What do you exactly do as a coffee professional?
The simple answer would be: I own a café in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin. But the more complicated answer would be: I am a coffee professional who mixes coffee, talks a lot about coffee and thinks about coffee for a living.
What is a regular day for you?
My regular day is of course not the same like the one of many other coffee professionals. But I would say: I get up, make some coffee, make some more coffee, make some more coffee, talk about coffee, make some more coffee, talk about coffee, go to sleep. That is pretty much it.
How did you get into coffee?
Well, by tasting coffee actually. There was a place back in Washington DC that offered free tastings every week. First, I thought it sounded a bit silly tasting coffee. But then, one day I checked it out and was completely blown away. I had no idea that coffee could taste anything other than coffee, which sounds funny to anyone who hasn’t experienced coffee the way I have. There were three different coffees that were tasted and they all tasted drastically different from one another and different from most coffees I knew until that point. Through these tastings I developed a real interest and started going back week after week, just trying to learn as much as I could. I have been pursuing coffee ever since. If it wasn’t for that first free tasting I don’t think I would ever participated in any competition or opened a café myself.
When did coffee became your profession?
Since opening the café actually. Before I was doing music and coffee was mostly a hobby. Well, that doesn’t do it justice – more a fascination. It is something that I found. Wine is an obvious comparison people use a lot. Wine is a subject where there have been countless books published and TV specials. And anyone who has heard of wine, has heard of any kind of tastings, flavours, grapes, whatever. There is just too much information about wine. Coffee is even more complex, fascinating and it had none of this. It was quite the opposite; there was no information about it. It was kind of a fascinating subject that was at the same time enjoyable. It was as enjoyable to consume it, as to learn about it.
Coffee is the most complex beverage humans consume as far as flavour goes. With wine there are between 300 and 500 different chemical components making up the aromas. In coffee the numbers range from 8000 to 12000 of possible combinations that can occur. So flavour potential in coffee is huge. You can taste all kind of very pleasant and very unpleasant things. And that is what interests me still to this day, finding something that surprises me with flavour.
When did you first get interested in the city of Berlin?
I first became fascinated with Berlin when I was 13 or 14. Some kind of magical combination of industrial music and alternative political views. Berlin seemed to be this bizarre mecca of different counter cultures, but at the same time juxtaposed with a very Western straightforward vanilla way of life. So I just got fascinated with the way those two could cohabitate in one place and became obsessed with it. Luckily, I managed to get a spot as an exchange student when I was 16, spent a year in Berlin and had a great time. Then I went back to the States to finish school and spent years trying to figure out how to come back here.
When did you return?
Well, I went through some ups and downs, found creative ways to start coming back here for longer periods of time. From two weeks, to three months at a time. But finally in the summer of 2008 I moved back permanently. At that time I had an apartment in Prenzlauer Berg, which I had since 2007, it was waiting for me so I moved in there. I spend a couple of years there, but it was just a dark tiny cave at Kastanienallee and by the end of Summer 2010 a lot of my friends had moved out of the area and it was turning into the kind of place I didn’t really want to live. That was the same time when my friend got this amazing space in Neukölln and I moved in here.
How did it happen that you opened the café?
It came as a complete fluke. A friend had the idea of having some kind of café. Berlin being a waste land at that time regarding coffee – I had to drink tea myself – it definitely deserved more places with good coffee and I was still hungry to do more with coffee. So I thought it was a great time to be doing it and we opened in spring 2009.
What was your vision for the café?
Finding a place where you can taste different coffees did not exist in Berlin at that time. So when we started the café that was always something in the back of my mind. Along with brewed coffee, which was nowhere to be found at that time. Even in special shops it was all espresso. So from very early on that is where we were pushing. We were the first shop to import the Hario filter and I think for the most part of central Europe by small shipment from Japan. I was trying to get a brewed coffee going, similar to what was already present in the States and in London. So it was all working towards a place where there was not just an espresso machine doing a better version of Italian fast food, but it was also about exploring the spectrum of coffee.
Well, you probably have some insight as you are the World Cup Tasters Champion – how did that happen?
