This week I toddled down to the 2009 Caffe Culture Show, at the Kensington Olympia in London. Caffe Culture is a huge trade fair for the coffee shop and cafe industry, and although obviously aimed at the retail side of the industry, there were plenty of coffee roasters there trying to find new customers. It was these I aimed to talk to – the next step of this project is finding the people who actually buy in the coffee from the farms I’ve visited, and simply asking, why do they buy this stuff? What is it that makes Cecocafen’s coffee better than all the other stuff in Nicaragua? And so on.
Muchly easier said than done.
Firstly, as always, I nearly had a heart attack when I found out how much a pre-9.30am travelcard now costs in London (£15??). Then I got lost somewhere round Earl’s Court. Then I got chatted up by an ancient Latvian piano tuner with REALLY bad breath – (Sorry, Mr Boris Knarr, but I don’t think I will be calling you when you get back from St. Petersburg in a few weeks….!) But there we go – nothing unusual, a pretty average morning for me!
But when I finally got to Olympia, Coburg Coffee Company (who roast for Caffe Nero) were nowhere to be seen! This was not helpful, given they were my main reason for going. This was also strange because I could have sworn I saw them in the line up on the Caffe Culture website, they were there last year, and all the rest of the usual suspects were there. I mooched about scabbing as many free coffees as I could (and cookie crumbs, and chocolates, and fruit smoothies, and iced coffees, and disgusting neon coloured energy drinks and even an icecream!) whilst soaking up the atmosphere.
This is, admittedly, the only trade fair I’ve been to so I don’t know if this is typical, but even despite the hyper caffeination of most of the attendees, the whole event felt oddly laid back. Everyone there was trying to sell you something, but not aggressively. Only a few of the stalls stood out – as ever, La Spaziale, the espresso machine makers, dominated the right half of the hall, with lots of lovely, cripplingly expensive coffee machines (“As used in the World Barista Championships”!). Matthew Algie (a roasters) covered their stall with black chalkboard and every time I went back, it was covered with different graffitti and coffee-related doodles. Beyond the Bean, who do a bit of everything also had a huge, cheerful stall as well (with lots of freebies) but everyone else just made do with their little red cubicles, relying on their name printed above them as their means of identity. This is why I spent a good ten minutes chatting to a bloke from E-Lites. He was sitting in a stall with “Electronic Cigarettes” above his head. Utterly bizarre.
I felt odd walking round with a badge saying “researcher” on it because this denoted me immediately as “non-customer”. Nevertheless, the vast majority were very happy to talk to me, with a couple of exceptions. Lincoln and York Coffee Roasters were not the most helpful, and neither were Darlington’s Coffee Company – sadly named after a bloke called Mr Darlington, and not because they are based down the road from me! However, I had a lot of fun chatting to others; I admired some lovely shiny steampunkish espresso machines from Fracino, sampled a lot of very fine chocolate from Montezuma’s, and amazingly for me, I got very excited about finding teapigs a really good, funky company who can get me proper Andean Yerba Mate! This does a Happy Bel make. I talked to a LOT of people about biodegradable coffee cups and so on as well. At one stage I was debating whether to research more about coffee cups, as it is the most obvious form of waste from the retail coffee industry. These were all biodegradable and made from recycled materials, and the cake slice trays and sandwich boxes were made from some form of sugar cane by-product. Impressive, but there is a limit to how much paper-cup-related sales pitch I can take in!
There were also plenty of talks, including the SCAE workshops (barista training, roasting etc which I went to last year and therefore avoided this year) and business seminars. I sat in on a few of those (for tips on Doctor Coffee’s Cafe of course!). Deborah Meaden did one! Explaining why hosting the Macmillian cancer charity’s Big Coffee Morning makes sense for your business as well as being a generally good thing to be involved with. James Hoffman was on his Square Mile coffee stall, as the only “coffee celebrity” there, although I am sure I saw Gwilym Davies wandering around too.
So, did I actually acheive anything useful for the project? Well yes. The two most friendly and helpful companies I talked to were Union coffee roasters and Matthew Algie. I actually met one of the buyers from Union, Jeremy Torz, which is exactly what I needed. I explained I was studying ideas of coffee quality, and that I’d been out on farms (coincidentally, his colleague was out in Matagalpa recently too) but wanted to chat to roasters and see if their views of what coffee quality is, differed at all. He reckoned it shouldn’t. Good quality coffee roasters go on “origin trips” – actually visiting the farms they are buying from, in one big happy, consistent joined up industry. Which is nice if it actually happened – but my experiences in Central America lead me to believe otherwise. This surprised him; Union prize themselves on working with the producers so that the coffee is not only high quality, but sustainable as well. If anything, this made me more determined to find Coburg, just to see if this idyllic-sounding method actually pans out with a such a large company. For Jeremy, however, quality meant a lot of factors in harmony with each other, but most importantly is the altitude the coffee is grown at. On the stall, there were samples all from the same region in Guatemala, but from different heights. Roasted to perfection, even I could tell the difference. The higher the altitude, the better tasting the coffee. But surely it’s not that simple?!
It is not, according to people from Matthew Algie (and fortunately for my project). You can still have great quality green coffee, and decrease it’s quality by roasting it badly, and so on. Under a chalked-on caffeine molecule diagram, someone had written out a coffee roasting how-to on the wall of their stall, complete with details of the actual chemical reactions going on inside the bean. I stood their gazing blankly at the wall, until someone approached me, ‘Ari’ made me a (*very* good) coffee, and said “Oh you must come up and spend a day with us! Talk to…. she’s our master roaster”…. Matthew Algie are based in Glasgow, which makes life that little bit easier. I hope they intended me to actually take them up on the offer!!
So, a little acheivement, and a lot of fun. And hopefully by the next Caffe Culture, I will be in business with Doctor Coffee’s Cafe so I can actually particiate properly!