Friday, 30 August 2013


It's been a rough couple of days and then I got a text that lifted my spirits: want to come on a coffee crawl around London?

Hmm...let me think about this for a moment. How should I best reply - is a bear a Catholic?

Course I do!

And then I began thinking about my review process. It was a very quick 30 seconds. I don't have a review process. In my previous post about my visit, in hindsight all I did was gush. Mind you, it's hard to visit Colonna and Smalls and not to gush. However, it is clear that a structure and a clear system is needed. 

I have been looking at other food reviewing sites and have decided to create a framework by which I can review said cafe without resorting to: it's nice or ugh, it was awful.

So as I start working on that, I thought I'd do a quick shout out. When you go for a coffee, what do you look for in the establishment and the coffee you drink?

Friday, 16 August 2013

Coffee Geekery

Stage 2 of Plans for World Domination have been achieved. My son and I have moved and he's secured his place at Lincoln University. In the meantime, I have been very, very busy. There have been some lovely coffee moments along the way. We were in Princes Risborough for a wedding and when we looked on the map, well Bath wasn't exactly a million miles away. It was decided we'd drop in to Colonna and Small's and experience it in person. I did have the pleasure and privilege of watching co-owner Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood compete at this year's UK Barista Championships, but I didn't get to taste his coffee.

We had such a great time in Bath. It's the first time I've visited and I loved it. I loved the square, sandstone Georgian architecture and the narrow streets leading to comfortable green spaces. Would it surprise you to learn I didn't take any pictures of Bath itself? Nope. The only pictures I took were in Colonna and Small's itself.

Their coffee plants are a bit further along than mine

For anyone thinking about setting up their own speciality coffee house, it's definitely worth a visit. Maxwell has set the bar high. The cafe itself is dedicated to speciality coffee. The white walls are painted with information that speciality coffee novices need to know. 

The layout is efficient and the menu offers espresso and filter coffees. There are cakes on offer if you fancy a sugar rush as well as a caffeine hit, but while I drooled, I was too focused on the coffee to want to clog up my palate with carrot cake yumminess. On the other side of the bar was a table with glasses and jugs of water that customers can just help themselves. An excellent touch, if I might say. And this is why Colonna and Small's is at the top of the speciality coffee tree - attention to detail. Everything follows through and supports the experience. 

The decor is clean and bright. The benches and tables comfortable and slightly quirky  There's also a secluded courtyard outside if we had wanted to sit in the sunshine. But that was too far away from the expresso machine as far as I was concerned and I just wanted to watch the master baristas at work! 

These are on all the tables, I was strongly discouraged from asking for one to take home. 

All of the baristas who work with Maxwell are passionate about what they do. They are well informed about the coffee they serve and are obviously proficient. Service with smile and snippets of information about the brewing method or the coffee itself, all tailored to the level of interest of their customers. I was genuinely surprised when Maxwell said he only employed baristas full time; again consistent with his approach to his business - excellence.

Please don't shoot me! I didn't take a note of the coffee we drank, I'm only a baby coffee geek!*** I can tell you, we tried from both the espresso and filter menus. And I was threatened with violence when I asked to take a sip of a certain someone's cappuccino. When I ordered my own, I thought his response was perfectly reasonable. I had an aeropress with one coffee and a pour-over V60 for another. The barista who served me did not lead me astray. The brew methods were spot on with the coffees I chose and brought out the best flavour notes.

A blue cup of happiness

Cappuccino heaven and all mine!

There's a list on MSN which puts Colonna and Small's at the top of the UK speciality coffee experience and yes, they've got it absolutely right. On a side note, I realised that I've drunk in the top four cafes in the list!

If you're in Bath, for heaven's sake, seek them out! You won't regret it. I'm only half-joking when I say, I'd move to Bath just for the pleasure of drinking in Colonna and Small's every day.

*** I have been reminded that in actual fact, between us we tried all of the coffees from the espresso and filter menus. Also, the menus offer comprehensive tasting notes. (I'm glad one of us has the brain cell today)

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Open Letter to Cafe Owners, Restaurants...anyone who serves Coffee

Apologies for my silence, my Life is in flux at the moment. My Boy is finishing up his exams, getting ready for university and we are moving. Unfortunately, the flat we are moving into needs a serious overhaul. So me and mine are busy getting ready for the next part of our lives.

In the meantime, it puts my plans for World Coffee Domination to one side temporarily. Note, I said to one side, not on hold.

Because in the meantime, I'm still drinking coffee. 

And this blog post is a rant.

