Meet Ralf Rüller - Interview with the owner and founder of The Barn specialty coffee
It is a great pleasure to bring to you some fantastic coffee from The Barn, this month. More so, talking to Ralf Rüller, we feel inspired to contribute more to this great community we are a part of.
We hope you enjoy your coffee and take the time to read what Ralf has to say. He is passionate and resolute in his focus for quality, equality, and change. The philosophy behind The Barn is far further reaching than a business providing coffee. This is a quest to build communities throughout the coffee production chain putting people and quality at the front.
What coffee are you drinking at the moment?
Sambewe PB. It is a great example for regions where coffee quality can be pushed if very simple farming and processing practices are looked after with more care. Tanzania is less known for quality coffees. It is often rough and not clean. Sambewe, however, tastes like silky black tea with a very lovely raspberry-cherry base and a vanilla sweetness.
What is exciting you on the coffee scene at the moment?
I see more Germans waking up towards quality. This is long overdue. If you look at Berlin, the coffee scene is set very internationally. Now it is time for Germans to embrace quality and start coffee places that are less driven by cheap blends and nice shop designs. We also see more micro roasters coming up. This is a great opportunity to elevate the market in terms of quality and pricing.
Who is exciting you on the coffee scene right now?
I am attracted by passionate people that want to improve coffee and its perception. So anybody with a true heart for coffee, I admire and want to spend time with. We see a big shift right now towards nice packaging and shop designs. If this does not come with great coffee quality, training or sustainable farm work then we move in the wrong direction. For me, specialty coffee is about making the content better. It is not a branding exercise.
What inspires you to keep going?
The people I work with. My brewers and baristas are just as important as my production roasters and the growers we work with. We started sending more staff to coffee origins for them to see how much hard work goes into our coffees. Keeping a tight bracket from farming to serving our coffees is extremely important to us.
Where do you see The Barn within the superb Berlin coffee scene?
The Barn has been pioneers and always had a strong focus on our product quality and building communities around it. I don’t think any great designer ever looked at others for ideas. You need to have a vision and keep your focus on that. Everything revolves around it. The Barn has been leading in quality from day one. We never blend or buy less than 86 points or out of season.
By sharing knowledge regarding terroir, farming, and processing we raise awareness for specialty coffee. By featuring each farm we work with and put their names on the bags, we create a strong impulse at farm level - our growers are incredibly proud to see their coffees being brewed up by more than 200 specialty coffees shops around the globe serving THE BARN coffees. All our baristas are being trained regularly and they leave notes on each coffee every shift they run. That way we follow the performance of all our coffees at many stages after roast. This information flows back into our QC and roast curves. I don’t see any other roaster applying such a close and integrated approach to their business.
How do you compare the scene in Berlin to others around the world?
Berlin has the most international coffee scene and the least local. It is also highly concentrated on one side of the city and leaves out many local parts of town. This is about to change and we are very excited about it. Considering the size and wealth that Germany has, we have a lot of unutilized potential - to capitalize on that we need more specialty coffee roasters offering their coffees at premium prices only. For that, they need to take a risk and be less focused on growing quickly.
What experience are you looking to create in your Cafes?
Communities are key - we like our shops to be specific. As much as we feel very strongly about being specialists, we like to be attractive to an audience that comes specifically to us. We are not big on signage and we like to be found by people that cannot drink their coffee anywhere else. We like a purist approach, so our customers are not overwhelmed by messages, art pieces or loud music. We want people to slow down, relax, talk to a friend or read a book. Or simply spend time with their coffees. We have a communicative approach when we deliver our coffees - we like to share some facts or stories about our coffees and we like to brew in front of our customers. The moment they see how much we care about each coffee drink, they connect closer and feel being part of the whole value chain of coffee.
Everything we do has a strong focus on coffee taste. We don’t allow milk in our hand brewed coffees and we recommend enjoying our coffees without sugar. Even though we have the best sugar in town. We don’t do extras and focus on a purist menu. We have the best vegan drink option: black, hand-brewed coffees!
Tell us the story behind opening up at the old Café Kranzler location in West Berlin.
We had been looking at West Berlin for a few years. The West was untouched by quality coffee. After the German reunification, everyone went East. It was cool, sexy, underground and creative. Kurfürs- tendamm is now waking up again and it is the busiest boulevard in Berlin. The Borough of Charlotten- burg is more grown up, has beautiful buildings and it is close to the Zoo and the many lakes Berlin has to offer.
Cafe Kranzler has always been the most important Coffeehouse in Berlin. Starting in the 1820s. Unfortunately, with the departure of quality after 1989, Cafe Kranzler slowly died down. When we were asked to bring the place back to life we put one condition: To do this in our own way and to break with all old tradition and expectations. It worked well - Cafe Kranzler now is our busiest location, hovering like a UFO on the second floor overlooking a busy high street. I love the architecture, the 360-degree view and the roof terraces we have there. We felt that this venue should be a place where people can work from their laptops, listen to light jazz music and just spend time in the space.
