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Coffee is a culture

Coffee is more than a drink. More than an aid to coming back to life at 7 a.m. Coffee is a culture, an acquisition of mankind like cuisine and art. The people from the cold North in particular know what we’re talking about.

Scandinavians are well-known for their sensitive approach to nature. They deeply respect nature, and Scandinavian “New Nordic Cuisine” concentrates on a careful use of natural products. It’s the same with coffee. Scandinavian coffee culture stands out through light roasting, which allows the original coffee beans to unfold all of their aromas. You can taste soil, altitude, sun, wind and rain in a cup of coffee. Scandinavians have thus heavily influenced the new coffee culture, which goes back before all the lattes and cappuccinos to the delicious taste of fresh brewed coffee. We talked to three young stars in this coffee heaven about how to get a really good coffee.

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The Master – Tim Wendelboe

On a quiet corner on Grüners Gate in Oslo, Norway, a short distance from the city centre, Tim Wendelboe has his “espresso bar, school and roastery”, as can be seen from the sign next to the door. The space reminds one of a shop floor. There is a wooden bar with three chairs at one end, and a big noisy roaster dominates the room, in effect telling the guests that this is a working roastery. This morning, five people are roasting, packing beans and serving coffee to the guests. Wendelboe himself is dressed like his crew, in black pants and a white shirt. He apologizes for the noise and says that he will soon be separating the roastery from the coffee bar. When he launched this enterprise, he didn’t expect that a noisy, simple roastery that only served coffee, with no pastries, no newspapers and no jazz music on the side would attract large crowds. But it did, and now coffee lovers, not only from Oslo but from all over the world, are flocking to this modest shop.

Tim Wendelboe is a native Norwegian. He’s 37 years old, looks younger, but has the precise manners of an older well-trained waiter or sommelier. He works closely with members of both of these professions, as a purveyor of coffee to innovative restaurants all over the world — restaurants featuring coffee that strives to set new standards of quality. But apart from these ambitions, there is nothing pretentious about Tim Wendelboe’s business. In his typical modest style he explains, “My job is to improve the quality of our product, and coffee is a fun product to work with. I won’t say that we’re still in the Stone Age, but there is still a lot of development you can do in this field. You can actually make a big difference. You can improve every part of the process and do something better.” All of Tim Wendelboe’s coffees are carefully sourced from his favourite places of origin. His procurement process is based on a philosophy that primarily focuses on quality, traceability, innovation and social responsibility.

What makes a good coffee?

“First of all, good ingredients: soft water and good coffee beans. And you don’t need any fancy equipment. A kettle and a grinder are enough. You need soft water because calcium neutralizes the coffee acids,” Wendelboe explains.

How can you spot a good cup of coffee?

“Good coffee is best when it is served at body temperature. Bad coffee tastes worse and worse as it gets cold. It loses its sweetness and becomes bitter,” he says.

Wendelboe has worked his way back along the coffee chain, starting with the serving of coffee, and now he is focusing on the farming of coffee beans. At the age of 18, he had just finished high school. He needed work and found a job at Stockfleths, a traditional family-owned coffee business dating back to 1895. In the 1990s the company was moving along with what was then a brand-new trend: coffee bars that used espresso machines and served coffee specialities, lattes and so on. He started as a barista and showed a knack for the job. In 2001 he became the Norwegian Barista Champion, and he went on to become the World Barista Champion in 2004. He describes that experience as a turning point in his career: “That was when I got hooked. I recognized that I like to compete and win. I’ve got a competitive gene.”

From then on, he started planning and building his small coffee empire. He started doing freelance projects and consulting, and in 2007 he began to plan his new business, which he would call “Tim Wendelboe”. “I needed a space to do seminars, and I started to plan the project. The idea was to have a roasting space and a showroom, but things simply developed, and it also became popular as a coffee bar.” The business is still relatively small, compared to the big players. Tim Wendelboe sells 30 tons of coffee on the market every year. The biggest Norwegian producer sells 18,000 tons annually. But Wendelboe doesn’t care. “I wouldn’t have opened a coffee shop if I had simply wanted to make money,” he explains.

Is coffee culture a trend?

“It has been a trend for 30 years, so we have actually passed the trend phase. The taste for good coffee is here to stay. And the coffee that is available is getting better and better. Best of all, most people can afford it. And you don’t get drunk on it, either. It’s a bit like fine dining. The Internet has played a big role in this development. People are traveling, blogging, buying coffee online and so on.”

*_Is it a generational thing?*_

“Yes, it is. We grew up on everything being instant — instant food, instant soup, instant coffee — and we grew tired of it. So we started to want something better: food and beverages made from good raw ingredients that are locally produced.”

At about the same time as he started his business, Wendelboe also started travelling to Colombia in order to learn more about the secrets of the coffee bean. Here he met an aspiring local farmer named Don Elias. “He was an honest, hard-working man who wanted to do things differently,” Wendelboe recalls. He bought some land from Elias, formed a corporation with him, and started planting coffee trees on the land in 2015.

