Aaah coffee, that sweet magical elixir, full of dark mystery and restorative properties. Nothing better than having that equally sweet and bitter nectar, combined with a dash of milk to mellow out the flavours slip down your throat. The conqueror of mornings and cure for hangovers. Coffee how I love thee.
Coffee had been just another drink for me for many years. Something I would buy in granule format from the local supermarket, chuck in a mug with milk, hot water and sugar, and be done with it. Over the years, following visits to Australia where coffee is a culture, to Bali where the specialise in coffee pooped by the civet cat and more recently following the emergence of London's coffee scene, I have learnt to embrace coffee as more than just a hot drink, but of a complex and incredibly enjoyable beverage.
A couple of weeks ago I visited Prufrock on Leather Lane which was quite an eye opener. There I attended a class and learnt about how to pull a good shot, how to foam milk and how to draw silly stuff in the foam. Making a good quality, saleable coffee is no easy task (unless you're Starbucks) and even after 3 hours of pulling shots, steaming milk and pouring coffees, I couldn't quite nail it. It whetted my appetite for not only the drink, but for learning a bit more about coffee in general.
Amongst the many roasteries in London, Union is definitely one of the more prominent with presence in shops and cafes across London. When a group of us were invited on a coffee away day down at the roastery, I was pretty excited as it gave me that opportunity to learn about how that little green bean works it's way into my daily cuppa. Arriving for our debriefing, we were split into two groups, one to learn the art of making the perfect cappuccino and the other to learn about the intricacies of the roastery. Fuelled by some excellent pastries from Gails bakery, I strode into the barista training room confident I could show of some newly learnt skills from only a few weeks ago..
After listening intently to the intricacies of the grind, the fustidious cleaning and wiping down of the milk steamer, tamping to the right pressure and the length of extraction amongst other things, we were let loose on the machine to pull some shots and froth some milk. Pulling a shot isn't too hard, especially if the level of the grind and the heat of the water is already set up for you. The hard part is ensuring the milk is evenly frothed at the right consistency, maintaining it's gloss. My attempts were pretty pitiful, with a massive white blob forming the centerpiece of my milk, but we all had a lot of fun and were left itching for more when we were called away for lunch.
Having stuffed our face with sandwiches, we swapped places with the previous group and headed for the roastery. Stepping through a seemingly innocent set of doors, we entered the tardis like space behind, housing an enormous roaster, and rows upon rows of sacks containing glorious green beans. Led by our extremely able guide (that would be co founder Steven), we were led to a smaller "San Franciscan" out the back and proceeded to roast. Roasting itself is a very delicate process, measuring the heat of the roaster, timing when it is ready too receive the beans, how long it needs to stay in there and finally cool down.
Throughout the roast, we extracted beans at various stages of the process and watched them gradually change colour. Towards the end of the roast, the beans started popping like popcorn (as the skins on the coffee beans split), which indicated that it almost done and soon after the beans are released from the roaster, ready to be cooled and bagged.
The next part helped me embrace my inner coffee geek as we headed towards the cupping room. Passed over to the other co founder (that would be Jeremy), we entered a room where 5 cups of freshly ground beans sat in front of us. All from bean growers in Costa Rica, this task is one that is essential to Steven and Jeremy's buying process. Buying a bad batch of beans could be a very costly decision for these guys, so they need to do everything they can to ensure they get the perfect beans.
First, the smell. The freshly ground beans each have differing aromas, some sweeter and some more bitter. With a strict scoring chart (for the professionals), us amateurs stuck our noses in and tried hard to determine different traits. I can't say my nose could pick up the subtle differences, but coffee has one of the best smells available in my opinion, so I was happy to smell away.
Stage 2 is still about smell, but this time once the beans have been brewed. Once all the cups are filled with hot but not boiling water (you don't want to burn the coffee) and we take a smell as the crust is formed. Finally, once the coffee has been brewed for a few minutes, you break the crust and have another smell. The characteristics become far more defined and start to differ dramatically.
The final stage is all about taste. Scoop out the remaining grains from the surface (most sink to the bottom) and have a slurp. Coffee tasting is similar to the way you would taste wine, quick slurps, take in lots of air and let it coat your tongue. Here is where the true differences show themselves, and as each cup cools down, the flavours begin to concentrate and you can give better judgement on it's taste, acidity, aftertaste and body. It all starts to really come out and you can begin to discern the acidity of a lemon twist, the sweetness of pear and almond and the tartness of a granny smith.
I found the whole session really informative and a lot of fun. I always like testing my tasting abilities and sometimes, it's incredibly interesting to see how different tastes stack up. Speaking of tastes, we retired to the main room where a taste matching competition was judged. I will be the first to admit that I was kind of embarrassed with my submission. I grabbed a mango from the local fruit stalls on the way (a slight misunderstanding on my behalf), and it turns out it wasn't just an ingredient match as most of the room had baked some amazing goodies the night before! The match was won by Chloe and her cantucci and one other participant.
Finally, we had a "Barista Smackdown" with four people having to pull the perfect espresso and a cappucino, no mean feat for amateurs like us and with a 4 minute limit, just adds a little stress. Two of my fellow "baristas" from my barista group entered and dominated the competition. The Ginger Gourmand nailed it and took away an aeropress (and a hat from deepest darkest Peru) for her endeavours!
The whole day had been an education in coffee. Even the 8am weekend wake up call for the trip to Canning Town was worthwhile as we learnt about the many facets of the coffee making industry. I may have had all the fun here, but I can pass on the advice that if you see a Union Coffee symbol, you're going to get a coffee which has been well sourced, baristas who have been trained in how to make it and more importantly, from people with passion behind coffee.
If this hasn't bored you to death, you can get a discount on online orders until the end of the year with the code:
or take a look at the rest of my pictures of the day HERE.
Union Coffee - 7a South Crescent, London E16 4TL