Glasgow Coffee Festival 2015 – Behind The Scenes

In my ever continuing quest towards being able to consistently make a good cup of coffee and be able to get more of a handle on being able to convert a new bag of coffee into something closely aproximating what the grower and roaster first had in mind for their beans it became clear a few months ago that I’d have to start making more coffee and that the only way to make more coffee would be to do it for the public somehow.

To that end I’m now technically a “freelance barista” and am getting shifts in when I can (although this also means dusting off my social skills as well as multi-tasking in a pressured and noisy environment etc etc etc).

The latest bit of fun in this series was that James from Back to Black Coffee acquiesed to popular demand and decided to open a stall serving coffee at the Glasgow Coffee Festival and then go all out on the details to do the best possible job of it we could.


James Wallace doing quality control at Back to Black Coffee

So what we were serving?

  • A huge selection of baked goods from one of my favourite places in Glasgow – Bakery47
  • Cascara and Mango Tonic
  • Mulled Cherry Cascara
  • Five Elephant – La Dulce Memoria on espresso
  • Five Elephant Kii AB on v60
  • Workshop Coffee Gachatha AA on v60

And how much were we charging? Nothing – all free apart from the baked goods which sold quite well once the day got going.


This is where it starts getting funky – James knows I have been making my own water at home and asked if we couldn’t do similar for the stall on a larger scale.  We organised a cupping a few days beforehand and a session to dial in the pourover coffees so we would know in advance roughly where they needed to be in terms of time, temperature and target extraction yield.

Annoyingly the cupping came up with the result that the most time consuming method for creating water (see also: grindscience ) was better than the others – although hardening existing tap water rather than resorting to shipping in litres of purified water was deemed to be more effective when balancing the cost/rewards.

To that end I prepared enough concentrated calcium solution to create 100L of water at our desired hardness level and took them along to the event along with a TDS meter to calibrate our final solution..

Dialling in was fun as we established that the Workshop coffee was going to be very friendly to us (tasting good at a fair range of extractions) but the Kii was going to be a bit more difficult as it wasn’t singing to us the way that the Kii has sang to us in the past (give it a few more days and it would probably have been much easier!).

Anyway we probably put in a a couple of days work alongside our existing day jobs in the days leading up to the festival tweaking our recipes and sorting out the water and then the weekend came up too fast.

The Night Before…

We arrived the night before the festival to get everything set up and start creating the water for the next day – I swapped in a new magnesium filter to make sure we were at optimal filtation/mineral exchange and instantly regretted this decision as at the flow rate we were experiencing meant that it was going to take over three hours to create the water required for the next day.

That said we managed to get set up enough that James was able to drain his boiler and get roughly dialled in for the next day in terms of recipe (although at 9pm the spro was tasting awful to both of us). We had a lot of questions from those around us seeing us pouring water all over the place and setting up our gear with duct tape and funnels so we could automate the process as much as possible so we could get all our gear in place. (From a marketing point of view this was certainly worthwhile).

The gear? Two EK43s (one loaded with the Five Elephant doser and one for filter on the side). Three V60s and an impressive nunber of Brewista and Acaia scales, mini whisks and two refractometers because it’s always good to have a second and third opinion…

Anyway we left all our gear there and went out for a few beers,  I the spent most of the night panicking because up until then I hadn’t really tasted any of the coffees that we’d made in all our preparation time and actually enjoyed them. I am a fussy grump however and want everything to be perfect all of the time which is a bit optimistic when you’re dealing with something which at the end of the day is a natural product.

The day itself

Having no power for our gear for the first hour of our prep time was a bit distressing – thankfully we were able to pull enough wattage together for James to dial in the espresso to a reasonable level. Suddenly at 9am it started tasting more like the espresso I have come to know and love from my sessions at home chasing that “sweetness” that I’ve only ever really tasted from my EK43 and the occasional well dialled in Mythos. I hadn’t had one of James’ EKspressos in a while (since we both got refracs a few months ago in fact) and it was really confidence instilling to realise that we’d both ended up at pretty much the same destination in our target extractions and strength for our EKSpresso.