What associations do you want people to make with The Barn?
The Barn is all about quality content, authenticity, and belief. We strongly focus on bringing out the best in our beans to showcase each farm and micro-lot we work with. You will find that we focus less on packaging, signage or pointing out that a coffee won this competition or is labeled this and that. THE BARN is all about taste, lowering barriers and inviting people into our flavour world. Taste is subjective, and we don’t force anybody to like our coffees - we know that we operate in a niche and at a very high level. All we ask is for customers not to change us - we do the same with them. With that, I mean that we do not divert from our coffee menus. There is a reason why we don’t add a splash of cold milk to our coffees - we find it destroys the taste experience.
You started out with strong views on how coffee should be served, water quality, fresh ingredients, appropriate pricing, fairness through the chain, direct trading – how far have you cultivated these beliefs and what successes have you had in these areas?
It defines the DNA of my company. Everyone working around me strongly believes in it - or they start working for other coffee companies that have a more relaxed approach towards it. Once you have visited a coffee farm, you know that it all makes sense and that we all need to apply the same philosophy - if we want to be part of the change that is happening in coffee right now. Look at Brazil for instance: The difference between commercial farmers and the fantastic new generation of growers cannot be bigger. They are taking a big economic risk to apply quality standards to their farming. Every time I visit our partners there I ask them what message I should pass on back home. They say “tell them that Brazil now produces quality coffee!”
What are the key aspects of your vision?
We are not compromising in quality when we buy, roast or brew our coffees. All our staff is being trained, even if they already come to us operating at high levels. We serve our coffees in a professional manner and share knowledge about coffee. We always work with partners at each origin that stay in close contact with the growers we buy from. We only want to work with growers that adopt change at the farm level. In return, we pay premium prices for premium qualities. This is the only way to create sustainability at farm level - through the product. That way both ends benefit strongly: The farmers receive the returns they deserve and we receive their best coffees.
What other challenges are you keen to face and what more do you wish to achieve in this industry?
It is a very big market with many participants operating at different levels. Many coffee shops open without defining the quality level they wish to deliver. With that, I mean a consistent quality of bar and training. If we want the industry to change in a meaningful way all of us need to invest in training and we need to ensure high drink quality on the bar. To fully understand a roaster and to get the most out of their beans, you need to use them continuously. Which excludes wildly rotating roast brands week after week. At THE BARN we are looking to build long term relationships with our customers and to guide them getting the best out of our coffees.
How do you select the coffees you purchase?
The growers we work with for many years give us first pick on their best lots. We cup them blind and chose the best lots on the table - without looking at pricing. We pay higher premiums for higher qualities. Our QC team is fully calibrated and we do encourage a discussion at the cupping table. Different opinions are important - we want to have a healthy debate and then move as a team.
We do not expect our farmers to be certified. We visit them once a year and check circumstances at farm level by ourselves. Great coffee comes from a healthy plant that grows on healthy soil. With a local partner working with the growers we build sustainable, long-term relationships.
What qualities are important for you in coffee you select to roast and sell?
When we roast, we always follow the taste prop- erties of the bean. Meaning: We don’t burn acids out to make a coffee less acidic. If we want a less acidic coffee, we pick one for that reason. Balance is key and we evaluate coffees from many angles. It is important to us to have a diverse coffee portfolio in terms of taste profiles.
What contribution do you feel it is important to make close to the coffee origin?
To put your money where your mouth is. To build lasting relationships that are based on the product quality and to empower growers with knowledge and a face in the market. To make sure the premium finds its way back to the farmers and the community. Building schools, supplying health care and infrastructure are extremely important. As is equality and female rights. There is so much to do, and I feel we have not even scratched the surface.
We heard that you have some special projects in Kenya and Rwanda relating to helping local communities and the quality drive/incentives on coffee production. Tell us a bit more!
We look at each origin individually - circumstances and possibilities are quite different.
Kenya has changed the legislation so that we can now engage directly with smaller estates. We have just agreed to work with 2 single estates exclusively. We will buy their whole output that scores a minimum of 86 points - which we are sure will be all of their exportable raw materials if they apply the standards we require from them. We invest directly in their production facility and establish an investment scheme for processing improvements. With growing qualities, we also agree to upfront on the potential prices we will pay when the scoring goes up.
The two estates I have selected to work with are based on the people behind it and how I connected with them. The interest in building something special together, based around passion and product quality. And less looking at money first. That is the most important thing to me whenever I look at coffee businesses: Does the heartbeat for coffee or to build a business?
I see a lot of potential in those two estates. They are in great micro-locations with interesting weather patterns. They have a lot to improve, for instance, simple investments into water basins to sort out floaters before depulping. The depulper, channels, and fermentation tanks. We want to build new drying beds together and start shade drying. The next step would be working on naturals and fermentation ways.
Interview by Kris Thurbin