Ladies and Gentlemen, there really is no excuse for bad coffee. 

I have turned into one of *those* people. When I go into an establishment now, I check out the coffee machine, I look at the state of the grinder, the state and colour of the beans in the hopper, the steam wand and see whether or not there's a tamper. I ask the person serving me about the coffee. And then, if I'm not satisfied. I order tea. Life is way too short for Bad Coffee.

As a restaurant owner, cafe owner or a business that serves coffee on the side...why oh why do you serve shit coffee? Why are you missing an opportunity? Is your business really doing so well that you can afford poorly trained service staff ?

I like eating out. The food around here is great. Lots of places now are making a real effort to ensure the produce on their menus are organic, locally and ethically sourced and then I get served shite coffee. Coffee roasted black; oily and sticky beans and brewed through a gorilla's nappy.

OK, so I'm exaggerating about the gorilla's nappy.

But I've recently had a cup of filter coffee that was so awful, I was nauseous after drinking it. No really. I'm not exaggerating. It was vile. 

Before I drank said vile cup of coffee I asked the server behind the counter about the coffee. She didn't have a clue, wasn't interested and asked me if I wanted to talk to the manager when I asked another question.

Customer service? No, not so much.

As a business owner, manager, or server, your job is to make sure my experience in your establishment is a great one, fabulous even. You want me to leave your place and tweet about what a wonderful time I had there. You want me to tell my friends, my work colleagues, strangers on the street, what great food I had, what great wine I drank and that the evening was finished off perfectly - with an amazing cup of coffee.

Which means attention to detail. By the care that has gone into your decor, it's clear you want to be proud of your business. You're obviously hoping to appeal to my ethical side by insisting the produce is fresh and locally sourced. Follow through damn it. Serve me a decent cup of coffee. Train your staff to be as enthusiastic about that espresso as they are about the fresh asparagus and free range eggs.

I know times are tough and you get what you pay for. Buying cheap coffee might seem like a price saving, but it is false economy. People will pay money for good coffee. Hell, the amount of Costas and Starbucks popping up like dandelions, should tell you that people will pay good money for bad coffee. 

Invest the money on good coffee. There are speciality roasters out there who will help and guide you. Supply you with great coffee you'll be proud to serve; train your staff to boast about the coffee and to use your coffee machine properly. Make your customers' experience in your establishment a great one. Tie up that last loose end.

I'm done being silent about it. If I come to your business and the server has no idea what they're doing, don't care and neither do you, I'm going to say.

I've worked behind the bar. I cut my teeth in my dad's pub. I know how hard it is to make any money serving food and drink. I know how impossible customers are, how much your feet hurt at the end of a shift. I know that VAT returns make you stressed four times a year.

The thing is, I work hard for my money. When I spend it, I'm not willing to blow it on shite coffee anymore. I want a good time. You show a good time and I am going to shout about it. I will tweet, blog and Facebook every last detail. I will stop strangers in the street, I will tell my colleagues at work about it. You show me a good time and I'm going to want to support your business as best I can.

Monday, 6 May 2013

You went to a Barista Championship?

Yes I did, and very much fun was had. 

Last year, the Midland Heat of the UKBC (UK Barista Championships) was held in Norwich, so it was easy for me to rock up. I had lots of fun there too, so when Dave started getting ready for this year's championship, I started to become a bit of a pain. Eventually, he relented and he took me to Chester for Heat 4.

It sounds so simple, doesn't it? A barista has 15 minutes to make 4 espressos, 4 cappuccinos and 4 signature drinks for the panel of judges. 

Presenting the coffee to the judging panel

Don't ever underestimate the work that goes into those 15 minutes.  Firstly, the barista sources the best coffee they can; they have to learn all about it, not to mention drink cup after cup to master its secrets. Once they've done that, they build the signature drink around the flavours present in the coffee. The trick here is to enhance, not overwhelm the espresso and to do it with flair. The baristas practice, practice and tweak their presentations so that their 15 minutes on stage leads to semi-finals and hopefully to the finals. It's hard work. And then there's the whole performance anxiety to deal with.

The venue was packed for the finals*

Behind the scenes, there's so much that goes on to ensure the barista has the best opportunity to strut their stuff. The Sanremo UK guys look after all the machines and the nuts and bolts of the venue set up. If it doesn't work they're the ones who get the bigger hammer to make it happen.

