The last six weeks or so of my life have been a bit of an insane flurry of emails and spreadsheets, as a small gang of us, headed up by Hasbean’s Steve, have worked furiously together to put on the UK Barista Championships. The first stage of which was a mega merging of all the regional heats up at Birmingham’s Millennium Point. Yes, I understand the vast majority of the population has not the remotest interest in the very odd, super intense and focussed, world of speciality coffee and its strange competitions, but well, that’s what my life has become. I love it. Previous visits to the city have been restricted to the NEC and the inside of hotel rooms on the less salubrious outskirts of the city, so I was keen to recieve suggestions of places to visit.
First on my list was Yorks Bakery Cafe, a coffee shop that a friend has spent the last few months raving about, brightening her own frequent visits and more than satisfactorily feeding her healthy appetite for cake. Tuesday promised a civilised starting time for the competitions and so my friend and I headed to the cafe for breakfast. Larger than I expected (in fact when I return I discover pockets of seating further and further back, in a warren-like manner) the space is pared down and basic with flourishes of canary yellow, simply laid out tables and chairs, toast and soup stations and a drum kit (after perusing the website, it appears they have a regular Monday jazz night). The coffee bar here is the clear focal point, white tiles add a touch of polished cool, and exposed hanging lights wouldn’t look out of place in central London. The feel of the cafe surrounding this bar is that of a rather casual student union space, reinforced by partly do-it-yourself food and drink stations, this is despite the suits and laptop bags that inhabit the room whilst we’re there.
A hefty menu appears to cater for all eventualities throughout the day, from breakfasts, brunches and cakes through soups and sandwiches to an intriguing pizza selection, there’s also an admirable list of drinks other than coffee including comprehensive options for beers and wine. Coffee is (for now) made using Caravan beans via a number of methods at their brew bar; I choose a V60 and my friend an aeropress; both an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe that’s bursting with blueberry fruit notes. The counter is heaving with baked goods to vie for our attention, however it’s the salted caramel brownie and a rhubarb and ginger slice that we purchase to take away for lunch later. My friend’s brownie certainly looks the business but it’s my slice that’s the surprise win; rich, with an almost bakewell-esque quality and zingy ginger punch.
Our breakfast decision is easy, I can rarely resist a shakshuka; this one is meat free but with potent spicing, plenty of coriander and rich with a swhirl of yoghurt, it’s served with a wedge of lime and a great hunk of bread cleaved into almost manageable pieces. I mop up every last scrap.
The Tweeting of our clear delight attracts the attention of the owner who comes over to make sure we’re happy with our food; I feel my cleanly mopped skillet probably says more than any words could. He reveals a couple of exciting sounding plans, that I’m told I’m not able to release just yet, but keep an ear to the ground. I was truly impressed with the set up, quite a unique combination of friendly service, great food and drink, with a relaxed and casual, almost studenty/canteeny air.
I’m afraid to say the rest of our stay in Birmingham is rather less fortuitous on the food front – though, I hasten to add, the UKBC super heat was a huge and resounding success (IMHO). I had gathered via Twitter three bar recommendations; The Lost & Found, Gingers and The Church. The Church just happened to be the closest to our pokey ‘hotel’ and so, on our first night a small group of us headed expectanty to the bar that brazenly boasted a southern style food menu and modern (and dangerously cheap) cocktail list. We were a touch surprised to find, instead of a slick and funky little cocktail bar as their website suggests, a pub with a small number of tweaks; peacock blue booths replaced regular plush pub upholstery down one side, and the bar held a significantly more sophisticated booze and glass selection than you might expect from your local boozer. Odd, but kind of cute and quirky if they managed to pull it off.
Pleasantly surprised by the cocktails and an enthusiastic barman, who seemed thrilled to have an engaged cocktail audience, in these faintly unsettling surroundings, I knocked back an ok, but over diluted (or it would have been if I hadn’t stopped him stirring) Negroni, lime bombed martini and actually, really rather fabulous Boulevardier, served straight up and elegantly in a coup, spot on accuracy of balance achieved. Sadly, the food we consumed entirely to ward off starvation, weird at best and fairly inedible at worst, hush puppies were the best thing served, piping hot and fluffy. It was to be a theme for our short Birmingham jaunt. We scarpered when the clientele got boisterous and a curious mix of scantily clad girls and period drama attired locals jostled in.
The following two evenings were spent at Brew Dog, mainly due to the ease of it’s central location and generous space. I mention this so you won’t make my mistake. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure the beer was lovely, though heathen that I am I stuck to wine, and the staff were very keen and knowledgable. There’s frankly no denying though, it’s a total dive and the food – diabolical; half the menu arrived stone cold, and would remain so due to lack of heating facilities in the kitchen…hmmm. The company of coffee friends however was exemplary.
On the second night of our stay, clever Kate had managed to secure a media rate at Hotel Du Vin, a grande, castle of a building, replete with silver lift shaft, stone corridors and mirrors, cloaking our stay with an air of debauched and gothic potential. Our twin room was more of a sprawling chamber with the bathroom of dreams that I’d happily move into. It was with sad faces that we had to pack our bags the next morning, and head back to Bloc, quite literally a Tetris assortment of cuboid rooms, devoid of space except in illusion, with a mesh of pervy mirrored walls. We managed to shovel down a heavenly breakfast before doing so though, fuelled by a hunger that can only be caused by copious alcohol, I practically inhaled a slab of brioche french toast draped with bacon and drenched in maple syrup.
By the penultimate night, we, tired and vegetable starved, gave up and decamped to the pub opposite the event venue, whereby we knocked back pints of wine (due to lack of appropriate glassware) and demanded vegetables from a menu severely lacking. Bless the guy behind the bar who created us monstrous plates of cauliflower and broccoli cheese from ingredients in the kitchen. After drinking them out of Pinot Noir we decided to call it a night. Well, almost. In sudden need of a nightcap, two of us dashed to the shops, but finding nothing open sloped back to the hotel. On the way however, we stumbled upon a man closing what looked like garage doors. On asking where we might procure a bottle of wine at this hour, the man told us to follow him, opening up the doors and walking into a dark corridor. After a glance at each other, a shrug that suggested as much a relinquishment of care as wine filled bravery, we followed him.
At the other end of the corridor, he opened another pair of doors into the most insane looking room, a workshop of sorts strung with quad bikes from the ceiling, skulls on door frames, fabric, old machinery and ephemeral works of art. A few moments were spent prancing around in wide eyed delight at such a find, eyes widened further when the man stepped behind what appeared to be a make shift bar and pulled bottles of wine from a mini fridge. Money was exchanged and off we trotted back to the hotel furnished with little plastic champagne flutes and a knowledge we’d never find that place ever again. If it existed at all. It was that sort of place and that sort of trip to be honest.
You might understand then, that after the final competitor had performed their routine and all the scores had been counted and uploaded to the SCAE UK Chapter website, we hedged our bets and hot footed it right back to York’s for a spot of pizza action. Good move team. Whilst a storm raged outside and upset the trains no end (seriously – we somehow timed it ridiculously just right so as to have caught what was possibly the only train that made it back to London that night) we knocked back a beer and tucked into pizza that tasted like nectar after what can only be described as a strange week on the old food front. Spotting kale on one of the pizzas, three of us instinctively add it to another more meat heavy one to great effect, nutrient levels increasing with each, deceptively spicy, bite. The little pizza wheely cutter thingummy lending a play-with-your-food-fun, I enjoy cutting neat lines through thin dough that shatters a little towards the edges.