As Sprudge.com expands its content model worldwide, we're proud to introduce this first feature from Berlin-based contributor Cory Andreen. Berlin's cafe scene is white-hot, and only getting bigger; expect more Berlin coverage on Sprudge in the coming weeks and months. Up first, a look at one of the city's best independent roasters.
Five Elephant is not the most centrally located cafe in Berlin. Nestled in a neighborhood where too cool for school Kreuzberg borders the outlying Bezirk (or district) of Treptow, it is most expeditiously reached by bike or the M29 Bus. On a nice day, however, you should go by foot; follow the treelined cobblestones of Reichenberger Straße as it radiates from Kottbusser Tor, and it will deliver you to the doorstep of Five Elephant, home to some of Berlin's finest coffee and cakes.
The interior consists mainly of handmade, minimalistic steel and hardwood furniture which sits as if suspended between the Gründerzeit ceiling moldings and gorgeous herringbone parquetry. On the bar are two beefy Mazzer Robur-E grinders and a 3-group La Marzocco Strada with custom wooden accents. Educational wall charts from the mid 20th century frame the room in muted colors with depictions of coffee growing regions. Continue through a doorway past the bar and you'll find a Diedrich coffee roaster flanked by sacks of green coffee. This sits as if watching guard over the cake bakery in the back, which is visible through a wall of windows.
To be clear, Five Elephant is a cake shop. At least that was the idea: a cake shop first, with a bit of coffee roasting to support the sweets. These sweets were already being produced for a handful of cafes by baker Sophie Weigensamer when she met Kris Shackman, coffee enthusiast. The night of their meeting was in the sparkling, piquant fall of 2008; Mr. Shackman pitched woo to Ms. Weigensamer outside a cocktail bar by binding their legs together with a bike lock. It took a year to come up with the idea of combining her cake baking with a coffee roastery in a single brick and mortar concept, but Kris had been cultivating an interest in coffee since college. At the school of the same name in Amherst, Massachusetts, he spent many hours observing the eponymous proprietor of Rao's Coffee. This sparked an interest which would mature many years later through regular visits to Brooklyn's Gorilla Coffee, to whom Kris eventually looked for guidance when purchasing a roaster and preparing to use it.
The only experience Kris had working with coffee prior to opening shop was three days spent with Stephan Diedrich, the inventor and manufacturer of his IR-5 roaster, for a crash course in everything from machine maintenance to roasting and cupping. Here he first learned about “terroir flavor beyond roast”, and received an education in cupping that greatly shaped his approach to specialty coffee. Still, the flavor-over-theory mantra Five Elephant advocates today took a little time to gain traction. The first six months they were open, Mr. Shackman was primarily purchasing Indonesian coffees and roasting them well into second crack.
Their first “sourcing trip” was a mission to green coffee importers InterAmerican in Hamburg, with the goal of buying certified coffees. Alongside the Indonesians, Kris and Sophie were only interested in certifications: organic, Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, Utz, etc. Even the Brazilian coffee that was their favorite of everything tasted that day was left behind, due to its lack of certified paperwork. After a year of sourcing similar coffees from various distributors, however, it was time for a change. Research into Fair Trade International had diminished its appeal and the quality from importers they worked with varied drastically. Meanwhile, Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza, or “FAF” for short, popped up on their radar thanks to Andreas Felsen at Quijote Kaffee in Hamburg. One thing led to another and, after an encouraging Skype session with the Croces at FAF, Kris found himself cashing in his Starbucks stock (not a joke) for his first 14 bags of directly purchased coffee. As Mr. Stackman told me, the quality was “drastically better than [coffee from] distributors” and even “felt grown for you specifically.” This experience would changed the way they source coffee for Five Elephant.
Justin Miles, former green buyer and trainer at Melbourne's Seven Seeds, landed in Berlin around the same time as the first shipment from FAF. He joined the team nearly immediately, bringing enough experience and drive to ensure success in the new sourcing endevours. Today, everything purchased by Five Elephant from the Americas is done so directly. This has led to fast growing relationships with people like the Croce family and dos Santos brothers from FAF, the Bonillas of Benefício Don Mayo in Costa Rica and Andres Salaveria of JASAL in El Salvador. For African coffees they work only with importers who maintain a certain standard of traceability, and for the past year have dealt almost exclusively with Tim Wendelboe and Morten Wennersgaard's Nordic Approach.
Without a doubt, Kris and Sophie have made impressive strides in both sourcing and quality – especially for a relatively small roasting operation in a country where Direct Trade remains largely unexplored territory. But don't forget the cake, especially the cheescake. Sophie Weigensamer's take on a classic American cheesecake contains delicious multitudes; in its narrative, we find a near-tribal familial synthesis of Sophie's cake baking prowess and a recipe Kris's grandmother spent 60 years refining, together with numerous other Philadelphia area women at the Beachcomber Swim Club. Recently, on a relatively quiet Thursday evening at Kreuzberg's Markthalle IX, they sold 15 of these cheesecakes, piece by piece, in less than 3 hours. It is the best cheesecake that I have ever tasted.
A new deliviery van this spring was the first indicator of plans looking to the future. A new, larger roasting space was recently announced and is slated to be in use before the end of summer 2013. Rumors of new roaster are already flying as Kris estimates the IR-5 to be running 8 hours a day, 5 days a week by the end of the year. I, for one, can't wait to see where another 3 years tirelessly pursuing quality takes them.
Coffees roasted by Five Elephant are not only available at their own shop (and mine), but also at great cafes across Berlin, such as Companion Coffee, Westberlin, Treibholz, Hermann & Eike, and No Fire, No Glory. (Not to mention Kooka Boora in Paris and Cafe La Ruina in Poznan, Poland.) Five Elephant coffee is also available worldwide via mail order. The cheesecake, unfortunately, is a little harder to come by.
Original photography by Phil Dera for Sprudge.com.