I was lucky enough to be a runner for Heat 4, the semis and the finals. It gave me such a great insight into the world of speciality coffee. It meant I could taste all the coffee coming off the stage. Some of the sig drinks were amazing! After Heat 4, I'd been wondering how to explore this world further, after all, the SCAE UK (Speciality Coffee Association of Europe UK Chapter) is always looking for judges etc. After the London Coffee Festival and the Barista Championships, I figured I'll start from the bottom and work my way up. I'm sorting out my Barista training.

Volunteering for the Championships was so much fun. There's such a brilliant atmosphere and everyone ends up totally over-caffinated, so they talk really, really quickly and with great enthusiasm.

Me annoying Sanremo Steve*

On the Saturday of the Semi-finals, there were 20 competitors jostling to go through to the finals being held on the next day. These are the 20 best in the UK. Take a moment to think about how many baristas there are serving coffee in your town...Yeah, that's a lot of baristas. So being in the Top 20 is a big, big deal.

The six finalists: Don Altizo, Estelle Bright, John Gordon, Chee Wong, Joe Meagher and 
Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood

The finals were an amazing experience. From a volunteering point of view, there were only six people to look after, but the atmosphere was charged. Everyone from volunteers to baristas to judges, brought their A Game. 

The judges had a tough job. No two ways about it. These are the six best baristas in the country. And my goodness, the quality of the professionalism was outstanding. Watching these masters at work, at the beginning of my coffee journey is a little bit intimidating. And I'm not entirely sure it was a good idea. They set the bar so high. I'm going to have to work incredibly hard to manage a fifth of their expertise and the thing is, they make it look so easy. Trust me, it's not.

This year's winner: John Gordon!

John Gordon in the middle, with Sanremo's Andrew and Dave on either side of him*

I'm thinking I've still got time to grow an interesting beard!

*Pictures used with permission of Sanremo UK! Thanks darlings! 

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Adventures at the London Coffee Festival 2013

Last weekend I was in London for the UKBC 2013 Semis and Finals. It was an amazing experience. Reporting on such full-on 3 days would be nigh-on impossible for me to in a short(ish) blog post. So, I'll give you the snippets over the next few days.

My partner, who would rather not have to admit to knowing me (for reasons which will become clear) and I travelled down to London on Friday. We had a lovely Shoreditch coffee crawl (or at least I did. He said I whinged a lot about the walking), and then ended up at the London Coffee Festival, so he could go off for his calibration session (he is a Sensory Judge for the UKBC). Left to my own devices, I had an absolute blast. 

After the heats in Bury St Edmonds and Chester earlier in the year, the Sanremo UK road crew found themselves stuck with me. I don't know how much they were paid to babysit me - but guys, you was robbed!

Look, my very own cloths!

To stay out of trouble, I was tasked with helping Steve clean down the tables and help get the stage ready for the baristas competing for the coveted title. 

 This is Steve

How can wiping tables down be fun? Running for lunches? Getting the baristas to the stage on time? It really helps when you've got great organisers, you work with people with a brilliant sense of humour and you keep moving! Oh...and you love coffee. You've got to love the coffee.

The world of speciality coffee is filled with unusual, dedicated and enthusiastic people. They love what they do and their enthusiasm is infectious. The barista championships are an extension of that love. 

To compete, a barista has 15 minutes to make make 4 espressos, 4 cappuccinos and 4 signature drinks that compliment the espresso he/she has chosen. The barista has to justify their choices, to be professional at all times and to provide a creative way of imparting all of that to some of the most stony-faced judges, the industry can provide. It's a nerve-wracking experience. There's so much that can go wrong, from stage-fright to technical complications and the barista has to roll with it all.  

And when they go through all of that they have the chance of winning one of these:

The trophies, made by Reg Barber

I met so many amazing people and I had such a good time, not to mention drinking some great coffee.

But my most fun moment came when I helped get the trophy table ready. 

At heat 3 in Bury St Edmonds, I did my level best to separate Sanremo Dave from his tamper. It is stamped with the letters: R B. My initials! My argument was that as it had my initials on it, my ownership was without question. He made the rather spurious claim that RB were the mark of Reg Barber who made the tamper and who sponsors the competition, and wouldn't give it up.

I digress. 

I was helping with the trophy table and these gorgeous tampers were being taken out of their boxes, all stamped with R B. Ladies and gentlemen, I'm nothing if not persistent. I was in the midst of making the whole RB argument again, when a deep Canadian voice said from behind me:

"I don't remember marrying you."

It was Reg Barber. Yes, *the* Reg Barber who makes these beautiful tampers. He was lovely and very patient with the crazy, over-caffinated woman.

RB with RB

One day, I will be a barista and I will have one of these beautiful tampers for my own self.