*_What was the idea behind the project?*_

“I want to use the biology of the soil to grow coffee organically. You don’t need fertilizer — you just need to understand the balance of the soil and have the right microorganisms. Mother Nature has been doing this for millions of years.”

Has this plan worked out?

“It takes two or three years before the trees produce a harvest. And then El Niño came and the drought killed all of our trees. It’s going to take some time before we have our production up and running again, but all the trouble will be worth it. Improving quality is a very simple matter. You just have to let the right coffee berries ripen and focus on quality instead of standardization. And as for the drying process, you can stretch it out over two weeks instead of six days. The longer timespan results in a more mature taste.”

Wendelboe regards his coffee farm as part of a movement that is doing research to find out how to save coffee growing from the devastation that has been caused by industrialization. Part of the solution is to revitalize the stock. “In Panama they have rediscovered the amazing Geisha coffee,” he says. “It does happen. New varieties are coming. The industrial growers have ruined their soil, so something new has to be done. We have got to find new varieties by means of crossbreeding, as well as new ways of making coffee.”

Where do the best beans come from?

“I think my favourite is Kenyan coffee, which is hand-picked and sorted during the picking process. They are very good at sorting out the good beans from the bad. But you can get good coffee all over the world. Even a good farm can produce bad coffee, and the other way around.”

What is the best cup of coffee in the world?

“That’s really a subjective judgment — but personally, I really enjoy drinking the coffee produced on the farm when I’m visiting the farm. It’s a sweet, well-made coffee and a good brew. The sweetness of the bean is more important than the aroma.”

Words: Nikolai Lang-Jensen
Photograhy: Benjamin A. Ward

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‘We do things differently, by having a closer relationship with producers, exporters and shipping lines’

The Sustainable Perfectionist – Anette Moldvaer

For Anette Moldvaer, the Norwegian co-founder of the award-winning coffee roastery Square Mile in London’s East End, the rules for making a good coffee are few and simple. “Everything has to work together,” she says firmly. “By that I mean the chain of care — from the producing farmer through the roaster to the person brewing the coffee at home or in a café.” Freshly ground beans are important, as is fresh water. Poor-quality green beans cannot be improved through roasting and brewing, Moldvaer insists. “On the other hand,” she adds, “you can also take the best coffee and completely ruin it.” She wraps her hands around a large mug of black filter coffee. No sugar or milk for her. “I just like to taste the coffee,” she explains.

At Square Mile, coffee is always served with a glass of water. “Caffeine can be dehydrating,” Moldvaer says. “If you add milk, it should not be boiled, because then the coffee will taste slightly custardy.” To understand Moldvaer’s passion for coffee, one needs to know that she is Norwegian and that coffee and Scandinavian coffee culture is embedded in her DNA. “In Norway, drinking coffee together is a hugely important social ritual,” Moldvaer says. “The first question is always ‘Would you like a coffee?’, whether you’re visiting your grandmother or discussing life with your friends.” Moldvaer, who was born in Trondheim, Norway, in 1977, studied drama and performance at university. “It was good fun, but I didn’t continue with it,” she says. While she was studying, she worked as a barista, and when she moved to London 13 years ago, she worked for an importer of green coffee. “I did everything — I managed their laboratory, roasted samples and learnt about blending and how to taste coffee,” she recalls. She also taught at the company’s School of Coffee. “I did all this for four years. Then I realised it could be a career, and I put my money where my mouth was.”

In 2007 Moldvaer and her partner James Hoffmann founded Square Mile, which opened for business a year later. Today she employs 17 people and supplies a number of independent coffee shops. “Too many to mention. Online we ship coffee around the world,” she says. A typical day involves sampling coffees she may want to buy, managing the logistics of shipping and stock-taking, and planning visits to producers and exporters.

Travel is a big part of the business. “Finding new sources and using coffee as a tool to help poor economies — that is exciting and important to me,” says Moldvaer. The prices in producing countries are unstable and still too low, she adds. “Farmers are not making enough money.” Climate change is a massive issue. New types of fungus and insects are surviving, and rain patterns are changing. “By paying the right price, we’re helping farmers to make improvements, buy new land and pay for education and health care,” she points out. Square Mile has chosen not to be aligned with Fairtrade. “We do things differently, by having a closer relationship with producers, exporters and shipping lines. We pay more, and farmers know they can trust us. That makes it worthwhile,” she explains.

Does she have a favourite coffee bean? Moldvaer, whose first book, Coffee Obsession, was published in 2014, smiles enigmatically. “That would be like choosing your favourite child. I love Kenya, but also Costa Rica, Guatemala, Ethiopia. We buy smaller quantities from other countries. The nice thing is that the harvest times differ, and shipping times also vary. This way, I can have a bias for two months, then coffee from a new country arrives and that is my favourite. I call it equal-opportunity favouritism,” she says.

