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Berlin: Brew capital?

Last Sunday, coffee lovers lined up in front of Markthalle Neun to get a taste of the most extravagant coffees at the Berlin Coffee Festival. Is Berlin – with a growing number of specialty coffee roasters – truly becoming a coffee capital?

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Photo by Sonia Teruel

Last Sunday, coffee lovers lined up in front of Markthalle Neun to get a taste of the most extravagant coffees at the Berlin Coffee Festival. Is Berlin – with a growing number of specialty coffee roasters – truly becoming a coffee capital?

On Sunday, September 2, the halls that usually play host to Street Food Thursday teemed with rich aromas of over 40 coffee roasters from all over Germany and Europe (with 12 local to Berlin). Customers packed themselves inside to get their caffeinated kicks from the likes of Röststätte Berlin, Populus Coffee and Barcelona’s SlowMov, happily waiting out long queues for fresh brews and leaving that evening with a contented case of the jitters.

And this wasn’t the place to find your average cup of joe: you wouldn’t find bubbly foam on your latte or Americanos with sugar. Instead, stands offered nitrogen-induced cold brew or strawberry-vanilla flavoured filter coffee, served up by tatted and bearded hipster-roasters armed with equipment that looked like it was stolen from a chemistry lab – the vacuum coffee-maker used by Röststätte’s roasters not unlike the coffee machine built by Gale in Breaking Bad.

Crazy contraptions and funky flavours or not, the fest made one thing clear: the imprint third wave coffee (or “specialty coffee” depending on who you talk to) has made on the city. By now, it’s beyond a trend. It’s been over 10 years since the first specialty roasteries opened in Berlin: Bonanza Roastery opened in 2006 (and claim to have brought third wave coffee to Berlin). At present, the city counts over 50 local specialty coffee roasteries, some of which distribute their coffee all over Germany and export it outside, too.

But what does third wave coffee even mean? Actually it has little to do with nitrogen cold brews or fancy machines: “Being a specialty coffee roastery means being transparent about the origin of your coffee, and meeting certain quality standards made by the Specialty Coffee Association”, says Melanie Böhme, Berlin-based coffee writer and specialty coffee expert. Yes, there is a Specialty Coffee Association – based in California – which organises the World Barista Championship and provides coffee professionals with research and education about specialty coffee.

The Big Three

Here in Berlin the biggest specialty coffee roasteries are The Barn, Five Elephants and Bonanza. “The Big Three are well known for what they do, and for the quality of their coffee, but also because the three of them were trail-blazers for other third wave coffee roasters in Berlin. They started the whole specialty coffee movement in Berlin and had a big impact on the coffee community,” says Böhme.  

All three have expanded beyond their original spots. Bonanza owners Yumi Choi and Kiduk Reus are running coffee shops in Prenzlauer Berg and Kreuzberg, and a roastery in Wedding. Apart from that, you can find their coffee in shops and restaurant all over Berlin – and cities all over the world. Just four years later, in 2010, German-owned The Barn and Austrian-American-owned Five Elephants established their coffee businesses – and became just as successful, shipping their coffee to countries like Russia and China.

On the map

Although Berlin’s coffee scene is flourishing, on an international scale, Berlin still has a lot to catch up with, according to Melanie Böhme. “In the international coffee landscape, Berlin is not even close to London or Stockholm – the coffee capitals of Europe. The specialty coffee movement in Berlin is still relatively new.” Philipp Reichel, curator of the Berlin Coffee Festival, agrees: “The density of Specialty Coffee in Berlin might be high, but in Germany, specialty coffee isn’t even two percent of the coffee market.”         

According to both Böhme and Reichel, the popularity of third wave coffee in Berlin doesn’t really gel with the traditional German coffee culture. Says Böhme: “The typical German coffee is batch-brewed filter coffee from a machine. Every German household had a classical filter machine from Braun or Philips. I didn’t know anything else when I was growing up.”

An international scene

According to Reichel, Berlin’s coffee scene is a reflection of the city’s international vibe: “The fact is that a lot of people are moving to Berlin from all over the world. And a lot of those people took the opportunity to start their own businesses in coffee. They picked up on the topic of specialty coffee somewhere else in the world, and brought it to Berlin. For example, the Populus Coffee roastery brought us Nordic coffee from Finland.”

Berlin might not be the coffee capital of the world yet, but when visiting the Berlin Coffee Festival, it certainly feels like it. Böhme thought so much herself and moved from Frankfurt to Berlin last year “because of the amazing coffee scene.” The number of specialty roasters in the city went from zero to over 50 in the past 10 years – and the festival feels like a showroom of what they’ve accomplished so far. And, when pushing through the crowds at the packed Markthalle IX, it feels like Berlin is finally waking up and smelling the coffee.