Baristas In The City Of Babel

Photo by Septimus Brope for Sprudge (Berlin: A Coffee Lover’s Guide To Prenzlauer Berg)

On my last few days off, I’ve sat in the windows of cafes and the corners of different roasteries around Berlin. Depending on what Kiez I decide to settle into for the afternoon, the language of the cafe flips and flops between a range of dialects and accents, with predominantly German-speaking spaces within a short walking distance from English-speaking ones.

Through personal experience, comments from friends here and abroad, and even articles in the Guardian on the phenomenon, the hospitality sector of Berlin is a multi-lingual industry. This is especially obvious within its specialty coffee community, which boasts an infamous and ever-fluxing pool of staff from around the world. When you walk in to order at a local cafe, it’s not just the selection of brews on the menu, but the accents behind the bar that are international. You’re as likely to hear the heavy lilt of an Australian or English accent as you are a German one. As customers come and go, and the door shuts and reopens, the baristas serving may switch between two different tongues, depending on the native language of those they are serving, and their own strength of German.

Michaele Weissman once wrote, “The value of specialty coffee is a function of both pleasure and meaning.” In Berlin, the communication of the story, the origins, and experimentations behind the cup may come in either English or German. But the meaning is clear: wherever you’re from, this is now your home, and we’re all here together.

So why is Berlin’s coffee scene so international? It can be put down to a range of factors. The city itself, not just its collection of baristas and specialty coffee spaces, are as international as they come. The capital city is teeming with start-ups and self-employed persons who are chasing a platform to create themselves on. It’s a community that is already establishing itself away from the post-London and New York cultures that are becoming too expensive and chaotic to survive in. Rent is far cheaper here than most major places in Europe (especially compared to my native Ireland). Opposed to London and Dublin, the transport is fast and efficient, with regularly scheduled service continuing all night. The added bonus being you would rarely have to cram yourself over an elbow or under a bursting rucksack to get home. There’s the attraction of a booming nightlife, be it the dark rooms of a sweating techno club in which the outside ceases to exist, or the smoky ambient jazz bar beneath the endless rumblings of a quiet train station. In this city where the rent is capped (but yes, it can be very difficult to find a long-term place to rest your head), the food is cheap, and the art galleries are abundant, of course it attracts people from all over the world.

You also discover in most areas of East Berlin that you are as likely to overhear an English conversation as you are a German one. What many visitors and locals have pointed out, that despite the culture of staring people out of it on public transport, people really do not care about what you were wearing or who you were. The city proves incredibly accepting of LGBT culture and has been for many years. A breath of relief for many, and more than a reason to move here.

I moved to Germany a little under two years ago, both a career-driven decision and to experience a different pace of life. I came from the Dublin coffee scene, one which was quite small and insular at the time, but slowly gaining traction and more shops as the seasons rolled by. Berlin was that much bigger, and seemed more accessible than moving to London. There were more opportunities here than my hometown, but Berlin felt not as chaotic, expensive, or far away as some other places. But the immediacy with which I uprooted and moved seems more eccentric every time I recount my story of “Why I moved to Berlin” (every ex-pat here has got one). It was the most common question when you meet someone new; over the counter, at a club or even on that strange, awkward Tinder date you decided to agree to.

I immersed myself into the large enough specialty coffee social scene here, which was an eclectic caffeine collective of United Nations. Many baristas hailed from as far away as Australia and New Zealand, and it was common enough to hear their voices outnumber the rest. Many others were originally from the United States, Canada, Poland, France, Romania, and so on. The scene here was primarily international, outnumbering the number of natives. Many internationals even own spaces and run roasteries. We saturate a market. Some baristas had already been in the career before they landed in Germany, and it became apparent that being able to manage the flow of an espresso machine was something you could travel with. Other new Berliners had never worked with coffee in their lives, previously leading in paths such as law or engineering. Yet being able to speak a bit of the native language nonsensically got you through a shift, and it at least paid for the roof over your head. For some, Berlin is a year away from their normal everyday lives.

Working and living in Berlin seems dreamy, but it can be a difficult place to establish yourself. Many of the Australasian coffee community that set up in Berlin find it difficult to live here legally as long as they would desire. Anecdotally at least, several of the baristas here are new to making coffee, or even just drinking it, but they’re coming off the tail-end of a visa in the UK, and one more year in Europe seems more attractive than going home. Many only go home as the days on their visas dwindle down to single digits, while others search for jobs in different fields in hopes of continuing their lives here—”specialty barista” is not a profession for which Germany is likely to extend a visa application.

There’s no language barrier per se, but there is a linguistic tension between the locals and the new arrivals. For a few years, speaking “silly” German could get you by on daily basis, but this only sustains you for so long. The growing English-speaking nature of the hospitality industry here has had both backlash and positive reinforcement, as documented by the Guardian and others. Yet you still feel like an “Auslander” as you mumble over foreign numbers and can’t quite form coherent sentences. It can feel embarrassing, and creates a sense of distance; it’s humbling for an English speaker to feel this way, echoing the same sentiment so many immigrants from around the world have felt in moving to English-speaking societies.

Eventually, perhaps inevitably, most of the international baristas here in Berlin wind up leaving due to visa issues or burning out on the lifestyle. It continues the revolving door of friends and workmates that characterizes life today in Berlin’s coffee scene. Many who move to the city don’t think of this place for life, but for a period in their twenties or thirties. The juxtaposition is harsh, and the rest of the city is daunting if you didn’t put the effort in to learn the language. You go from hanging out in curated spaces and beautiful coffee bars with other expats to experiencing those mandatory visits to the bare-walled rooms of government buildings and unfamiliar doctor’s offices. This reinforces a sense of loneliness and “othering” here in Berlin, that same familiar pang of difference felt by immigrants everywhere. The bubble of Berlin’s English-speaking cafe scene creates another layer of unapproachability to those seeking to be accepted by it or finding that they don’t fit in there, either. It’s left me asking after two years here: is the lack of local language stunting the growth of specialty coffee across the rest of the country?

But it’s not all bad. While the community of Berlin coffee is essentially, and noticeably international, there are plenty of native Germans working and expanding their passion within the industry. Many of Germany’s best cafes and roasting companies are, appropriately enough, owned and operated by German-born coffee professionals. It’s just that in a certain kind of ineffable, hard to define way, Berlin is both the capital of and wholly apart from the rest of Germany: a city-state in the classic sense, and something of a global spaceport for every last culture, language, culinary, and cultural expression you can imagine. You might hear English in the coffee bars, but it’s not the only language edging out German.

Specialty coffee in Berlin was once the contemporary morning and afternoon ritual of a different culture, wherever you may see its origins. It was a taste of home, as good as a morning cup you might remember in your hometown of Melbourne or London. The growing international community was looking for familiarity at the bottom of a black filter. Now it’s something more—specialty coffee here is both local and international, German and ex-pat, global and yet rooted in the neighborhoods and locals that make them their home (if only briefly). The cafe is a meeting place. It just so happens that here in Berlin, we’re presenting our brews in the City of Babel.

Susie Kealy (@susiebootz) is a freelance journalist and coffee professional based in Berlin. This is Susie Kealy’s first feature for Sprudge Media Network. 



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