Meet (a part of) the crew of The Barn, a super-small coffee store on a side-street of Auguststraße. Though it’s been only open for little more than one and a half year, it already found its way into the hearts of coffee-lovers from all over the city. Along with luscious sandwiches, quiches, Cannelés and cakes, they offer delicious coffees, brewed by specialists in such a refined way, you might never forget your first The Barn espresso (at least, I won’t).
Their expertise in coffee and passion for high quality product is stunning, not only are they offering four different methods of brewing (AeroPress, Woodneck, V60 and Syphon), make seasonal changes to their brewbar menu and filter their water by a reverse osmosis system, but also focus on direct trading, support of local producers and (furthermore!) are working on creating a cosy hub for the busy Auguststraßen neighbourhood.
We talked to Ralf Rüller (second from right in the above picture), the owner and founder of The Barn about speciality coffee, a diva called coffee and why crema is completely overrated:
In case you want to discover more Third Wave coffee shops in Berlin, here’s our guide!
Ralf, when did you start this morning?
Today I slept a little longer, because I worked through the weekend. I trained someone yesterday until 9pm, so today I slept until 8am. Usually I start at 7am; one hour before opening we brew all the coffees with all our different brew methods. When our baristas are very busy, the production and service staff need to be able to describe the different coffee flavors, and so they taste them every morning. Ideally we wouldn’t even have a menu and guide our customers by their senses, it’s just that we’re required by law to have one.
So there is a division between people who make the coffee, the ones who serve and the ones who work in the kitchen?
Yes, we have three types of positions, though those blend a little when we get busy, and obviously everyone needs to be able serve customers, but only a few people are allowed to brew coffee and qualify as a barista. Even though many people joining us have years of experience, it usually takes us two months until they are up to speed with our standards and in sync with the rest of our team. We all need to get the same feel for the coffee that we’re using, every coffee needs to taste excellent, so we need to make sure that people who join us do exactly what we want them to do. Still, we do leave freedom for them to experiment, we’re very geeky, we measure everything: temperature, the grind setting, the tds (total dissolved solids). For example, today we got snow, so the humidity will probably rise a little bit and we‘ll need to adjust the coffee grind more often than on a steady day. Good coffee is like a diva, if you don’t treat her well she’s not singing. And even with a good coffee you can make a bad cup.
[The first espresso is served.]
How do you feel about the layer of crema on top?
Well… first we don’t like the taste of it. We think it does not support the flavour profile of the coffee. If we could, we’d remove it and so we swirl it into the drink, because what’s really delicious is the coffee itself.
The crema is just a fancy add-on you don’t need?
Have you ever tried crema on it’s own? It’s got a pretty bad taste.
It’s very bitter.
Exactly, and we don’t want to have any bitterness in the drink. With this particular espresso you should taste fruity acidity and a bit of cherry and marzipan, then the drink comes down with really nice base notes on your tongue, until it disappears. We really want people to enjoy it as pure as possible. Allthough we do have sugar, we advise our customers to enjoy their coffee without it. When we started not to put any spoons on the saucers our sugar consumption halved. That’s our contribution to society: people will actually live longer (laughs)! And it does taste really great without.
[He smells his espresso, then drinks it in one sip.]
You drink it in one go?
You don’t have to, but I like it this way to get a complete picture in one go. When you extract an espresso you can divide the shot in different stages. For example you can break it up every seven seconds and you’ll taste different things in each cup. When the shot comes together, we want to experience all of those stages. If you only take a first sip you’d probably get some fruity acidity, but if you continue with the whole drink it will go to the back of your tongue and settle really nicely like velvet.
[I am drinking the espresso, slowly though.]
This is the best espresso I ever had. I am not an eager follower of third wave, I like good coffee, but obviously I had no idea what coffee can taste like.
