Remember Folgers? I resist an urge to gag. I point to those commercials where the dead are resurrected (noted: by the suspicious whisps of invading steam) and zombie out of bed to the tiled kitchen island to sip their American sized mugs of brackish liquid. Well I weep to add, I’ve never had those endearing moments. Safe to say, I’ve hated coffee. Specifically because I grew up every morning with the sound of the substance being ground. Not with one of those automated rotary blades you purchase at the electronics department for the 19.99 winter special promising to accomplish the job in under one minute flat. Rather with the sound of a proper hand grinder, cast iron against iron, slowly crushing the Columbian beans – my father always favoured Columbian – squeezing the natural oils out. As a young child, it’s an audible source of massive aggravation that demands the outrage: “I haven’t FINISHED sleeping!” Yet father like son, I find myself two decades later with a hand grinder in the mornings, enjoying this strangely ritualistic low-toned grindy music. Even therapeutic…?
I bite my thumb at thee, Folgers!!
Similarly addicted to the idiosyncrasies of coffee is one of Berlin’s experts on the subject, Ralf Rüller of THE BARN. Just earlier this summer, he’s opened a part B to his joint, aptly named The Barn Roastery. So upon my return to Berlin’s collective of creative minds, I wasted little time in setting up a meet at said location, Schönhauser Allee 6. Ralf is busy in the back office with morning business. I decide to first sample their double espresso – “I’d like to try your roast” – that’s silky sweet to my palette with a strong tangy grapefruit note. It dissolves into a soft chocolaty finish.
The specimen is vetted just as Ralf walks out of his office. With a firm handshake, I get the clear to start photographing. Meanwhile, he whips out a towel and polishes off a few imperceptible blemishes on the bar and bellows into the kitchen: “Can we get some more croissants out so it looks good for the photos?!” He owns a venerable stigma for a deliciously pristine workspace. His expertly staffed team of coffee gurus add final touches to the front cafe whilst I investigate the back roastery, sectioned off and photographed below. The silvery and black machines gleam with a beautiful alien like aesthetic, evidently to be used only by erudite alchemists. Taken out of context, who knows what naive mortals might mistake these machines for?
By the time I return to the public cafe area, all looks appropriate for a gourmet mag or some such publication. The miniaturised water bottles are lined up remarkably like neat little soldiers on one corner of the espresso bar, and the two siphon coffee beakers sparkle on the far end. All in between is breathtaking. But needless to say, The Barn does not attempt to selfishly rely on their welcoming interior to sell you heart-plunging poison. Although all are invited in, except for any and all prams, even coffee Purists of a discerning class will be pleasantly surprised. To indulge at a more personal appreciation of The Barn Roastery, Ralf has kindly agreed to share details in the INTERVIEW BELOW.
+ Ralf, is coffee an addiction?
-Ralf | Speciality coffee is an amazing product – once you find your way to it, you reveal so many angles and facets of it. I have been to a very good cocktail bar the other night and listening to Julia from Vancouver there almost sounded like listening to someone talking about coffee. The passion of people working in speciality coffee is certainly addictive – the dedication to the product and to protect the value chain from crop to cup is a mission that all share.
+ What is your background and how did coffee become your focus?
-Ralf | I come from a small town and the easiest way out at the time was working for a larger corporation. I have lived in Japan and in the UK. When moving to Berlin six years ago I was looking for a change in life. My partner runs Splendid Delikatessen in Dorotheenstrasse (great Deli for your lunch break) and he asked me to bake for him. After a while I wanted to start my own business and found a nice spot for THE BARN.
I wanted to create a place where coffee would be served at international standards and food would have the same value as coffee. Most places I had seen in Berlin either had a coffee or a food focus, but not both. I hired a good barista and soon we were visited by many foreign travellers. I felt almost as if a door opened that I was not aware of; and I walked through it. Since then it has been an amazing journey. Very much like the slow food movement, speciality coffee is full of good people that are sharing their knowledge and aim to improve all circumstances along the value chain. I am very grateful for what I have learned from them.
+ Why “The Barn” as a name?
-Ralf | Ah – I did not know what to call my place. Initially I wanted to source most things locally and went to the Uckermark just outside of Berlin. I guess a combination of local farming produce, the interior of reclaimed wood and being near Scheunenviertel led to name finding. The way I described my concept to friends felt like a Barn-like atmosphere of sharing space, serving simple but homemade food and great coffee.
Then of course other elements followed: I wanted it clean. Also we don’t play music so people can talk to each other. The more we got into the delicate flavours of the coffees, we wanted a more slowed down atmosphere where people could have a quiet cup of coffee or talk to the baristas about coffee and so on. Also I think that new communication tools such as laptops or iPhones sometimes disconnect society in reality rather than bringing them together. So we decided to limit the use of laptops in our shops. We have seen places in California doing the same and, as much as it is useful especially when you are traveling, I find it has isolating elements when you enter a coffeeshop where everybody is busy chatting to someone far far away, rather than meeting the person sitting near you.
