Clearly, It's Not Folgers
Addicted to the idiosyncrasies of coffee is one of Berlin’s premier 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. Upon my brief return to Berlin’s collective of creative minds, I waste little time in setting up a meet.
Ralf is busy in the back office with morning business. I decide to first sample an espresso - silky sweet with a tangy grapefruit note. It dissolves into a soft chocolaty finish. The specimen is vetted just as Ralf walks out of his office and 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. So his expert army of coffee gurus add final touches to the front cafe whilst I investigate the back roastery. By the time I return, all looks appropriate for a gourmet magazine. To indulge at a more personal appreciation, Ralf kindly shares details on his origins, travel, and perspective of specialty coffee culture.
Mr. Vagabond: 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 was at a great cocktail bar the other night listening to Julia from Vancouver that almost sounded like someone talking about coffee. The passion of people working in speciality coffee is certainly addictive. There's a dedication to the product and to protect the value chain from crop to cup - it's a mission that all share.
Mr. Vagabond: What's your background and how did coffee become your focus?
Ralf: 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. 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.
Mr. Vagabond: 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. My concept was of a Barn-like atmosphere, 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.
Mr. Vagabond: So a PERFECT coffee for you is...
Ralf: Clean, balanced and lightly roasted. It has to be traceable and extracted with great care.
Mr. Vagabond: Can you describe your own Barn Espresso?
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, as 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.
Mr. Vagabond: Is roasting coffee a science or an art?
Ralf: Both. Our machine is a 1955 Probat Roast. It's been completely overhauled with the latest technology, direct engines, larger cooling tray and over-dimensional air flow systems. We use Cropster Roast Profiling software to check all stages of our roasting. We cup samples from all stages 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 the highest quality.
Mr. Vagabond: What are some elements in a coffee shop that shout "we're serious about coffee"?
Ralf: Hmmm - the no sugar sign? Actually, yes. We're trying to break genres and asking people to stay pure with coffee by not adding sugar, sirup or chocolate powder to make it taste like a milk shake. Drink coffee black. Thats the best.
In terms of signage, we concentrated on the quality of the product but not on 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.
Mr. Vagabond: What's the latest changes and developments 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.
Mr. Vagabond: And how has other travels / lives affected your interest in coffee?
Ralf: Speciality coffee has been developing particularly in Australia, New Zealand, California and the Nordic Countries. We have seen huge developments in New York and London and also Paris is getting the 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!
Text & Photography: Mr. Vagabond