Meet Grace Talbot (she, her), a true one-person orchestra originally from Birmingham and currently residing in lovely Frome in Somerset, United Kingdom. Why orchestra? You will really get it while reading her Barista Story. The longest we’ve ever published, where motivation, inspiration, inclusivity and community are pouring out of every answer Grace gave us in the interview.
Get ready for a ride since we talk in-depth about coffee festivals, new concepts of coffee competitions, podcasts, inspiring people in the UK coffee industry and some big egos! Hope you will enjoy it as much as we enjoyed chatting with amazing Grace Talbot!
Grace, what is your first memory of coffee?
This is such a tough question to answer! I’m not sure if it counts as my ‘first memory’ with coffee, but a definite stand out has to be in Box Brownie in Stratford Upon Avon: it was my first exposure to specialty coffee, and the owner of Box Brownie (it’s still going now!), Ben, has become a long-standing friend. Box Brownie was the first place I ever heard about the UK Barista Championships, and it was the first place I ever saw a flavour wheel, too, it really was that ‘first’ place I interacted with that was spending time working out coffee recipes and celebrating the value of specialty, it blew my mind!
They use Monsoon Estates coffee roasters, and in fact, Monsoon exhibited at the launch of the Birmingham Coffee Festival last year, so that was an amazing moment for me, too, getting to meet Chris and tell them about their role in my coffee journey.
What inspired you to pursue a career in the coffee industry, and how did you get started? What did you do before coffee?
This will be a waffly answer, so stay with me!
Before I worked in coffee, I studied British Sign Language and worked in Waterstones: I have always been pretty much obsessed with all things related to books, so Waterstones was my dream gig! I was also kind of… let’s say ‘ambitious’, and wanted to progress, so asked my area manager to consider me for management roles, and wouldn’t you know, the only available management position was as manager of the two cafes in the Birmingham Waterstones! Coming into the role, I had no coffee experience at all, so when I took the position, I asked our coffee supplier, Matthew Algie, to give us all some training- shout out Debbie, the metalhead who covered the Birmingham area, you were everybody’s favourite trainer back in 2015!
This role led me to eventually become a Cafe Area Manager for Waterstones cafes covering all the way up to Manchester and Liverpool and I was blessed to be allowed to oversee setting up brand new coffee spaces, even though I was only young and fairly inexperienced. At one point during my time as the Cafe Area Manager, I was able to visit the Matthew Algie roastery where we met their Director of Coffee, Eduarda, who hosted my very first cupping ever. As she went around the cupping table, she was describing the ‘personalities’ of each of the coffees- a ballerina, a dirty tire- and I remember standing there and realising just how much I didn’t know about coffee, but how much I wanted to learn! That was a pivotal moment for me that put me on the path towards a proper coffee career: not long after that, I left Waterstones to work in a specialty cafe in Leamington, before ultimately running one of my favourite specialty/brunch spots in Leamington- Warwick Street Kitchen (check them out!!).
Whilst working as the manager at Warwick Street Kitchen, my ultimate hero, the founder of Warwick Street Kitchen, Lydia Papaphilippopoulos-Snape, encouraged me to take part in the UKBCs, under the coaching styles of the incredible Oli Jones (now of Blossom Coffee Roasters). While I didn’t exactly do well (I may have forgotten to tamp, I was so nervous), that competition experience was when I first really started to establish a network of incredible coffee people who inspired, supported and encouraged me to take risks and seize opportunities to move my coffee career forward.
Grace with Oli Jones.
Oli also encouraged (made) me to apply for the Simonelli Youth Academy, and honestly, that was the game changer. Youth Academy genuinely changed my life. Not only did YA facilitate my taking my SCA qualifications, but it introduced me to so many out-of-this-world coffee professionals and exposed me to some unbelievable opportunities that really helped me to grow both professionally and personally. I will never be able to thank Emma, Andrew and Camilla enough for what they’ve given me; nor will I ever run out of love for my fellow Youth Academy students, they are some of the very best people in the industry in my opinion; passionate, kind, funny, open and creative, you want to get to know them if you don’t already, I swear!
