London's obsession with coffee is at boiling point, and with the mightily successful London Coffee Festival now over for another year, are we informed as we should be able what real coffee is, and do we care? I decided to find out.
2017 dates now released below!
The London Coffee Festival is a yearly marvel filling the Old Truman Brewery, on the historically important and culturally interesting Brick Lane. Not that the lane's mix of curry, bagels and record shops have direct influence over coffee in town, but there's a vibrancy to life seldom felt in other parts of our great city. The perfect place then for a right jovial bunch of enthusiasts to share in their collective high, whilst giving an opportunity for baristas and businesses to swap trade and stories.
Expectation was high following a media-storm of caffeine filled tweets, so much so that by day three out of the four, if you'd not heard about this years event you must have been been under a rock, or at the very least firmly planted in an old fashioned boozer for the last 2 months. Coffee it seems is the new foodie crack, and with bacon doing its thing in 2014, BBQ in 2015, it seems cold-brew and chemex drips are putting pay to the latte art of old and aiming to capture your attention as the next big thing. It is apparently no longer good enough to emblazon your cup with a artisanal frothy heart; the public is literally buzzing about what's underneath the foam. In my opinion quite rightly so.
The story of coffee is one of mysterious Persian traders and high class male dominated alpine dens in the 1600s. The gents of the day would come to their favourite Viennese coffee houses and read the newspapers till the hours drew dark and so did the expressions of their ladies back home. It's this (thankfully) outdated chauvinistic stance that almost ruined coffee's reputation altogether; what with it being so vastly expensive and frowned upon by many, tea rooms instead became de rigueur for those who could.
With the expansion of the coffee plant across to the new world, there started a battle of wits between the African and South American continents in producing the finest beans. With Asia firmly cornering the tea leaf market, the war over where coffee can, and 'should' come from rages on still today. Regardless of your penchant for Robusta or the higher praised Aribca beans, companies these days do all they can to assure their customers that theirs is the most cared for, highest welfare standards, fair trade and of course the list goes on. What people oft forget is even the finest beans can be over-roasted, and turned into a substance only palatable by the owners of the thickest Shoreditch filter moustaches.
So how to manage the trade off between taste and quality? It's something Kenko would have you believe is down to artisan growers selected only the very finest beans, and they're right, but they aren't the beans you're getting ground up into instant freeze-dried coffee dust. Following an enlightening trip to a very small family run plantation in Puerto Rico recently, I had the happy fortune to experience what real quality means, and it's changed my perception for ever.
Check out the rather superb Hacienda Pomerrosa here!
Photo by Kimberley-Marie Sklinar Green / sitwithkimberley.com
Firstly there two types of coffee plantation. Those for whom big industrial methods are key, grow thousands of rows of coffee plants, neatly ordered for maximum revenue. This is un-shaded coffee, where larger shadowy trees are removed for more yield. Then there are the smaller producers, who intermingle their coffee plants with bananas, pine, roses and many other gorgeous plants. The coffee plants are then called shaded, owing to the mottled light and slower growing environment filled with carefully planted flavours from the local flora. If you've ever walked through a pine forest, or sniffed your way through a rose garden, it's easy to see how planting coffee here makes the flavours sing.
Next comes the processing. Coffee is not easy to pick right. Not all the pods are ready at once so going through by hand and picking is the only certain way to ensure you pick them at the correct ripeness. These are then hand sorted on a large table before going through various washing and sorting techniques. All the rejects from these processes go off to the bigger industrial plants, where quality comes second after profit. Finally after removing almost 80% of the lower quality beans you're left with quite literally the pick of the crop. All this makes for a very well cared for and immaculate quality bean.
Then comes the roasting. Roasting coffee now has such low margins that for the majority of mass produced coffee it's all done by firms like Coca-Cola. In fact the American sugary corporation now processes around 90% of Puerto Rico's coffee, leaving it even harder to source proper small plantation coffee.
So with London Coffee Festival being as popular as it's ever been, and coffee consumption in the UK rocketing, how can we be sure to get real quality coffee? Not just that which professes to be so, but really just the rejects from these smaller producers? Ask. Ask your local coffee supplier or barista where his beans are from, it's likely they are in the biz because they love what they do, so take a moment to find out about their coffee, any they'd recommend and any to avoid given personal taste preferences?
I asked the enthusiastic team at Ozone coffee and it was clear - the stuff runs through their veins. So much so in fact, they've printed a book of sourcing stories and important discoveries which they loved. If their queue was anything to go by, I'm not alone in being impressed.
Sadly there were some failures at London Coffee week, over-roasted bitter espresso from trade suppliers, and who the hell let tea people in I'd love to know. Brita were there trying to tell us our water tasted of too much, and Hotel Chocolate seemed very out of place selling chocolate (however good it is, it was dilouting the coffee theme too far).
The 2017 dates are now released, The London Coffee Festival returns on Friday 06 till Sunday 09 April, 2017.
No need to wait for next year, there's a lot of coffee to be drunk till then, and there's no excuse now for a bad cup of wake-up juice.