The pourover we weren’t quite so lucky with – not only was the ambient temperature far lower than anything I’m used to working in but I’m actually not that practised at doing pourover. It’s funny – a few months ago I’d have said espresso was hard and that filter was easy but I’m now completely turned around and think the opposite. Perhaps because I’ve invested so much time into learning how to make that perfect espresso – thankfully I have a large stockpile of beans which I was planning on doing some playing with next week around recipes with various ratios, times, pouring cycles and agitations so I can understand it more intimately.

The Workshop started singing pretty early on but the Kii was alternating between under-extracted guff (which I didn’t serve) and a flatter sweet coffee. Occasionally I was able to hit the magic number that got it to shine with a bit more complexity but I really wasn’t feeling it.

Patrick from Five Elephant was on hand to taste and suggest a direction to go in and we settled for pushing the brew ratio up a bit and trying to keep our target TDS above 1.4 (My preference is usually for about 1.3 but because we were serving in cardboard cups I wanted to stay higher so as to avoid the coffee just tasting of cardboard cups).

Anyway Patrick is a super nice chap and wasn’t an asshole about me abusing his coffee, we got very good feedback on the EKspresso which given the effort going in to the water science and learning was also really confidence inspiring.

The customers loved the Workshop most of the time but when the Kii hit the magic spot it was the preferred coffee by far. I ended up just constantly making v60s (and refracting nearly everything) and handing out samples of everything we did to anybody who passed us by. The mulled cascara and mango cascara was super fun to hand out to people once they were coffeed out  and we had plenty of people arriving at the stall because they’d heard about the magic fruit drinks that needed to be tried.

I was really pleased to see how many people really loved the espresso – often people order milk drinks because it’s the safe option and by not having milk on the menu I think we opened a lot of eyes as to what espresso could really be if you pushed the envelope a little. A lot of people who wouldn’t have ordinarily, chose to drink the espresso and were really surprised by the sweetness and complexity of it.

This pleased me greatly, as it shows that people are more than ready for sensibly roasted coffee so long as it is well extracted.

The competition

WOW, opposite us and to the right a little was Foundry Coffee Roasters and All Started Here with a seriously impressive two-group lever machine, an EK43 and mythos serving the new Rocko Mountain as a super-sweet well extracted fruity espresso YES YES YES. Two stalls at the same festival serving wildly different espressos but both chasing that high sweetness like a dream. I sent a lot of people from our stall over there once they’d tried our samples – and it was good that they also had milk drinks on because that no doubt pulled even more people over to the “light side of the force” with the ridiculous strawberry milkshake quality of their flat whites. Top top top game indeed.

Foundry + All Started Here

Foundry + All Started Here

(Photo source:  James R on Yelp)

I grabbed half a kilo of their new Rocko Mountain as well as half a kilo of a prototype roast that they’re working on, I really enjoy Foundry when I’ve got it in and meeting the chaps and seeing how they serve their own coffee has given me even more enthusiasm for the product they’re working on.

I also popped over to Atkinsons, an “old school modern roaster” down in Lancaster who really know their shit and are doing a great job of getting in some pretty interesting coffees and turning them into something that I’d want to drink. I picked up some of their honey-process pacamara and I’m really looking forward to getting that through the EK43 later this week.

Coffee is great.

The aftermath + Thanks

Well I’ve still not packed up yet but we went to the after party and then Diana from Workshop had organised a small sit down meal at the Ubiquitous chip with Patrick and a few others. It was really nice to sit down and relax after a hard day and catch up with some people who really know their beans. Patrick especially has put some thoughts into my head about next steps if I’m serious about getting better at coffee (although the suggestions weren’t aimed at me I am always listening).

I went home happy and want to thank everybody for their great feedback at the stall. I also want to thank Briony from Yelp who came and delivered some gloves to the stall at the start of the day when it was so cold we couldn’t refract anything and had to keep our refractomers in our inside pockets to keep them warm. The chaps at Dear Green who set everything up have a lot to be thanked for – logistically this sort of event is challenging and when we went home late at night they were still working hard and getting the Briggait into shape for the event as well as hosting the after party at their new roastery.

Next steps

More practise and experimentation with brew methods, more guest shifts, more travelling and more chatting to baristas who know better than me – I look outside of Glasgow again to see what others are doing and learn from them.

Next year I intend on being a lot more confident with that filter coffee.