|Coffee||Finca La Fortuna|
On a Thursday in April, as the day was unwinding in Berlin, we spoke with Ralf Rüller, owner of The Barn. Ralf was at his café-roastery in Prenzlauer Berg, where he had been testing a recently acquired, custom-built Probat UG-22 roaster. This new roaster is one of the many initiatives The Barn is undertaking in its quest to constantly improve. Ralf mentioned, for instance, that earlier this spring, The Barn collected 24 water samples from customers around the world, from London to Dubai, in order to assess each water’s taste and composition. As a result of this project, The Barn will begin adapting its roast towards the median of the water samples, so that customers can enjoy the taste of the same coffee globally.
Ralf founded The Barn six years ago after a career in finance and acting. Having lived across Europe and Asia, he found himself drawn to hospitality, especially natural and sustainable food. After opening his first café, Ralf decided to focus on coffee and honed his craft under the guidance of veteran roasters Square Mile (London) and Tim Wendelboe (Norway). The Barn became the first roaster in Berlin to embrace a light, Nordic roast style as well as the first to use single-origin beans of uncompromising quality. Through Ralf’s commitment to excellence over the last several years, The Barn has defined specialty coffee in Berlin and throughout Germany.
The Barn’s cafés are renowned for their purist approach. Each is spacious and quiet, with clean and warm interiors and a wooden bar that displays homemade cakes and quiches. Here you’ll find an experience attentive to flavor, taste, and enjoyment. Distractions are kept to a minimum: strollers and music alike are conspicuously absent, and while laptops are allowed in certain areas, the use of electronic devices is generally discouraged—as is the addition of milk and sugar. Coffee occupies its own sacred place, and to walk into The Barn is to walk into an urban respite: a place to converse, write, and enjoy an ideal cup.
Just as the Barn’s rules are often misinterpreted as pretentious or draconian, those unfamiliar with Ralf would be surprised to learn that he is a warm, personable, and genuine person. Ralf is effusive about his love for people in the industry and at times, it seems that coffee is just a happy medium for him to learn, collaborate, and connect with others. He speaks fluidly and expressively, with a light-hearted lilt that shows that he doesn’t take himself too seriously.
Ralf: How many more Barns can we make? It’s a question we ask ourselves every day. To expand while keeping our desired quality levels will be a challenge. We have been building an audience and an awareness in the market for six years now and continue to do so, but what is still lacking here, to a large extent, is German engagement.
Things of my earlier life are coming back now. We are baking the cake recipes of my mother.
Coffee in Germany is an established industry driven by low pricing. In people’s heads coffee is price-driven and not quality-driven. My sister calls me when the coffee goes ten cents higher in the supermarket. She says she can’t buy coffee anymore!
It’s an issue across the industry: so much effort goes into every step of the production chain, I think everyone can agree that the price doesn’t align with the quality and the experience. Engaging more Germans in specialty coffee is something we need to do. It’s a natural and slow progression of exploring and sharing knowledge. But it’s getting better.
I’m really infected by coffee. It is an exciting time and things keep evolving as more people are getting interested in specialty coffee. I still have so much to learn and so much to embrace. I don’t really have a timeline. Things of my earlier life are coming back now. We are baking the cake recipes of my mother. I used to live in Japan and the Japanese tea ceremony is coming back in the way we take a slow, methodical, almost ritualistic approach to the bar. My background in finance has helped me understand profitability and how to run a business.
What drives me is the energy that comes from connecting with people through coffee. I surround myself with people who want to grow with me and develop.
The most important part of coffee is still the human being.
Even with all the latest improvements and technologies, the most important part of coffee is still the human being. As much as we can put science behind it, at the end of the day you can never replace the human element and the machine is just a support for consistency and efficiency.
Humans are naturally voyeuristic – I definitely am. I like to sit at the bar and watch people make a drink for me. In my first shop I had my machine at an angle (which most of my baristas hated because they had to turn their heads all the time when they worked) so people could watch their hands. This is an important part of the craft: you want a person behind a bar who is engaging – baristas are not robots.
Acting for me was the period in London after I left finance and wanted to do different things. I like to talk to people and speak in front of people. I enjoy the element of performing. I think an element of entertainment is important in drawing people into your world without building a barrier.
You can name them all, but the early ones are the ones you remember most, because they are the first big impressions. I love James Hoffmann, he’s my first hero. He is extremely knowledgeable and he supported us with his coffee beans the first two years – we are close friends and we continue to collaborate. Annette Moldvaer – one of the sharpest tongues in the industry – I love traveling with her and learning about coffee. Tim Wendelboe, I love. He is a driver in the industry and keeps pushing boundaries. He’s super clean, I admire the way he runs his shop, it’s very, very organized, and very, very professional.
We try to lose any attitude—it’s ok if some prefer to drink a milkshake with robusta coffee.
We never consider ourselves to be fully trained or to know everything. To us this is a constant journey and we never arrive – which is very exciting. Coffee is a huge industry. With specialty coffee we represent a small but fast-growing niche, and quality drives us. However, different people have different needs. We try to lose any attitude – it’s ok if some prefer to drink a milkshake with robusta coffee. It’s just a different product and not our market. What we do is to make our own coffee the best we can.
To explore Berlin, you need a bicycle – Berlin is very spread out – but you need a shabby one. My boyfriend bought a new one and it lasted two hours. He left it next to the roastery and it was gone right away. It was white and very pretty and had “steal me” written all over it. Two hours, gone.