The UKBC (United Kingdom Barista Competition) was held at the impressive Excel conference center. What a great way to start my travels to see the UK’s finest compete.
I managed to lodge with Klaus Thomson, free of charge, which was fantastic for my budget and even better for convenience as the room was only a couple minutes from the comp. After not much sleep, apparently I snore, who knew? After what was one of the worst hotel breakfasts I’ve had (thanks hotel Ibis), Klaus and I made the short walk to the center. Here we saw James Hoffman and his coffee roasted by Stephen Leighton of Has Bean take the top honours with a score of 721. James wowed the audience with his donut coffee signature drink which I will explain in lamens terms. He began by infusing donuts into milk (not sure how long he did this, I think overnight?) then put the mixture into a centrifuge on stage for about 7.5 minutes. Next he simply poured an espresso, then added the mixture. I had the chance to taste his signature drink and surprise, surprise: just as the name suggests, it tasted like coffee and donuts! Though it might have been a little too sweet for my liking, I still thought it was the best signature drink of the day.
So congrats James, you’re a good kid!
What is it with world champions and their need to out-do everyone? James Hoffman could not stay out to celebrate his victory as he had a car packed full of gear and winnings, so Klaus stepped up to the plate and did the celebrating for him. Alongside Klaus was Louis Henry (5th) Cooper, Steve Pank and myself and we partied until 6am. I’m convinced we consumed enough grog to make even an Irishman cry like a school kid who can’t find his way home.
That morning Klaus and I awoke to the sound of house keeping banging on our door wanting to clean our room. We were running late for our appointment with Stephen Morrissey and his girlfriend, Jen Moylan. We hastily caught the DLR & Tube to our respective hotels, then raced to meet the lovely couple at Flat White, a mere four hours late.
Flate White www.flatwhite.co.uk
I love this place. I’d been here once before well over a year ago and like then, this place was pumping. I met Cameron McClure, the owner, last time I was here and I’m pleased to report he has not changed. He has his team so focused and excited about each coffee; it’s amazing and very contagious. After being away from Australia so long I’d forgotten how much the Kiwis and Aussies up-dose! I had to chuckle as it’s definitely something I will have to get used to again. The bar is designed so customers can watch their coffee being made at the side of the bar after they’ve ordered. I ordered an espresso and watched as the barista started grinding the coffee, supplied by Monmouth. As he began dosing, he forcefully settled the coffee once, twice, a third time. Whilst leveling with his fingers, he aggressively patted down the coffee then leveled it flat, back into the doser. He went through the usual tamping routine, flushed the group head locked in the portifilter, then brewed immediately. The shot looked wonderful, donning a lovely, rich, golden brown crema with great consistency in the cup. The espresso had a very thick, creamy texture, and although I could not taste the barista, it was salty and I was a little disappointed.
Finally Klaus arrived and we had some breakfast which was more like afternoon tea. We each ordered a cappuccino and went around the bar to have a look. Cam knew of Klaus and his high-profile barista status and as he was pouring the coffee he told us he was nervous. You wouldn’t have guessed it though, as both coffees Cam poured had flawless rosettas. He has a very interesting way of holding the cup when he pours his milk through the espresso. He grabs the handle with his right hand, then places it in a cupped left hand so he’s “cupping” the bottom of the cup. He then brings the cup quite close to his face (not too close so he’s breathing all over it) and with as much love as you’d give a precious newborn, he pours the milk. I loved watching such a unique approach.
The coffees were fantastic so we had another before we left to have a look at Monmouth Coffee Company.
Monmouth Coffee Company 27 Monmouth St London www.monmouthcoffee.co.uk
Monmouth is another great cafe with a completely different feel about it. It was more of a chilled, relaxed and cosy experience. Although they do have a great espresso blend, they have never pulled me a good shot, so we are skipping this and heading straight to the single estate filter coffee they offer.
The cafe has a very small seating area and you do end up feeling like you are sitting on top of each other, plus the staff is less friendly than that of Flat White. When I told them I’m doing a story for Barista Mag as a “Barista-at-Large” and wanted to ask a few questions, they curtly said if I wanted to talk to anyone I would have to get approval from their head office. Normally I would have thought this snobbish, but having had my knuckles rapped by Bewley’s after doing an interview for The Irish Independent without going through Bewleys’ PR company, I understood.
With menus the size of a novella, I ended up not even really reading. They reminded me of menus at Chinese restaurants with 150 different options, though Monmouth’s coffee selection isn’t huge. They just provide detailed stories about each coffee, which is great if you can be bothered reading them.
I tried their Las Nubes coffee from the Chiquimula Region of Guatemala which is made through a single cup melitta filter. It was a good coffee, though too roasty for my taste and would have been better more lightly roasted. I appreciated the change from drinking espresso but I could not finish it as I was feeling the caffeine more than usual that day…or was it the hangover?
The time came for Klaus and me to bid farewell to Stephen and Jen as they had to catch a flight back to Dublin. Klaus and I raced to meet with coffee hunters Anette Moldvaer and Stephen Hurst, of Mercanta and London School of Coffee. After a quick goodbye, Klaus and I struggled towards Mercanta on our hungover legs through the hustle-bustle that is the London Underground.
Mercanta www.coffeehunter.com 6.30pm (1.5 hours late)
For ages I’d been dying to see this place. I couldn’t wait to see their signature cupping table that is shaped like an “M”, not to mention, cup some fantastic coffees. Anette took us to the cupping room/lab where I finally got to see their cupping table. With its green countertop and built-in sunken sinks, Stephen claims it could double as an ideal entertaining bar as well.
Mercanta opened ten years ago and specialises in importing specialty and premium green coffees. The company boasts five Cup of Excellence judges and a barista school too. They also have an office in Guatemala which Stephen advised me to visit when I am there. Apparently there are some good farms nearby as well.
Mercanta does all their cupping blind so there are no preconceived ideas about the coffees we were cupping. They use 12 grams to 250mls of water with a brew time of four minutes before breaking. There was a run of ten coffees and I was feeling very nervous about being around such expertise. I tend to shut up and listen when I find myself in that kind of company. We started with five coffees that were only marginally different from one another, but they all had good sweetness and nice, nutty flavours. I was beginning to worry that being out until six in the morning was taking its toll as I could not pick out huge differences among the coffees. Then about eight cups into the run, wham! An incredible coffee just jumped out at us all with an amazing lively acidity–this coffee was truly standing out above the rest. We all guessed it would have to be an African coffee, most likely a Kenyan. However, it turned out to be a Guatemalan Maragogype large bean, or as some say, an elephant bean! It was a genuinely high quality coffee.
After cupping and listening to Stephen Hurst talk about Mercanta and London’s coffee industry, we all went to the pub for a pint. (Probably the last thing Klaus and I needed but it definitely did take the edge off.) James Hoffman finally joined us after spending the day teaching customers how to clean an espresso machine. What a reality check for James, having just won the UKBC the previous night, then going back to basics the very next day. Had it been me, I would have taken some time off to relax.
Anette, James, Klaus and I went to the back of the pub to have some Thai and catch up. I took this opportunity to sit back and listen to some of the great minds in the coffee biz talk everything coffee, and I do mean everything! I have to thank James and Anette for buying us dinner that night. I only hope I get to return the favour sometime.
Although I had a great time in London I left thinking it’s still got a long way to go in its growth of speciality coffee. London is so big and there seem to be just two hot spots to visit. It could be a good business opportunity just waiting to happen…
Next stop, New York!