweet shops, it’s behind Whitechapel Road Market, sheltering it from the traffic on the busy A11. There’s not much seating, but it’s cosy enough to linger for an hour or two.
The concise espresso-based menu uses Mouse Tail’s seasonal house-blend and decaf from its roasting arm, Mission Coffee Works. There’s a good supply of cake, plus breakfast items in the morning and, during the week, salads and the like for lunch. Given its small size, it’s takeaway cups only, so don’t forget to bring your own.
Obscure Coffee by name, and, some might say, obscure by nature, although in reality, Obscure Coffee is only a few minutes’ walk from the heart of Chester, near the bottom of Lower Bridge Street, close to the city walls and the River Dee. It’s not even obscure by name, since, as owner Nick recounted, he’d wanted to call it Obscura Coffee, “obscura” being Spanish for “dark”. However, someone misheard him, thought he said “obscure” and the name stuck.
It’s a pretty small spot, with space inside for a window bar and table, while there’s a really cosy back room with more tables and a pair of armchairs. All the coffee comes from Climpson and Sons, with Climpson’s signature Estate on espresso, joined by regularly-changing options on batch brew through the Moccamaster and pour-over through the V60. If you’re hungry, there’s a small selection of cakes and pastries, but that’s it.
Welcome to the third of my detailed write-ups of the 2019 London Coffee Festival, which took place last month at the Old Truman Brewery. Along with my overall Festival Round-up, so far I’ve written about the coffee and the coffee kit. Today’s the turn of one of my festival highlights, my coffee experiences.
But what do I mean by “coffee experiences”? These are the events that go around the coffee itself, such as coffee cuppings, roasting demos and coffee/food pairings. They’ve been very popular over recent years, with the festival running practical, skills-based events such as Latte Art Live and Home Barista Workshops. There have also been experiences such as The Tasting Room (with subjects ranging from tea to Vermouth) and The Flavour Discovery, a multi-sensory journey from Union Hand-roasted!
As in previous years, most of these events were pre-ticketed, with limited numbers at each event. As a result, I only attended one, the annual La Cimbali Sensory Series, which I only managed to attend thanks to a kind invitation from La Cimbali! Hosted by the fabulous Rob Ward, he manages, year after year, to invent with some new way to challenge the senses and educate at the same time.
This is the original Doughnut Vault that my friend Phillip recommended to Amanda and me as the source of the best doughnuts in Chicago. A small (almost) hole-in-the-wall operation in River North around the corner from my hotel, we visited during our “polar vortex” trip to Chicago. Although there is batch-brew filter coffee here for $1 a pop (takeaway only, so don’t forget to bring your own cup) we came specifically for the doughnuts, so can’t comment on the quality of the coffee.
Just like the bigger, coffee shop version of the Doughnut Vault on Canal Street, the doughnuts sell out quickly. However, unlike the Canal Vault, where the coffee shop has set hours and stays open selling coffee long after the doughnuts are gone, once the Franklin Vault sells the last doughnut, it closes. The good news, however, is that, unlike the Canal Vault, it opens at weekends, with a more civilised start time of 09:30, which is how Amanda and I managed to get up in time for the last of the doughnuts!
The Doughnut Vault is one of Chicago’s better kept (speciality coffee) secrets. Put onto it by my friend Phillip, it was touted as the source of the best doughnuts in Chicago, Phillip recommended the Franklin Street location, a small (almost) hole-in-the-wall operation in River North around the corner from my hotel, which Amanda and I visited during our “polar vortex” trip to Chicago. It was only while we were there that the server pointed us towards the Canal Street branch across the river.
Given the aforementioned polar vortex, we didn’t venture out much, so couldn’t get to Canal Street on that visit. However, I returned the next time I was in Chicago, first with Amanda on Monday morning and again on my own on Wednesday lunchtime. As we discovered, Canal Street is somewhat bigger, best described as a “proper coffee shop”, serving, espresso, batch-brew and, of course, the aforementioned doughnuts.
A word of warning, though: the doughnuts sell out quickly. Best be there before nine o’clock if you want to be sure of getting one!