When I asked Douglas Weber if he could remember the first time he had specialty coffee, he fondly recalled an espresso he had in Copenhagen in 2008. Imagine how good an espresso needs to be if you’re still thinking about it 15 years later.
The Coffee Collective team is a blend of various nationalities of coffee enthusiasts, (by all accounts) true customer service professionals and national and world coffee champions – Klaus is the 2006 World Barista Champion. What bonds them, as I found out, is a set of mutual ethical values and a thirst for a quality product and great flavour. One of the company’s core values is Transparency. And to that end, the Coffee Collective have traded coffee directly from farmers since 2008.
As you’ll find out, Klaus was super easy to talk to. And super honest with his answers. With some great advice.
For those who don’t know you, please introduce yourself.
I am co-founder of Coffee Collective in Copenhagen, Denmark. Since, somewhere around 2002, I’ve been obsessed with coffee and in 2006 I won the World Barista Championship and went on to co-found our company. I find the complexity of the coffee world utterly fascinating, and I get energy from exploring the possibilities in each step of the coffee’s way from seed to cup.
You opened your first coffeeshop back in 2008. And, today, Coffee Collective is considered to be a global benchmark in specialty coffee. GQ called it one of the 5 best specialty coffee shops in the world. Douglas Weber called yours one of the best espressos he’s ever had. What are the key things you’ve focused on over the years that you think have contributed to that reputation?
From the onset of our business, we’ve been very true to our founding ideas: direct trade and long-term partnerships with farmers, being transparent about the prices we pay, focusing on quality above quantity and continuing to push ourselves to do better.
The better the green coffee we can get from farmers, the better we can roast that coffee, bringing out all the nuances and delicate aromas, and in the end that will allow us to brew something fantastic. It’s such a joy to hear people remembering coffees we’ve served them a decade later. But that experience is also the sum of many parts. It’s never one single thing or a “secret sauce” that makes a coffee experience special. It’s the result of a collective effort from planting the seed to serving the coffee, where each little link in the chain is vital to the end result. I think we’ve been good at not getting sucked down a rabbit-hole of thinking one little thing is the most important, but rather taking a holistic approach to securing quality from beginning to end.
What has, over the years, been the biggest lessons you’ve learned about running a coffee business?
There are no guarantees when starting a business and there’s no playbook for how to succeed. Some of the biggest lessons have come from failures, and have been valuable in the long run, even if they were hard at the time. We had a coffee shop in a small city, Roskilde, that we had to close after 5 months, as it just wasn’t profitable. However, we learned a great deal about what not to do, when choosing a new location and which key points always to look out for, when scouting for a possible new shop. Overall though, I think the importance of surrounding yourself with good people, who are passionate and honest in their work, and who also dares to challenge you and take responsibility for their part of the operation – I think the importance of good colleagues cannot be overestimated, and I feel super lucky to have some of the best in the world.
In the UAE, it feels like a new coffeeshop is opening every day. What’s your advice to coffeeshop owners to ensure the longevity of their business?
Be honest with yourself about what your project is, what you contribute to in a market that is already full of competitors. Why does the world need your coffee shop and what’s the purpose of it? I think having a long-term vision is key to long-term success. Surround yourself with good people that share the same values as you and build a strong team, where they are also happy to go to work every day.
Why open a bakery? Are there similarities to running a coffee business? What, if any, are the differences?
For us, the bakery was a very natural next step in our business. We already had 7 coffee shops serving buns and pastries, but we struggled to find a good supplier for all of them. With our own bakery we had an opportunity to improve the quality of the products we serve, experiment with varieties of flour and sourdough, and make sure we have the same offerings across the shops.
We took a similar approach to our coffee sourcing program for finding flour and raw ingredients, working directly with the flour mill Kornby Mølle in Denmark. Our butter is from Danish dairy farm Thise, whose milk we also use in the coffee shop. The chocolate is from award-winning chocolatier Mikkel Friis-Holm, who we also developed a Hot Chocolate with. For other items, we’ve worked with Warfair, a company that specializes in trade with war-torn regions, bringing sustainable income through trade to people that really need it. They are helping us bringing in raisins and almonds from Afghanistan for example.
The bakery is quite a different business than coffee though, and waste is an even bigger part of the puzzle in becoming profitable. It’s even more hands-on and labor demanding and the margins are really tight, when you are using super high quality ingredients.
You’ve made the point that, with your book, The Fundamentals of Excellent Coffee, you didn’t want to be preachy. And it certainly doesn’t feel that way. Does that hint at your opinion on how the industry should go about getting more people into specialty coffee?