I always had the idea to take part in coffee competitions. There are a few that I have done: One that has more to do with milk than it has to do with coffee, and the main one is more about performing. But the interesting one for me was the tasting competition. Through having the café I was tasting coffee all the time. That is one thing I became obsessed with: doing cuppings, which are tastings were you taste coffee in its purest form. I was doing that from all angles all the time. I did it to the point where I really developed my palette. When I participated the first year in the German competition, I was very nervous, to the point where my spoon was shaking and I could not even keep anything in it when I was tasting the coffee. But I managed to make second. And the year after, my nerves were a bit better and I made it all the way to world champion. So I guess competition is a combination of nerves and practice and then the ability; which was definitely drawn from running the café.
How does the tasting competition work?
It is pretty simple. It is a series of triangulation. This is where you have three cups. Two cups containing one liquid and the third cup containing something different. In this case it is two kind of coffees, one in two cups and the other one in the third. By tasting you have to pick out the odd one. In the competition you have to do this eight times in a row, so it is 24 cups, and you have three people competing at the same time, with the maximum of eight minutes. Accuracy is counted first. Whoever gets all of them right is the winner, as long as there is not anyone else who also got them all correct. If that is the case, then whoever was the fastest is the winner. When I competed, I was the only one who got all of them right in the final round and won.
How do you feel about all this tasting?
Sometimes it feels like a curse, more than anything else. After becoming so involved in the way, how things taste, it is hard to turn it off. So I am kind of an involuntary snob when it comes to some things. I have completely given up on trying to like certain things. There are some beers – especially when they come out of the dirty taps – I just cannot drink. I used to be able to drink beer no matter what. I can’t do that anymore. Which is not really nice because sometimes I just want to hang out with some friends and have a beer I don’t really want to care what the beer tastes like but there is always that nagging voice inside of me not letting me do that.
On the other side I am also really happy because I find myself practising what I like to think of as conscious consumption. Whereas before, I would appreciate something if it was good, but for the most part I would just eat and drink most things without paying too much attention to it. Now, I pay more attention and I enjoy the experience of tasting much more.
Is Berlin a good place to drink coffee now?
Yes, definitely. Berlin has gone from a place where I preferred not to drink coffee at all, to a place where it is great to have a coffee. Last Summer, when I went to the States I was really happy to return to Berlin, as it is really easy now to get a nice cup of coffee and there is variety too. Everyone is doing something a little bit different.
What do you think about this change?
It is good. There is always the curse that comes along with it. For everyone who develops something interesting there is a point where they know a certain amount and think they are experts. I went through the same thing myself. I learned something about coffee and I thought I had it and I really knew it. I think with any subject where you become more specialized, the more you learn about it, the more you realize what you don’t know about it. So, yes it is nice to have more and more people who are interested in coffee. It is also nice to have people who are learning more and more about it. But then there is the downfall, where it makes more people argue with you, because they are convinced they are experts. I don’t know. I would barely consider myself as an expert. But I do consider to know what I am talking about in most cases.
What do you think about the gentrification of cities like Berlin? The success of your café obviously goes hand in hand with changing trends within Berlin.
I have mixed feelings about gentrification. I think gentrification gets a bad wrap. Most of the people who complain about gentrification are people who want to have cheap rent. If gentrifying means losing identity and character, this is something I don’t agree with. For example in Prenzlauer Berg: it went from an almost weird Eastern ghost town to a polished bourgeois suburb. For the most part, I don’t think it is a problem, you cannot stop progress and change.
How about in Neukölln?
I don’t think anyone wants to see the same thing happen in Neukölln. I find it hard to imagine it happening there as it is such a big place with such a large and diverse population. I don’t have a bad conscience about moving there because I don’t make a lot of money and it is an affordable place for me to live within my means.
Thank you Cory for the delicious coffee, the fantastic day at your place in Neukölln and various coffeeshops in Berlin. If you are interested in visiting his cafés check them out online: Café CK and follow his newest ideas about coffee on his twitter account here.
Also a big Thank you to Felix and Amen with whom FvF Productions realized this story and the launch video for their new iPhone App, THANKS.
Video: Luke Abiol, Marie Louise Taarnskov
Photography: Dan Zoubek
Text: Katharina Finke