Some people like it burnt, because that’s what they remember from their younger years; it is their sensual memory. We are working with very high-quality beans that have been roasted to perfection, so we want to get as much out of the bean and the roast as possible. When I started The Barn, I wanted to use a local coffee roaster, but even though there are some good people in Berlin, we couldn’t get anything that we liked, anything that really follows the philosophy of third-wave or specialty coffee. Our roaster is located in London, Square Mile Coffee Roasters, and we’re honoured they supply us with beans. They roast on Mondays, dispatch it on Tuesdays, so we have it on Thursdays. Transportation is done through the Eurotunnel so that the coffee is not exposed to a lot of temperature or air pressure change. The farther you move away from the roast date, the less flavor you’ll get. The beans start degassing and losing strength. We only use filter coffee up to two or two and a half weeks after roasting. For the espresso we have to wait six to eight days after roasting before we can use it. It has a different roast profile with a little bit more temperature at the beginning and so it degasses more strongly. When the espresso machine puts full pressure on it, the coffee would be a bit too jumpy in the first few days. We use a Synesso Hydra Coffee machine that was handmade for us in Seattle; it allows us to work with pressure profiling – we can phase in and out of shots manually. Pretty amazing. Also, we installed reversed osmosis water filtration to bring our water to perfect mineral content and remove bad particles from the Berlin water.
Do you remember your first cup of coffee?
That’s tricky, because I drank so many coffees in my life. I probably remember what my father drank, Eduscho Kaffee from a Melitta Filterkaffee-machine.
The prototypical German coffee many of us experienced.
He was a postman, getting up at five in the morning, turning the machine on with 10 cups in it, and probably drinking most of them. Really quick to wake up and go to work. With a lot of milk and sugar, because the filter coffee in Germany was of low quality and you probably had to mix it with milk and sugar to drink it.
Filter coffee is not generally a bad idea?
It’s an amazing product, many countries, like Australia, New Zealand or the Nordic Countries, know that. They have a great heritage of coffee, when someone from these countries applies for a job with us, they’ll probably have a good idea of what coffee should taste like. Whereas Germans only know either bad Filterkaffee or Italian roasted espresso coffee. In Italy, the price protection makes people use a lot of Robusta coffee, which is much cheaper and grows on lower ground. It gives a steady crema that some people like and it contains more caffeine. Arabica grows on high altitudes, qualitywise there is no limit. Like in wine, we can get extremely valuable beans that offer a great deal of complexity in the cup. Dont get me wrong – I do like Italians for their milk steaming and so on, however, their coffee needs sugar to cover up the bitterness. In the end you‘ll get a caffeine and a sugar shock.
But you started with Melitta Filterkaffee?
Yes, with my father. You know, the Germans are tricky, they want to buy food for a very low price. In supermarkets they pay around 18% less for food compared to for example France or Belgium. The same happens in coffee. Strangely though, Nespresso is very successful, even though one kilo of Nespresso coffee costs around 140 EUR; it’s only divided into little capsules with 2 grams of coffee in each one.
But isn’t that slowly changing? Of course Mitte is an island, but people like you and your coffee bar are striving to change that bargain attitude, right?
Yes, and we hope when people have had their coffee here, they‘ll go back to their local coffee bar and ask for better coffee, or for fresh milk instead of UHT milk. Certainly fresh is a little more expensive, but obviously with a good product you get more people in your shop. But back to the Filterkaffee – there’s something nostalgic about it. Of course, it’s different than what we do here. Your average German filter coffee is industrial coffee, harvested with huge machines, people are not paid enough, etc. We work with roasters who trade directly with micro-farmers. They sometimes pay two to three times more than fair-trade pricing. I am not a big fan of fair trade, because it doesn’t create a market or improve the quality at the source.
Because it protects the farmers from the market?
It’s good for the country, but we’d rather donate money to them for Christmas. In our case, the farmer gets a superhigh price, the roaster works with the farmer to improve the working conditions on the farm so we can get a better product. Its a win-win situation for everybody involved and it raises the self-esteem of the producer.
What did you do before you opened The Barn?