People come to coffee shops for many different reasons and it’s important that we, as baristas, are emphatic and understand what their need at the given moment is. Some might be visiting for a social meet, others to have break from a hectic day with a soothing cup of coffee and a quiet moment, and others might be curious and would love to learn more about coffee. In any case we should invite them into our world, meet them at the level they are at, and speak to their needs. Some of our most hard-core coffee enthusiastic guests came in the door the first time not knowing much about coffee, just ordering a single latte. That was their entry into our coffee world. But if we provide a good experience, we can slowly share more and more of our knowledge and enthusiasm with them, and it becomes more and more interesting for people.
How is the Scandinavian palate different from, say Japanese & European palates? Are there differences in the palates of the Scandinavian countries? Is your book only applicable to Scandinavian consumers?
I would probably say they we are more sensitive towards (certain types of) bitterness than other regions of the world. And we appreciate acidity a lot more. Acidity plays a big element in food here, and I think the same appreciation is also found when it comes to coffee.
I find the Japanese actually have quite a similar taste, whereas southern Europe, although closer, is more different.
In our book we’re really tried to open people’s eyes to finding out what their own preferences are. That’s why we dedicated a whole chapter early in the book to tasting – learning how to taste and put words on what you experience. In the end, if you can let your taste buds guide you, and you trust your own abilities, that can provide you with a lot more answers than reading online forums or watching YouTube.
What, in your mind, are the key things to prioritize when we try to make the same quality coffee at home that we’ve had at the best coffeeshops?
The one overall most important thing is the quality of the actual coffee. You just won’t ever brew better coffee than what your raw product allows you to. Microroasters have gotten better and better over the years, but I feel there’s still a bit missing in sourcing and engaging directly with farmers, which is where you find the best qualities.
Next, I’d say water is of the utmost importance. I prefer quite low ppm water that really lets the coffee shine.
A good grinder is third, and super essential in my view. Not only to get fresh ground coffee and maximizing the flavours, but also to allow you to dial-in the coffees for your brew method and your palatte. We spend countless hours in our shops dialing in the coffees every day and making sure we’re getting the most optimal brew. That can be hard to do at home, but having the right equipment makes it a lot easier.
What are the biggest lies the specialty coffee industry tells itself? And how should those issues be rectified?
By far the biggest lie we tell ourselves as an industry is that we’re paying good prices for coffee. All roasters and coffee shops seem to be thinking they are paying good prices, but farmers across the world are getting severely underpaid. Maybe the fault is that the money customers and coffee shops are paying simply doesn’t make it back in the value chain?
It also seems that there’s an underlying notion in specialty coffee, that we will be getting more and more delicious coffee in the future, which I don’t believe to be true. As climate change is having huge effects on farming, and the young generations of farmers have better opportunities to make a living doing other things than coffee, we really risk that there will be less and less quality coffee to supply an ever-growing market demand. So, if we don’t create the financial incentive and a sustainable business model, we risk destroying our supply chain.
Do you have a favorite coffee origin, processing method & brew method? How do you make coffee at home?
Let me start with process: Washed coffees 100% for me. I’m really not a fan of naturals and enjoy honey process, pulped naturals and semi-washed mostly as espresso.
For origin: although there’s some absolute gems out there, that would be easy picks, like Takesi Geisha and Esmeralda Special, for me, the washed processed coffees from southern Ethiopia and central Kenya are my favorites. The clarity, acidity, sweetness and amazing aromas continue to amaze me. They are the most complex and interesting coffees to my taste, and I never get tired of drinking them.
I brew espresso at work, where we can have it dialed in and optimized perfectly, and at home I drink filter coffee. Either as a pour-over on the Kalita Wave or on my trusty Moccamaster (with thermos).
The industry I work in today is a far cry from my childhood dream of designing cars. What do you think you’d be doing today if you were not running Coffee Collective & Collective Bakery?
I think I would work in some kind of journalistic field, as I’m really curious by nature and love being exposed to different people, work areas, opinions and industries. Not sure exactly what, if it would be behind a camera, doing interviews or help with communication, but ,somehow, I feel that it would be in that field.
I am super glad that I found a place in coffee. Growing up and attending school I never really had a big plan for what to become, and coffee kind of happened by coincidence, which makes me feel really grateful to have found a sort of “calling”.
What does Klaus Thomsen do in his spare time?
I think a lot about coffee! But I also try to offload my mind and get my mental energy activated with something else.
I enjoy reading a lot, especially fiction like Murakami and a variety of new Danish authors. Lately the Norwegian author, Lars Mytting, has provided some amazing reading experiences, that I highly recommend. I listen a lot to music, mostly jazz but also quite a bit of electronic music ranging from Four Tet to Nils Frahm. I like to be outdoors and vacations are often spend hiking. Any place with mountains are magical to me – maybe because Denmark is so flat – and I’m lucky that my dear wife is from Iceland, so we get to go there frequently.
In general, my time off work is spent mostly with my family, and my two kids (aged 10 and 14) are really good at keeping me occupied.