The Youth Academy is also how I got involved with Girls Who Grind Coffee, and ultimately ended up as their Wholesale and Training Manager, an absolute dreaaaam for me as I’d been obsessed with GWGC for the longest time. It was while I was working for them that I spoke on a panel about diversity and inclusivity at the London Coffee Festival – a panel where I first met my now boss, co-founder of Cup North, the incredible Hannah Davies.
I know this is a super long answer, but I think the takeaway is that I have definitely taken a sideways route into this industry, but what propelled me forward is saying yes to opportunities and being surrounded by incredible coffee professionals who have mentored and supported me – I feel incredibly lucky and grateful to everybody along the way!
Grace with Cup North 2023 team: Magdalena Lee, Amina Dahlab, Carly Jones, Hannah Davies.
Grace, you’re quite an orchestra yourself! Can you tell us about all of your engagements and projects?
Ha, I love being described as an ‘orchestra’, can I steal that? I mean, inside the world of coffee, my main focus are the Cup North coffee festivals – we host the long-established and beloved Manchester Coffee Festival and launched the Birmingham Coffee Festival (under Cup North) last summer. Next year, we are launching the Dublin Coffee Festival and I just can’t wait!
When I’m not wearing my Cup North cap, I also love to MC at coffee events and coffee competitions; the powerhouse that is Camilla Morgan pushed me to co-emcee the UKBC and UKBrC semi-finals and finals a couple of years ago with Dan Fellows, and I just haven’t looked back! Despite being a flop of a competitor myself, I absolutely love being on the microphone and celebrating the hard work, bravery and passion of the competitors who are performing on-stage, and will happily keep acting the fool on the microphone as long as folk can stand to tolerate my nonsense.
Grace while MC-ing the UK Brewers Cup with Omar Sacranie.
Which of your tasks in the projects do you enjoy the most?
This is another super difficult question to answer… An incredible moment for me is always seeing our competitors perform on-stage during Extracted Development: because I am lucky enough to be the one to confirm them for competition, and then pair them with one another, it feels super magical to see them come together at the end of it all and compete together as a team on-stage.
I always feel so privileged to watch them perform and haven’t yet managed to not cry at some point (read: several points) during Extracted Development. The highest of highlights is always at the end of the competition when all the competitors are on stage and the judges, sponsors, crew, friends and family are all around cheering- there’s not really anything like it, no matter who ultimately wins what, it’s the coming together of so much hard work and passion, and I absolutely live for it!
Extracted Development at Birmingham Coffee Festival Ricardo Gandara, Grace Talbot, Hannah Davies, Sapphire Chen, Joanna Yau, Tom Wilkinson.
Can you tell us a bit more about the festivals you engage in? What is your role there?
Absolutely! I work for Cup North, the independent events company behind Manchester, Birmingham and soon, Dublin Coffee Festival. Our festivals are about celebrating the value of specialty coffee, in a fun, environmentally conscious and accessible way.
Some things you can expect to find at our events are exhibitors from all corners of the industry, tasting rooms where folk from all over host cuppings, workshops where you can hone your latte art skills or learn how to make cocktails, live music featuring local performers, food, family activities like Drag Queen Story Time, local creatives in our Market Place, competitions like Cup Tasters and Extracted Development, talks, panels and so much more.
They are designed to be true festivals; joyous, party-like experiences that really have something for everybody, whether they are in the industry or not. Oh, and dogs! Our events are dog friendly and we definitely end up with some of the best pooches around visiting, it’s one of the best bits of the job!
One. of the many cute doggos at Manchester Coffee Festival. Photo by Lou Wilcock.
My role is to put together all the content for these festivals – so those talks, panels, tasting rooms, Extracted Development etc. And to look after our incredible partners, without whom we wouldn’t be able to put on the events we do. It’s a hugely multifaceted role, and it’s been quite the learning curve for me. I feel immensely grateful to Hannah Davies, my boss, for trusting me with such a role and for letting me be part of this incredible thing she’s making.
You also host an amazing podcast about the coffee industry, could you tell us more about it? What is the format and which topics do you tackle?