I was in banking, for 19 years actually. I started at age 15 in Moers near Düsseldorf, where I grew up. It was the mid-eighties and everyone wanted to work for a bank or an insurance agency. I started because I was interested in traveling. And so I lived in Japan, Singapore, and in London for 10 years until I got fired in the crisis of 2003. In London, I lived next to Borough Market, which is an amazing slow-food market, and every morning I went to the Monmouth coffee shop, which were pioneers in direct coffee trade on a small scale. When I moved to London in 1998 they had already been established for many years.
Were they starting the third wave?
Not really. Third wave is a new term that came up over the past decade. But Monmouth were early birds in directly trading with small farms and in improving working conditions which led to a better product for them.
It was an inspiration?
Yes. They have only two tiny shops and people are waiting in long queues for their coffees. Today my taste has changed a bit. I like high-grade lightroasted coffee and Monmouth go a touch darker. Every period has its fashion, its trends and the same happens in how we enjoy coffee. That’s why we need to keep our mind open and constantly adapt and change. We can’t isolate ourselves, there may be a new pouring technique or a new type of coffee.
A new pouring technique!?
Well, we are looking for perfect extraction both in espresso and in filter techniques. For example, on our Hario V60 drip, we used to pour the filter coffee in concentric circles and now we aim to stay centered to always have an even and balanced extraction.
We strongly network with people we admire and so we are staying in touch with Monmouth as well. We are getting our sugar from them. They source it directly from a farm in Costa Rica. It’s hand-tumbled sugar that keeps the minerals and vitamins, and it passes into your blood more slowly. It tastes like caramel with a bit of Indian spice. We wanted to have something interesting but not overwhelming. Still, we want people to taste our coffee without sugar first. Since our milk is fresh and not burnt it also naturally tastes sweeter. When we steam it we won’t go over 60 degrees like some coffee shops do. The coffee should be drinkable immediately. My favorite temperature is 54-55 degrees for a flat white or a cappuccino. For lattes we go towards 60. If you burn the milk during steaming the molecules break down, it dies and then you‘ll probably need sugar.
So how did you get to opening The Barn?
A friend of mine asked me to bake for him and his Splendid Delikatessen in Dorotheenstraße, and so I started baking. After a while I wanted to have my own shop. I thought there was no place in Berlin to have a good coffee and good food at the same time really, it was always ‘either/or’. And if you find a good coffee shop they usually get stuff delivered from somewhere else because they can‘t really manage to keep the quality of both parts up. That‘s how I started to plan, I knew how to make cakes and quiches.
How did you get into baking?
I come from a large family that never had a lot of money but we did have a big garden. So my mother would cook and bake all the time. We had a lot of relatives and for every family party we baked lots of cakes. We actually follow the recipes of my mother here and we‘re not changing them. When I started planning The Barn I didn‘t know much about coffee, just about food. I started doing research, went to London and other coffee cities, checked out what equipment I‘d need, then put out an ad on an international blog and was really lucky people applied. That was how I met Shawn in May 2010. He‘s been in coffee for more than ten years, starting when he was very young in Vancouver, where the coffee industry kicked off much earlier. He trained about 300 baristas, worked in labs roasting coffee and I felt like that was what I needed. With meeting Shawn and specialty coffee a door opened for me and I felt I had to walk through it. The scene is full of amazing people looking for the best new beans.
It sounds like a community.
Yes, and it‘s all about sharing, we do a lot of networking. In Berlin we have several friends with their own shops: Bonanza Coffee Heroes, No Fire No Glory, CK Café, Double-Eye and Chapter One, which just opened near the Marheinekehalle and every Monday we have a tasting. What we share is the passion for our product and the continuous aim for improvement.
And what you also all have in common – all the shops are tiny!
I wanted to have something small. At a party you‘ll find me in the kitchen, where it’s cosy and cluttered. The atmosphere here is supposed to be a little like that. We can fit 40 people in here and people are actually making friends because they have to share a table and they start chatting. It’s very international and so it’s a meeting point. We try to make a real connection to our customers, we have many people who come back often and we want this place to be a harbor for them to come together.