Another one of Anette Moldvaer’s passions is her ambition to make London famous for speciality coffee once again. Indeed, café culture in London is nothing new. In 1652 a Greek servant named Pasqua Rosée brought the new drink from Turkey to a shop in the City of London, which is still known as the Square Mile. The drink became an overnight success. In a few decades there were as many as 3,000 coffee houses in London. By the mid-18th century the nation’s tastes turned to tea drinking. “I love tea too. I drink it all the time,” says Moldvaer. “Both coffee and tea are small affordable luxuries.”

Words: Josephine Grever
Photography: Olivier Hess

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‘Making coffee is a big system, so you have to be all over the process and pay attention to all the details’

The Curious Contender – Patrik Rolf Karlsson

Patrik Rolf Karlsson is a native Swede who now lives in Copenhagen. We meet up with him at the 108 bistro, a coffee shop and wine bar that is the latest offshoot of the world-famous restaurant NOMA. The bistro is located in the same vibrant harbour neighbourhood as Karlsson’s own coffee roastery, which he named April. Karlsson is a mild-mannered man with a short beard, curly hair and a casual but sharp sense of fashion. He speaks English effortlessly and gives the impression of being a very experienced professional — though he’s actually only 26.

I am served a very aromatic espresso made with beans from El Salvador. Karlsson drinks a filter coffee, and he confesses that he doesn’t actually drink very much coffee. Maybe only one cup a day — but he tastes a great deal of it in small sips throughout the day to ensure that it’s top quality. He has a clear vision for the future of his roastery: “April exists in order to set a new standard for the way we roast coffee. I want to figure out how to roast very, very good coffee.”

Coffee was a mature choice for Patrik Rolf Karlsson. He has a background in entrepreneurship and used to work in the area of innovation and skills development in established companies. Then he met Matts W. Johansson, the owner of the da Matteo roastery in Gothenburg, Sweden, whom Karlsson describes as his mentor. At da Matteo he started to learn the trade from scratch: all the steps leading from a pile of green beans to a well-served cup of coffee.

Karlsson saw huge business potential when he joined the trade six years ago: “I saw that you can really make a difference, and it had all just started. I was intrigued by the fact that you can go into real production and work with the whole marketing chain. You have the freedom to work with so many aspects and form your product according to your vision.” After four years at da Matteo, he left Sweden to work at the renowned Five Elephants coffee roastery in Berlin. There he was appointed Head of Roasting and set about introducing new and innovative methods, in line with his vision of reshaping the concept of a modern coffee roastery. In the second half of 2016 he launched his own roastery, called April, in Copenhagen, and for the past year he has been a regular speaker and consultant in the international coffee festival scene.

He doesn’t hesitate to reveal the secret behind his success: “Two things: as with everything else, you need to work more than everybody else to be at the top. Making coffee is a big system, so you have to be all over the process and pay attention to all the details.” But he also does something that is unique. “The industry has a lot of secrets,” he says. “I’m good at sharing knowledge with like-minded people. That gives me something back.” He sees a lot of opportunities to improve the roasting process by means of new technologies. “We are starting to measure things — moisture, temperature and so on, so that we can see what we’re doing and gain more knowledge about what we do. I am expecting a lot of good results from this.”

Patrik Rolf Karlsson has some very strict rituals. He normally gets up at five o’clock to go to his roaster, where the working day runs from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. He says, “A lot of people regard running a business as something romantic, but it can get very lonely as you sit there looking at the control screen.” He has succeeded in roasting a type of coffee that is in very high demand all over the world. What makes his coffee so special? “First you need a great green bean. You cannot make a bad green bean into something good. In the roasting process, the most important thing I do is to individualize the approach. Every bean is different, so you have a variety of ways to roast — a ton of different approaches.”

For the expert it all comes down to paying attention to the details of the unique experience of making outstanding coffee. It’s all part of his holistic view of coffee culture in general. “There is no perfect coffee — only different kinds of coffee to suit different kinds of people,” as he puts it. In his view, there is also no recipe for the perfect coffee shop. “The key is to provide an experience that reflects the owner’s vision,” he says. “The overall culture is very much defined by a few key players who make the coffee experience too uniform. But luckily, these days it is possible to find small distinct places in every city all over the world where you can get good coffee.”

In Karlsson’s eyes, the traditional coffee culture as we know it from Vienna, Venice or Istanbul is a precondition for what is happing now. “Traditional coffee is amazing,” he says. “At first, I had a very negative view of it, but Matts helped me to understand everything that has gone before. There is a traditional coffee culture and it’s important, but you need to progress, to innovate and to transform the tradition.”

There’s always a better way to do it.

Words: Nikolai Lang-Jensen
Photography: Copenhagers