Why thank you! It is a fun ole poddy, isn’t it?! We definitely have a blast recording it; sometimes I have to pinch myself that I’m technically working during those times! Brewing It Over with Cup North is a podcast hosted by myself and Hannah Davies. The podcast takes a deep dive into the topics shared in the content program at our events. From social to consumer to sustainability issues – there’s something for everyone!
How it usually works is we record all the talks and panels at our festivals, and then we invite some of those speakers onto the podcast with us, where we chat with them briefly before playing the recording of the talk.
We know not everybody can make it to our events, or even if they can, they can’t always attend the talks themselves, so we wanted to increase the access to our festival content, and it gave us a great excuse to catch up on the talks, ourselves, too! We have already had some fantastic guests join us, and we’ve had a great time in our ‘bonus’ episodes, too – we did one that was called ‘Meet the hosts’ where Hannah and I got to interview each other, and we recently recorded a super fun festive episode that’s all kinds of fun, too – keep your eyes peeled for that dropping!
Extracted Development is a revolutionary coffee competition, we would love to hear more about it!
Extracted Development is one of my favourite things in the world to talk about, so you might just regret asking! It is Cup North’s brand-new coffee competition that seeks to celebrate the real behind-the-bar skills of coffee professionals in a fun, accessible way that not only shines a light on the incredible talent and graft of coffee professionals but also creates unique networking opportunities and audience interaction opportunities, too.
The basic premise of the competition is a stage performance and two brew bar performances. While on stage, our competitor teams (made up of one barista competitor and one roaster competitor) have 18 minutes to brew three rounds: a hand-brew filter, an espresso and a plant-based beverage, and serve these drinks to our panel of Experience Judges, who will be judging the teams on both the sensory experience, and the customer service experience as well.
Whilst the competitors work together to craft their beverages, there are also two Skills Judges assessing their hard and soft skills, teamwork and speed of service. During the filter round, a member of the audience joins the Experience Judges onstage and gets to taste the competition coffee- they have no scoring power, but their presence enhances the audience involvement and hopefully helps ease some of the tension the competitors might be feeling, too.
For the brew bar segment, the competitors will share their competition coffees with attendees of the festival (like, who ends up actually tasting competition coffees usually?!); and during this time, they will be visited by a Mystery Judge, who will assess their customer service, and ask them each a pre-set question relating to their environmental checklist. The Mystery Judge is sort of like a mystery shopper- we wanted the teams to have the chance to get some points outside of the pressures of performing on-stage, because we know just how nerve-wracking that can be! (Remember when I forgot to tamp in my first coffee competition?!).
That’s a super brief overview of the competition format, but some of the things that we think make it truly special are: we pair the teams up; so we have the roaster competitors and barista competitors apply separately, and then we team them up based on their location and their answers to specific questions included in the application form. Another unique feature of the competition is the fact that we impose a green price cap on the competition coffees the teams can use to keep the competition fair, accessible, and sustainable for our competitors.
The redacted invoices competitors share with us to prove their competition coffees adhere to that price cap can then be viewed on the competition brew bar: it makes for a great conversation piece with attendees who might not know about green coffee prices and gives another opportunity for information sharing as part of the competition. As well as the coffee price information, attendees visiting the competition brew bar can also view our competitor teams completed environmental checklists- this is a very simple document where we ask our team to share where they have made environmentally considered choices during their competition prep, and we encourage honesty in this reporting by having the Mystery Judge ask questions related to the checklist when they visit the team.
Yet another great thing about the competition is that we provide all the equipment the teams will need to brew! Prior to the competition weekend, we ask the teams to complete their equipment forms to request what hand-brew equipment they would like to use – Orea, Brewista Tornado Dripper, AeroPress, French Press etc, as well as other things like the number of jugs, spoons and scales they’d like on-stage. We then provide this kit for our teams so there’s no discrepancy in our competitors’ experiences based on what they have access to outside of competition: it’s an even playing field for all!
What kind of community do you hope to build around your projects, and how do you plan to foster that sense of community?
I love this question because I am all about Community! It’s our goal to create a truly diverse Community of coffee and hospitality lovers: this strange old industry of ours doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and stands on the backs of commodity coffee and 2nd wave spaces along with allied industries like tea, chocolate and plant-based products; not to mention wildly talented graphic designers, photographers and videographers, plus so many other people, businesses and roles!
