Riga, Latvia, is the pearl of the Baltics. Not only is it the biggest city in the area, but it also has the greatest number of art nouveau buildings in the world. You can imagine former resident Wagner, the German composer, hunting down some caffeine as he roamed the cobbled streets with thunder in his mind. Today, the coffee situation has a different melody.
Rocket Bean Roastery, in its “up-and-coming” hip-as-all-hell neighborhood of Miera Iela, scattered with bearded men and avant-garde fashion, opened up last year on a must-watch street in the north of the city center, opposite the famous Laima chocolate factory. But to be fair, Rocket Bean was there way before any of the “cool kid” shops and galleries arrived. “We are being called the ‘most trendy’ location in Riga, but in truth, we just put all our hearts in the creation of it,” says owner Mārtiņš Dzenis. He thinks that people love the idea of an open roaster where they feel part of the production process. But they also have that Michelin star chef dishing up all kinds of wonder, which doesn’t hurt either.
Latvians love the classic “two teaspoons of pre-ground coffee in a cup” style of drinking coffee, but are slowly learning there is another way. “A lot has changed in the way people drink coffee outside their homes, because even if more cafes and coffee shops continue to open in Riga, the coffee volume in them stays the same—which means people now choose quality coffee shops over large chains or cheaper coffee,” Dzenis reveals.
Dzenis wants to best educate people—they serve espresso drinks from a customized La Marzocco Strada, and they have a brew bar where they prepare a canto of AeroPress, Chemex, V60, and syphon. “We also did a chess move, where we did not prepare any type of black coffee (besides espresso) from the espresso bar, so, no Americanos, no cafe cremas—the only way our guests would get black coffee is from the brew bar, which resulted in us serving 50% espresso drinks and 50% brewed drinks on a daily basis, which means that more and more people tried alternative brewing methods which were completely new to them,” smiles Dzenis.
And as Dzenis stresses: the focus and essence for Rocket Bean remains just coffee, with a serious quality tempo. “The specialty business in Latvia is still small, but we work with several coffee importers like Belco, Johan & Nyström, and Nordic Approach to source coffees which we find fit our quality standards,” he continues. And this is all part of the excitement of such a young coffee market—it is open and ready for development on the coffee culture front. “Trust me, the change which has happened in the last few years is amazing,” says Dzenis.
But Dzenis didn’t start out in coffee—he worked in cigarettes and then beer, but easily spotted a niche ready to be exploited. “Ten years ago, I traveled to London with friends and we noticed people enjoying coffee take-away very obviously, and for us, this was completely new because nothing like that could be seen [in] Latvia at that time,” says Dzenis. He started a coffee company with friends, Aivars Rodčenko and Ancis Romanovskis, to service the premium segment in the Baltics, and called it King Coffee Service Latvia. Rocket Bean stemmed off from there with Dzenis' friend Raimond Feil, a roasting maestro.
But what happens next as the industry expands? “We will start organizing open cuppings, seminars, trainings, etc. and the first SCAE Latvian Barista Championship—since I have the honor of being the National Coordinator, “ says Dzenis, of the inaugural 2016 competition.
“In the end, people will choose to drink whatever coffee they like, be it instant, pre-ground, or whatever, and they will believe that it will be the best coffee for them,” Dzenis confesses. “In a way, they are right, but I believe that our job is to broaden their view of what coffee can be, and give them an opportunity to discover something new, which might end up the best thing for them.”
Daniel Scheffler is an international freelance journalist whose work has appeared in T Magazine, Travel And Leisure, Monocle, Playboy, New York Magazine, The New York Times, and Butt. Read more Daniel Scheffler on Sprudge.