“What’s this minimalist place on the corner?” my conference roommate asked me as we walked down Schönhäuser Allee in the Prenzlauer Berg part of Berlin’s Pankow Borough. As we walked closer and saw “The Barn” written in white opaque letters on the glass door he laughed. “I guess we’re here.”
I had first read about The Barn Roastery in The Atlantic Times, a new style coffee shop atoning for the coffee sins of Germany’s past. From the article:
For a long while, anyone interested in good coffee gave Germany a wide berth. You’d be hard pressed to find anything other than a pot of Melitta filter coffee in cafes and living rooms across the land. Instant coffee was just part of the furniture – as popular as currywurst and the Bundesliga.
The Barn’s Ralf Rüller entertained a new vision, however, and since 2012 has operated his tasting lab in Pankow and coffee shop in Berlin’s Mitte. The tasting lab is bare bones and industrial, but surely intended as a part of the experience. The Barn has won international attention in its pursuit of pure coffee pleasure, particularly when it announced that strollers would not be permitted. Indeed, the no strollers rule is one of many implemented by the experimental coffee shop. Other rules include restricted laptop usage (there are designated areas), no ambient or background music, and refusal to add milk to the black coffee choices (there are milk coffee options, however). The many rules have caused Rüller to be compared to Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi.
When you bring in children please bear in mind that higher noise levels will disturb other customers that would like to enjoy their cup of coffee. We play no music and have arranged for a designated media area to which laptops and tablets are restricted.
When we got to the counter, I asked the barista for his recommendation. “I’ve never been here before,” I explained.
“Ah ok. Well, will you drink your coffee with milk or black?” he asked seriously.
“Black.” he pointed to the three coffee choices on the menu that would fulfill my request and described each.
“Pick one and experiment,” he said. I ordered a coffee promising hints of milk chocolate, with a slice of chocolate almond cake to go with it. He sliced the cake immediately, but the coffee would take some time.
The coffee at The Barn is all sourced through direct trade, eliminating the middlemen between farmer and barista – a step up even from the fair trade trend. They roast all their beans themselves right at the Roastery in Pankow. I typically drink dark roasts, but at The Barn, the beans are lightly roasted in order to preserve their flavor before extraction. The beans are dropped through a burr grinder and each coffee is hand dripped. They used a Japanese dripper over a glass carafe on a scale to ensure a perfect water to bean ratio and, when the coffee was finally ready, called us to the counter.
The cup in its matching saucer had a shallow pool of coffee (less than your typical espresso), and I wondered whether my small portion was nothing more than the triumph of quality over quantity. As the barista explained to us the difference between the coffees we had ordered for ourselves, I noticed that there was a small coffee pot next to the cup.
“Do we take those with us as well?”
“Yes, yes. But please only pour small amounts into the cup at a time, because otherwise it will get cold,” he explained. “The pot will keep it warm. With each sip, you should try and smell, taste and really experience the coffee.”
We returned to our stools and short table, most of our cake patiently awaiting its coffee partner, and took the first sip of coffee. It was smooth, aromatic and had a delicate, sweet balance. It wasn’t bitter like the dark coffees toward which I normally turn, nor was it flavorless or watered down like so many coffees at chain shops or diners. It was coffee at the peak of its potential, and it was completely different from your typical coffee experience.
I do get the sense that this is becoming less an anomaly, though not yet a norm. But The Barn is at the forefront of the trend just ten minutes walk from the historic Alexanderplatz or the Reichstag parliamentary building. For a city like Berlin which is so often a leader in cultural movements, perhaps The Barn Roastery (and its Coffeeshop counterpart) spell promise for the future of coffee.