We hope to create events that bring all people together who love and belong to this industry in one way or another and foster safe and accessible spaces and events where people feel like they can be themselves and truly connect with other people without fear of embarrassment, judgement or other barriers. We hope to continuously improve how we do this by asking our exhibitors and competitors to adhere to codes of conduct that talk about social and environmental rules, we have recently begun working with qualified British Sign Language Interpreters at our events, who have signed alongside the talks and panels, we try and design the festival layout to have wide enough walk-ways for those who use wheelchairs or have pushchairs; we try and incorporate family-friendly elements into the festivals, a diversity of topics and speakers in our talks, panels and workshops, offer ear defenders to attendees and so many other things- the list is long and we want it to keep getting longer!
A huge and ongoing goal of ours is to create accessible and environmental events, and while we know we aren’t doing things perfectly, we continue to strive to make the best choices possible to create that truly diverse and creative community of coffee and industry lovers we hope to be part of!
Grace with Ricardo Gandara during Extracted Development at Manchester Coffee Festival 2023. Photo by Lou Wilcock.
And do you have any wishes for the future of coffee? Something that you cheer for or some aspects that definitely should change?
Despite loving this industry as much as I do, I’m not so romantic that I ignore its faults. I feel like there was this hugely damaging era in the UK specialty scene where we let our own fragile egos alienate our customer base. You know the era I’m talking about; when you weren’t ‘allowed’ to order skinny milk or ask for sugar, but you were lectured about the TDS of your coffee, even if you had no interest in it at all.
Don’t get me wrong, the coffee nerd in me loves the idea of this level of passion, but in reality, this often came across like being told off and we made ourselves the butt of the joke because of it. (We all saw the McDonald’s advert, right, when the person just wants ‘a coffee’- we did that!). I think for the longest time we felt like we had to ‘justify’ the validity of a specialty career, and that kinda turned us into these coffee snobs that needed to impress upon our customers just how serious and scientific coffee was, rather than just sharing our love for it at their level, whatever it was, and seeking out more organic opportunities to educate consumers who actually wanted to be educated. We’ve got to undo some of that damage and rebrand specialty in a more open manner that invites consumers into our world, rather than pushes them out of it.
It goes without saying, too, that an extension of this behaviour created a bit of a clique-y, unapproachable group of coffee professionals that didn’t feel incredibly inclusive or diverse. Within specialty coffee, we have to not only be conscious of creating safe and inclusive spaces for our customers but consciously make that effort within the industry too: in job roles, at events, through education opportunities and more; the onus is on us to cater to diverse needs and to create such spaces, it is not on underrepresented groups to ask for what they need to be part of the industry. We just have to do better.
Grace with her boss and friend – Hanna Davies.
What coffee challenges are you looking forward to?
Cup North are launching Dublin Coffee Festival next Marc and I am so massively excited about this festival! I have recently just got back from Dublin as we hosted a Ticket Launch event at the amazing Brew Lab,. The ticket launch party itself was such a super fun and friendly event: it was wonderful to get to meet so many new coffee lovers and celebrate the upcoming festival; the folk in Dublin were so hospitable and friendly and there’s a real feeling of joy and excitement surrounding the upcoming festival; I just can’t wait to be there!
Quick Fire Questions for Grace Talbot:
Would you serve filter coffee with milk if asked for it?
Yes – it’s my ma’s go-to, so I kinda have to!
Do you ever take sugar with your coffee?
No – unless we’re talking petrol station coffee?
Espresso or Filter coffee?
Filter (but if I’m at my beloved Frama in Frome, always espresso!)
Do you aim for Sweetness, Acidity, or Body?
Conical or flat-bottom brewer?
Flat-bottom drippers you make the rockin’ world go round (but I really love my V60, too).
Favourite piece of barista equipment?
Ooh, this is tricky! A badass grinder- something like a Compak E8, EK43, or a Mythos – a top quality grinder makes such a huuuuuuge difference and some of them are like, genuinely sexy?!