Happy Baristas, Berlin’s most under-the-radar specialty coffee empire, has been quietly picking up steam over the past few years—or not steam so much as nitrogen bubbles. And it seems the empire, located on the edge of the Friedrichshain neighborhood, hasn’t been picking up nitrogen bubbles as much as forcing them into liquids such as coffee, green tea, and lemonade, and then forcing those liquids into kegs emblazoned with the word “Squid.” So it’s probably more apt to say this: Happy Baristas, Berlin’s most under-the-radar specialty coffee empire, has been making a ton of nitro beverages. And in Berlin, they’re sort of a big deal for it.
Marian Plajdicko cofounded the shop with business partner Roland Lodr in October of 2016. He explains that while Happy Baristas’ unofficial slogan, “Make good coffee and be nice to people,” has earned their brick-and-mortar space acclaim across the Berlin coffee community, what has cemented its place as one of the city’s foundational coffee spots is Squid Nitro Brews, the brand name given to its burgeoning nitro coffee and tea hustle.
“It’s a side business that’s grown naturally out of this one,” Plajdicko says, sitting with his back facing a floor-to-ceiling window at Happy Baristas’ communal table. “I always wanted to do signature drinks that no one else in Berlin was really doing. When we opened, there was only one other shop that had nitro in the city. And so we tried to also do it, and then tried to do it with tea as well.”
I won’t pretend to speak for the coffee-consuming community as a whole, but my experience with nitro coffee can be described as novel-but-blah. Nitro coffee is sort of fun, but mostly just fine—I’m a nitro skeptic. Squid’s nitro-infused tea, however, is essential. It’s like the beverage nitro coffee was supposed to be before it lost its way in the proverbial woods. It’s amazing, and the sort of thing you’d be remiss to see on a menu and pass up. The iteration I tasted was a green tea from Companion Coffee, where Plajdicko gets all the shop’s tea, with lemon and simple syrup, and had the same creamy mouthfeel of its coffee cousin, but also tasted really, really good.
“The tea worked out, and then we tried nitro lemonade,” he says. Which is also great. And while I may be hot and cold on nitro coffee, the folks over at The Barn are not. The seminal European roaster has more than a passing interest in Happy Baristas and Squid, in fact. Specialty coffee denizens the world over fawn over Ralf Rueller’s light roasts and decidedly, well, barn-like aesthetic, but where does Rueller get his nitro coffee? “From here,” Plajdicko says. “It’s a funny way. We take the beans from them and then basically give them back the same thing but in kegs.”
At the moment, all of Squid’s nitro coffees come from the Barn, and all of the Barn’s nitro coffee comes from Squid. Plajdicko experimented with some of the roaster’s filter coffees before settling on a washed Ethiopian Kochere, typically used for espresso beverages, for the Barn’s house nitro brew. But Plajdicko’s relationship with the Barn is more than pint deep. The repeat Slovak Barista Champion worked at the original Mitte location for nearly three years, spending two as head barista. It was there that he began to conceptualize what a cafe could be. After leaving the Barn and spending the next year at Silo Coffee, he was ready to start looking for his own space.
Lodr, the former owner of Prague’s Můj Sálek Kávy (or My Cup of Coffee), was figuring out his own next moves at the time, and met Plajdicko through a mutual friend at Doubleshot. “Working at the Barn gave me a lot of experience doing business in one way, and Silo gave me experience doing it another way,” Plajdicko says. “I took a bit from here and there and made up my own ideas of how I wanted to do things, to do things as I would like to have them.”
In practice, this meant being accessible to everyone who comes through the Happy Baristas doors, be they a coffee geek, tourist, or one of the 400 professionals who work in the office building around the corner. To this end, the Happy Baristas menu is a bit wacky and welcoming and large, and features items such as a coffee milkshake to go along with the standard, myriad espresso and filter coffees.
“We’re a multiroaster, so we rotate through about three European roasters every two weeks,” Plajdicko says. Among the standouts that have shown up on the Happy Baristas’ shelves are London’s Workshop Coffee, Colonna Coffee, Budapest’s Casino Mocca, Doubleshot, the Barn, Aarhus’s Great Coffee, and Denmark’s The Coffee Collective. Rounded out by constantly changing signature drinks, breakfast, brunch and lunch, and Happy Baristas has something for everyone. Which is sort of the point.
“We’re battling the image of third wave coffee shops in Europe a little bit,” Plajdicko says. “You get a little bit of the attitude, and sometimes a customer is intimidated because they’re new to this whole thing.” To him, and any of the, well, happy baristas at his shop, it doesn’t matter if a customer knows the difference between Arabica and Robusta. “We’ll have you in and serve a tasty coffee,” Plajdicko says. “And if you want to know more, we’re very happy to talk.”
Michael Light (@MichaelPLight) is a features editor at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Michael Light on Sprudge.