+ OK, but you’ve owned The Barn for some time now. What sparked to finally open your own roastery?
-Ralf | My interest in coffee has grown and I wanted to add another angle to my life. Also, there is still so much to do in Berlin in terms of serving better coffees and I felt that we may be able to contribute to that. Our main roasters, Square Mile, are located in London. We could not find anything in Berlin fulfilling our quality criteria and we are eternally grateful that they are delivering their beans to us. However, with a growing business, transportation became more of an issue. Lastly, once roasted, coffee should not travel too far. At least not in larger quantities. In the future, our Slow Bar will always feature other great micro roasters such as Square Mile, Tim Wendelboe, The Coffee Collective, Koppi Coffee and so on. We learn from them and it is a much more interesting customer experience to try different roast styles.
+ A PERFECT coffee for you is…..?
-Ralf | Clean, balanced and lightly roasted. It has to be traceable and extracted with great care.
+ What’s the name of your roast?
-Ralf | Good point. We dont have a name. We just call it our Espresso. *Blush*. We have started with a fantastic Single Origin Espresso from Guatemala. The farm is called Bosques de San Francisco and we are happy that Square Mile are sharing their green beans with us while we are building our roast business. It is important for us to avoid too many merchants between farming and roasting so that most of the value goes back to the farm. The benefits of direct trade are far beyond anything that fair trade could ever achieve. Also it gives the farm a sustainable product and an identity to be proud of.
+ And how would you describe its flavours?
-Ralf | We get lots of chocolate and hazelnut with candied orange. It has a velvet mouthfeel and a very nice body. In milk drinks, it cuts through with really nice toffee tastes. We recommend to use it 10-18 days after roast date. This is when you get the best flavours out of it. On the machine, we use the following recipe: 19gr for a double shot basket. Target wet coffee: 30gr. Extraction time: 28-30 secs. 94 degrees.
+ Roasting coffee – science or art?
-Ralf | Both. Lots of experience which kindly, all our roasting friends are sharing with us. Square Mile regularly comes over to Berlin to train us on our machine. We use a 1955 Probat Roast machine which was an extremely good building period. The machine has been completely overhauled with latest technology, direct engines, larger cooling tray and over-dimensional air flow systems. We use Cropster Roast Profiling software and check all stages of our roasting. We cup and taste a lot. We cup samples from all stages before finishing a roast. We do this 4 days after roasting, after the bean has settled down. Another 4 days later we start pulling shots. Our baristas in both locations give us daily feedback on all roast batches and we are feeding all information into our roast profiling. So there is a lot of science but also a lot of tasting and discussing. Our aim is to produce a clean and consistent coffee of highest quality. Our roasting approach is to follow the quality of a bean and not to change it. That means that we are not trying to make a fruity bean less fruity. If we want a bean of less fruit acidity we will pick the right bean to deliver that. It is very important to us to share our knowledge with our staff and customers and to coach them when needed.
+ Hints in a store that say “We’re serious about coffee!”
-Ralf | Hmmm…the no sugar sign? Actually, yes, we are trying to break genres and ask people to stay pure with coffee and not to add sugar, sirup or chocolate powder to make it taste like a milk shake. Also, we believe that if you have a milk allergy, it would be best not to think about Soy. Drink coffee black. Thats the best. We are purists but, for the sugar addicts, we have a very nice sugar from a single farm in Costa Rica. It is actually a sugar that Monmouth from London are sharing with us.
In terms of signaling we felt that we have concentrated on the quality of the product all the time but have not addressed its presentation or the environment as much. The new space is therefore very reduced and clean. The Slow Bar features Syphons, AeroPresses and Drip Coffees – the idea is to have more contact with the baristas and hang out along the Brew Bar.
+ Three major things changing/developing in the international coffee world.
-Ralf | Better coffee qualities are available and they are traceable from single farms. Roast styles are getting lighter to present full flavour profiles of the beans.
Starbucks made people spend more money on coffee, and now we can offer a better product for a price that makes our small businesses more sustainable. Awareness of quality coffee is growing.
+ If I remember right, you’ve lived in Japan at some point. How was that experience?
-Ralf | It has been a while ago but I keep traveling in Japan whenever I can. It’s great – you can find Syphon coffees in little villages. We use a lot of Hario equipment for our handbrewed coffees – a lovely company based in Tokyo. Hario has been following and providing for Speciality Coffee for quite a while – amazing products and great attention to detail.
+ And how has other travels / lives affected your interest in coffee?
-Ralf | Speciality coffee has been particularly developing in Australia, New Zealand, California and the Nordic Countries. We have seen huge developments in New York and London and also Paris is getting first strong signs of a development. There is so much happening and it is important to keep an open mind for ideas and what others are doing. It seems to be a life-filling learning curve and it has not been boring for a single moment so far.
+ Most influential source of inspiration:
-Ralf | Any barista or coffee person showing true passion for what they are doing.
+ Are there any traces of your work at home?
-Ralf | I only sleep at home.
Ralf, sincere thanks for some of the best coffee in this town!