The First Live Coffee Festival: Part One

Two people stand next to each other animatedly talking.

We follow scenes from the Sheffield Coffee Fest in England.

BY SIERRA WEN XIN YEO
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE

Photos courtesy of Andrew McLean

As worldwide vaccination rates soar and countries begin reopening their borders to trade, finance, and tourism, we’re seeing this trend reflected at the microcosmic level of our beloved hospitality venues and coffee shops. After a rollercoaster year in the United Kingdom, which included three nationwide lockdowns and a bevy of restrictions alongside, it’s with relief on the part of most customers and cafés that shop doors are open once again, albeit cautiously. 

It was certainly with great surprise and no small excitement that I found myself on a train bound for Sheffield, England, in mid-May with the hopes of getting more than just a festival-worthy caffeine fix, the pleasure of which I hadn’t had in nearly two years. 

Caravan Coffee Roasters was a presence at the Sheffield Coffee Festival.

There’s something special about coffee events, particularly since our collective isolation since COVID-19 caused everything to grind to a halt. At the time, the Sheffield Coffee Festival (SCF) was the first of its kind in the United Kingdom, and the first coffee festival to ever be held in that city. When it was announced in early 2021, I found myself thinking, “Surely not.” It was a gutsy move. Curious and simply excited to see my industry friends again, I threw caution to the wind (while appropriately masked) and traveled up for the two-day event. 

I did not regret it. 

I had approached Jordan O’Shea, owner and operator of Whaletown Coffee Co., co-founder of Cuppers Choice Coffee, and founder of SCF, to see if I could wrangle last-minute entry to the festival (tickets had sold out within weeks of it being announced!)—never having met him or worked with him prior. In a whirlwind of Zoom calls and a flurry of emails, I was traveling up before I could even believe it. 

In what feels like a full-circle move, I interviewed Jordan, now a valued friend, on what inspired him to create the festival, what it was like being the first event paving the way for a COVID-free future, and more insider information. For starters, it struck me that the format was vastly different from that of other festivals past; Jordan had proposed a multi-venue, city-wide format, arguably mitigating the concerns of housing a large crowd within a contained space, as most coffee festivals are wont to do. 

“This year has been really hard for a lot of people, and we noticed that our little coffee shop was the only contact those people were getting,” says Jordan. “It became the place to treat yourself or to feel a bit of normality. I felt the same in other coffee shops and I wanted this festival to reflect that.” 

Indeed, despite my apprehension, that was the first thought that came to mind when I decided to attend: I would see my friends again. Not only that, I would also get to café-hop in a city that was new to me, which is arguably the best way to get to know a city anyway. Jordan concurs: “I really think it was only a matter of time before someone did it, but I just wanted everyone to see how great Sheffield is and how much of a community coffee can be. Before working in coffee I was a touring musician, and so after seeing festivals like Great Escape (Brighton) and Gathering (Oxford), I thought, surely multi-venue is the way to go for coffee, too? Coffee shops are the true hub for the consumer, and the link for all other ends of the industry.”

If launching a whole new festival format in a time of uncertainty wasn’t impressive enough, I’m floored to know that Jordan had been responsible for organizing all of this—solo. “I should have had a team really, doing it all by myself was a bit challenging,” Jordan says dryly. That being said, he’s keen on the idea of bringing the festival back in the future, with improvements. “Definitely doing it again—I would keep the multi-venue layout the same, but of course … more venues, more workshops, more conversations!”

Assembly hosting an event at the festival. Ed Yarnton is pictured at top left and Thomas Sangiovanni in the bottom right.

In fact, Jordan was also quick to highlight the support from cafés, sponsors, and participating companies involved in the festival, without whom he maintains he would not have been able to pull the festival off. Talks and events were held on a rotational basis in different cafés across the city, such as Albie’s, PLANT, Steam Yard, and Marmadukes, to name a few of the city’s well-known cafés, in order to allow all attendees to visit every event. 

“So many of my favorite roasteries and people I’ve looked up to for years were there,” he gushes. “I had fabulous support from Greg and all at Brewed By Hand, but it was intense.” In addition to the brewing equipment behemoth, the festival boasted an impressive roster of companies such as Assembly, Caravan Coffee Roasters, Full Court Press, Blossom Coffee Roasters, Origin Coffee Roasters, Dark Woods, Curve Roasters, North Star Roast, UE, Casa Espresso, and Victoria Arduino.

Tomorrow we’ll cover what conversations and competitions took place at the coffee festival—stay tuned!

Six years ago, Sierra Wen Xin Yeo (she/her) stumbled into the coffee industry the way most people do: via a burning need to pay the bills. She currently finds herself employed as Alpro U.K.’s resident coffee specialist. Sierra is constantly surprised at how much her side hustle—coffee and travel writing—unwittingly threatens to become her main hustle.

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