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Interview: Alex Berti, organiser, London Coffee Festival

Back by popular demand, DR Wakefield will be exhibiting at this year’s London Coffee Festival (30 Apr- 3 May). The 2014 event was a huge success and we received great feedback for our ‘Catalysing Coffee’ stand, educating people on the origins of coffee. We’ve got something extra special lined up for this year’s event, and we’re really excited to be getting back out there.

We caught up with Alex Berti, one of the festival organisers, for a quick chat about the UK’s changing coffee culture and what he’s looking forward to most about this year’s show.

DR Wakefield: Hi Alex, please give us a brief history of the festival and why it’s become so popular.

Alex Berti: We started in 2011, with 7,000 people passing through, but we’re now in our fifth year and are expecting 25,000 attendees. It’s a hybrid event, open to both the trade and consumers, and we’ve come a long way in a short time.

I guess coffee has outgrown most other industries in the past 10 years, despite the recession, and cafés are now real destinations – friends meet there and freelancers work from there.

We wanted to help to educate the public about drinking better coffee rather than instant, showing them it’s not that difficult to drink good coffee at home. In the same vein, it’s forced cafés and restaurants to up their game, because the consumer has become more demanding.

The festival is a great way to bring the whole community together – there were trade shows in the past, but nothing for the consumer – so we’re bridging that gap, and I think the biggest goal was to elevate standards, which we’ve helped to achieve.

People are caring a lot more about where their coffee comes from. I often compare it to the wine trade – some people take their coffee provenance as seriously as they do wine, which is great. We’ve become a great platform for a lot of companies to engage with very discerning customers, especially in London.

DRW: What are the festival highlights?

AB: This year, we’ll see a blend of new elements and established favourites.

We used to play host to the UK finals of the World Barista Championships (WBC), but due to its rescheduling (the world finals now take place in early April) we can no longer do this. However, the good news is we’ve since launched our very own competition – Coffee Masters.

The WBC is quite industry-driven, so there was a danger of people turning up, getting excited about this big event going on, but then not really understanding how it worked – the scores were only announced on the Sunday, so if you watched people compete earlier in the week, you’d leave with no clue as to how they’d got on. 

Coffee Masters is more of a MasterChef-meets-tournament-style knockout competition, pitting international baristas against one another in fast-paced one-on-one battles through various disciplines: roasting, cupping, brewing, latte art and something called ‘the order’ – where you’re given a list of 10 drinks and have to make them as quickly as possible without affecting quality. 

So, over the course of the four days you can watch the competition unfold and see who makes the final. There’s also a £5,000 cash prize for the winner, which is unprecedented in the industry, and we’re very excited to see how it goes down.

Another firm favourite is La Marzocco’s True Artisan Café. They’re the Alfa Romeo of the coffee machine world – handmade in a Florence workshop, they’re very high quality – and work specifically with smaller roasters that focus on excellence.

The café is a pop-up affair where roasters and cafés from all over the UK are invited to take over to produce signature drinks. This might involve a drop of whisky here, some interesting spices there, just anything a bit different really.

The café has been part of the show for the past four years, but it keeps growing and is definitely one of the key elements now.

DRW: Why is it so important for DRW to participate?

AB: To the end user, coffee is simply a drink you buy in a café. Not many people know where it’s sourced, how it’s cultivated, that it comes from a red berry on a bush and that each bean is individually handpicked by a human being. So, I approached DR Wakefield to ask if they could take leadership on the educational front.

They’re really well placed to tell the ‘origin’ story, because they source coffees from around the world, visit farmers and are ethical traders. Last year, we created a stand experience called Catalysing Coffee – the idea being that Wakefield catalyses the whole supply chain, from the farmer down to the café – and we had a mini amphitheatre setup with workshops and talks. Farmers were invited to speak about the challenges facing them at source and the processes involved in farming, and Simon also told some fantastic stories, drawing on his vast field trip experience.

It was very well attended, and it’s the kind of exhibition that really appeals to the new wave of roasters we’ve noticed in the past five or so years, those people leaving the banking trade or careers in law – people with money to invest – who are entering the coffee world and are looking for high-end, speciality beans.

DRW: Catalysing Coffee will be running again this year, but what’s the other feature that you’re excited about?

AB: The micro-lot auction!

Micro-lots are essentially small crops within big farms, where something different is done – perhaps farming at a slightly different altitude, or treating crops differently somehow – which yields a very unique bean, and creates some really interesting coffee.

So, DR Wakefield will be auctioning them off, with all proceeds going to charity, which is great. It’s going to generate a real buzz within the roasting community, and people will be popping along to buy some interesting green beans that they can create some cool coffee with.

It’s really going to put DR Wakefield on the map, letting everyone know they can source these micro-lots all over the world. It’s almost like having a limited edition thing, and Wakefield are saying ‘we can access them’, so we’re really excited to see how it goes down in the coffee community and how much money can be raised.

DRW: What is it that you most admire about DR Wakefield’s approach?

AB: I think it’s their commitment to speciality and independents; although they do have big clients and deal in high volume, they’re still committed to people just starting out. No-one’s too small for them. They’re very willing to engage with people from the very beginning and grow with them. 

It’s their willingness to educate and to share their knowledge that is very valuable and is getting them a lot of respect in the industry.

Not many people are prepared to stand up for farmers, but Wakefield are doing things the right way.

DRW: Thanks, Alex. That’s a lovely testimonial. One final question… favourite coffee?

AB: Ha! I couldn’t really name one, but we like to drink a lot of filter in the office, and we enjoy a good, single origin Chemex.

Thanks to Alex for taking the time to talk. You can follow @LdnCoffeeFest on Twitter, and can buy tickets on their website. The festival runs from 30 Apr- 3 May 2015.