If you are lucky enough, there are points in your life where you catch yourself residing happily between “not so busy with work that it hoards all your waking thoughts”, and “so relaxed that nothing can penetrate this soporific aura surrounding me and this deck chair”. Those times when you are not bound by the shackles of problem solving and impending deadlines, or so out-of-it that cognitive function is limited, are few in number and should be grabbed with glee when presented. Art galleries, musical concerts, theatre; they all have the ability to induce this sense of heightened awareness and reinvigoration. Travel, too, is for some the most potent of medicines. Recently I was lucky enough to partake in the latter, spending a week in Berlin with little to occupy my thoughts save the city’s culture, the gorgeous weather, and of course…coffee.
Berlin, like most other central and Southern European cities is associated with a vigorous and thriving coffee scene. But, like most other central and Southern European cities that coffee scene is unfortunately associated with bad coffee. The ubiquitous coffee shops and street cafés of Paris, Rome, Madrid and Berlin thrive on Robusta-ridden espresso blends and an aggressive European palate. Thus, many people travel to the Continent in search of great coffee and instead they are met by an abundance of mediocrity. It is with this in mind that I set about scouring the streets of Germany’s capital in order to find the best coffee shops in town.
Located within the Berlin Mitte district, and easily reachable from Hackescher Markt train station, The Barn is ideally located to peddle its wares to a trendy and fashionable crowd. Taking the Antipodean ideals of coffee preparation that have formed the catalyst for the new coffee generation around the world, and combining them with a German precision makes The Barn a fantastic place to go for a coffee and, if you’re that way inclined, cake. It serves Square Mile coffee, something which is very familiar to me due to its popularity in the UK. The prospect of having the same drink I can get nearly anywhere in London’s
artisan coffee shops was initially off-putting, but, when I was told by the very friendly and approachable baristas that it was the new blend which I was yet to try lifted my spirits. They were lifted further when the espresso was made perfectly, bringing with it all that bold sweetness you expect from Square Mile’s ‘Red Brick’ blend. The milk too, for the cappuccino was well managed, erring on the wetter, more contemporary texture for the drink than the bubbly mess you may be used to if drinking in Berlin. The cheesecake too, I am reliably informed by my expert confectionary tester (here read ‘girlfriend’), was excellent. Definitely worth checking this place out if ever you are in town.
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No Fire, No Glory.
With a name akin to a David Gemmell novel, No Fire, No Glory is situated on Rykestraße, in the Prenzlauer Berg area of the city. It’s décor is European and bohemian, it’s remit is excellence. I enjoyed two espressos in here. The first was a blend by Bonanza Coffee Roasters in Berlin. It was citric, almost fizzy, like sherbet to the taste with quite little body. Although not to my taste it was expertly made and, I was reliably informed by the barista with the quiff, was a firm favourite of a lot of the Berlin customers who are new to the idea of artisan coffee. The second espresso, however, made by the Danish roasters, Coffee Collective, was easily one of the most complex, challenging and overall articulate coffees I’ve ever had. I love coffee. And I’ve had a lot of great coffee. But there are few times when a drink is so good that the experience of consuming it leaves a flagpole in your mind marking a discovery of something spectacular and reminding you what you are striving for as a perveyor of this product. The blend, made up of four contrasting components, juxtaposed fruity sweetness against the heady sensation of floral, or perhaps herbal tones. At first I thought that the taste was perhaps overwrought, but as I took the time to consider it I came to realise it was maybe the best espresso I’ve ever had. The cake selection, again, was verified as first rate by the most discerning of crowds (here read ‘girlfriend and her mother’). Fire there wasn’t. Glory there was.
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Godshot, in many ways, straddles the void between European traditional tastes, and new wave ideals. Upon approaching the bar I was presented with three espressos from which to choose. One was an Arabica/Robusta concoction, encompassing all that I feared about the Berlin coffee scene. The other two, mercifully, were both pure Arabica recipes. The third of the trio, too, was a highly ambitious Rwanda-only blend, combining beans from two cooporatives within the African state. To offer an espresso from only a single country of origin proposes a real air of confidence in yourself as a coffee shop, as it is a notoriously difficult thing to get right in high volumes and across a rotation of staff. It was recommended to me as a double ristretto, and, although I was able to identify some outlying chocolate notes from the drink, alas I was left underwhelmed. Why then do I include Godshot in my list of recommendations? For in Godshot I saw the importance of the role of a barista manifest itself in its fullest. Upon entering the store and attaining that Robusta was being used on premises I was ready to turn on my heel and leave. But, the barista on the bar at the time, who’s name I have regretably forgotten, reached out to me by asking if there was anything that would like to know about they’re coffee, or if there was anything that I could be helped with. When I put it to her that I was not keen to pay for anything with Robusta in its make up she promptly recommended the other two espresso blends on offer, served them with care, and told me all that she knew about the coffee. Even once I had sat down to consume the drink she came over with some paperwork outlining some of the tasting notes the roastery had advised her with and proceeded to engage me in a mutual and geniune conersation regarding the coffee industry as a whole. The role of the barista is , in my opinion, often undervalued in the appraisal of coffee establishments, but, as this visit made clear, I would not have spent any time, let alone money in this store if it weren’t for the staff.
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A coffee shop in which you source and roast your own beans, and conceive of your own signature recipes. This is the dream of many who work within the coffee industry, and no doubt many who don’t as well. And if this is the dream, the the guys at Five Elephant are living it. Offering a range of single estates, as well as their seasonal ‘Blendo’ recipe, all of which are sourced and directly traded with the farmers who grow the beans, the staff epitomise the values that contemporary coffee traders attempt to pervey with varying levels of success. After being greeted warmly by the barista, Justin, and enjoying a long chat about the coffee they sell and its intricacies, I sat down to enjoy an espresso which was sweet and acidic, with just enough body to justify itself. It is an espresso which I can imagine would struggle against very large quantities of milk, but, its natural sweetness of course negates the validity of drinks with that much milk anyway, therefore placing Five Elephant in a position of stark opposition to Berlin’s tradition of sour espresso combined with too much milk, sugar, or both. This is a really fantastic venue, positioned in a rather lonely spot in Kreuzberg area of the city, but well worth the venture as you can guarentee quality from everything they sell.
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These are the four stores I would recommend from my journey. I did, of course, attend many more coffee shops in the Berlin area, but like the UK, the coffee scene as we know it and would like to see it is young and not yet truly established. An honourable mention has to go to Café CK, as although I wasn’t able to find the time to go myself, it was recommended to me in glowing terms by the baristas of every coffee bar I have outlined above (for more information: http://cafeckberlin.com/).
I hope this review was enjoyable to read, and if ever you venture out Berlin-way, you will stop in to one, or many, of these great establishments.
Si, Head Barista.