'I am a coffee fanatic. Once you go to proper coffee, you can't go back. You cannot go back' - Hugh Laurie
When I was growing up, I lived in a house where the smell of coffee lingered throughout, all day, every day. My dad was involved in the coffee industry, and often brought back packets of wholebean and ground coffee from London, and samples from his week long trips to Brazil. Our garage was crammed full of boxes, bags and tubs of coffee, and for a child who was only interested in riding her bike (which was, consequently, always trapped behind the mountains of coffee), this was a bit of a hindrance for me.
Whilst some kids in a similar situation grew up to become baristas or, at least, coffee lovers, I despised the stuff. I couldn't understand how adults could drink this hot, brown, bitter liquid, and even more how some adults relied on the stuff. I remember asking my dad about it and he said, 'your tastebuds change over time. Someday, you probably won't like cakes or hot chocolates because they're too sickly sweet, and instead you'll enjoy a nice cup of coffee'. I screwed up my face and disregarded this explanation, telling my dad that I wouldn't ever dislike cakes or hot chocolate.
Ten or so years later, and I still like my sweet stuff, but I do appreciate coffee a lot more. The smell alone makes me nostalgic, and I really do enjoy my lattes, and the occasional espresso when I go to continental Europe. However, I've always bought my coffee from major brands such as Starbucks and Costa - I never thought to engage myself in the world of the independent barista. I'm sure there are many people like me; we stick to the big brands because it's what we know. What if we tried something from an independent cafe that we didn't like? It might put us off. So we go to our local Bucks and order our daily flat whites because it delivers that same, comforting feeling every single time.
I wanted to remove myself from this routine, and try something that was out of my comfort zone, for once. I was given tickets to this year's London Coffee Festival in Shoreditch, so I decided to go along and expand my knowledge.
Walking into The Old Truman Brewery, I'll admit I was a little intimidated. Here was a huge group of people who know pretty much everything there is to know about coffee, and drink it like it's water. I walked around the entire place once, speeding up a bit when someone looked like they were about to talk to me (hey, I didn't want them to think I was stupid or wonder why I was there), before sitting down at the bar with an espresso martini.
Whilst I was drinking, I thought that everyone here, at some point in their lives, knew nothing about coffee. We all have to start somewhere, whether that's with a cup of Nescafe Original Instant or plunging right into the deep end.
I finished my drink and, with a little bit more confidence (mostly from the vodka), I walked around the venue again - this time, taking in all that I could.
I stopped at the Union Hand-Roasted stand. This was a large area where people seemed to be congregating around one bar. I made my way to the front to see what was going on, and was asked if I wanted to take part in a flavour challenge. I was given four cups of black coffee, and asked to match them to four different flavours: Chocolate & Caramel, Fruit, Nuts & Spices, and Citrus & Floral. I don't have a great sense of smell, so unfortunately that part of the challenge was wasted on me - but the tasting part was where the fun really began. I must have changed my mind so many times, rearranging the cups around between tastes to establish the right order, but I just couldn't put my finger on the flavours. I guess I didn't have an experienced palette, so I couldn't quite pick out the details, and I ended up getting just one right - the distinct Citrus & Floral.
My name didn't make it onto the winners chart that hung on the wall, but I did come away having learnt a whole lot about how the location and processing affects the way that coffee tastes.
After that minor defeat, I couldn't help but stop by the Latte Art stand. I wanted to visit the stand earlier in the day, but there was a huge crowd blocking my view. That afternoon, there was still a huge crowd (people now seem to have a huge fascination with coffee art thanks to Instagram) but I managed to glimpse the work of an Autralian barista who was demonstrating the well known rosetta design, as well as more challenging techniques.
A volunteer was asked to come behind the bar and try the art for herself, but the milk pretty much blended with the coffee and you couldn't make out the design. Turns out that the baristas make this skill look so much easier than it is, when in reality it requires much more practice than people give credit for.
Following this session, I decided that it was time to head to the Hotel Chocolat stand, where I could get my sugar fix. They were handing out 100% cocoa hot chocolates, as well as a brand new white chocolate and vanilla drink - both of which were to die for. No word on the release date for the latter as yet, but as soon as it arrives on shelves I'm going to have to bag myself some!
In the middle of the room stood a huge statue made from real chocolate: stacks of huge pieces, possibly the size of the average laptop. People were invited to scrape off a bit for themselves to pair with their hot chocolates. I politely declined. Me, being the hygiene freak I am, thought about how long that chocolate had been sitting there and just how many people had touched it. Everybody looked like they were enjoying it, though.
Finally, after a good look around the festival, I decided it was time to go home. I was a little overwhelmed with the amount of info I picked up, but I was intrigued at the very least. In a goody bag, I was kindly given a packet of wholebean coffee - which I've now got to find a way to grind and brew! Any suggestions on reasonably priced grinders and coffee makers would be much appreciated!