Five Elephant is a specialty coffee micro roastery, bakery and cafe in Berlin, Germany. Passionate about quality, their goal is to source the best coffees in the world in a way that is both socially and environmentally responsible. Five Elephant are bringing you this month’s Superlatives — Order yourself a bag here (if available still!) or sign up for the subscription. 

We sat down for a chat with co-owner and founder Kris Schackman earlier this month.

Kris grew up in a small town in Massachusetts, with a small roastery serving customers there. Not just any small roastery; this was Scott Rao’s first roastery, and the beginning standard for what Kris considered “normal”. This idea, the little town with the little roastery, was something he wanted to bring to Berlin when he opened Five Elephant in 2010. From the beginning he knew he wanted to work with farmers.

“It was important to us to do that”, Kris says. “The focus on where we find meaning in what we’re doing, was always to understand where the coffee comes from — which is sorta becoming a cliche.”

The cliche he believed came about because of problems with definitions. “This is what our big struggle is these days, because we can’t even talk about sustainability anymore — the idea of sustainability — where people are trying to define something that’s not definable. It’s impossible to put any kind of meaning into sustainability. You can talk about what you can do as a person or as a company to reduce your impact (but) you can’t make a claim that something is sustainable.”

Kris takes a different path, one where he prefers to lead by example, letting his actions speak on sustainability instead. “End of the day you’re selling a product, and people get an idea or a sense of what you do as a company, as a person. They pick up on it whether or not you make a trademark or slogan.”

Coffee Collective were the first company to show Kris how this idea can be translated from words to actions. They were the first company he knew of that made a sacrifice to buy a coffee that was not the highest quality they could have bought that year. Rather it was a co-op in Ethiopia, one they had been supporting for a number of years. And frankly, says Kris, the coffee was no good. Kris thought to himself “how can a company that’s a leader in the field within Europe put out a coffee that’s poor?”

It wasn’t until the following year, as the owner of his own company in Five Elephant, that he was faced with the same decision. He had worked with a co-op in Kenya for three years, been to dinners and talks with the community and it’s leaders. The coffee that third year though was just terrible. “Suddenly you’re faced with this question: do I buy this coffee, and how do I market it when it’s not the best you’ve had?”

That’s a question he directly relates to quality. How is it defined? Is it how the coffee cups? Is it how this coffee compares to other coffees? Is there a quality you can taste, that we don’t know how to measure?

With the Obatã, Kris felt there was another quality that needed to be added to the table, held up as guide — social quality. In Brazil with the Obatã, Kris says,  you see the price that should be paid for quality coffee. Growing natural coffee is expensive, and the farmer João Hamilton had plowed an intensive amount of work into using science and other methods to create better beans. He paid a very high minimum wage for anyone who worked on the farm, and he had forged a strong relationship with Kris, for example receiving birthing advice from him two years ago.

“Maybe I was raised by a bunch of hippies”, Kris says. “But you feel the energy, the hands that go into the coffee. You may not taste it in the cup — but you taste it in the coffee.”

With such a personal investment in the idea of what quality is, Kris felt if you didn’t appreciate it, if you felt it didn’t taste good, you  were almost letting yourself down. Your own ideals and values need to be used in judging the quality of the cup too. Which is what he believed Coffee Collective did that year, with the coffee he thought was terrible. They didn’t advertise what they were doing, they just took the hit on their reputation. But in doing this they possibly kept true to their own intrinsic values of what quality is.

More lessons were to follow. Taking a chance on self-financing a container of green from Ethiopia, a critical QC procedure was missed, meaning the coffee turned up in Europe at a disastrous 13% moisture. The realities of small business meant they took the hit to their bottom line, but couldn’t travel to origin the following year. This lead to more questions for Kris. Where were their loyalties? To the farmer, the co-op? The export company?

In the end for Kris, it was about loyalty to the coffee, the farmer — not the exporter. For now Five Elephant have a small group of farmers they buy from, what would perhaps fulfil the traditional idea of direct trade. As they scale up, it might become easier to grow this group, to do more for the farmers. But as you grow larger your responsibilities grow too. With staff, you’re responsible for their livelihood, and this changed his thinking. “Coffee nerds, tools, toys — you learn to move beyond that”, he says — you’ve got staff to pay.

This meant looking after customers. “A few hundred people may read a few of the blogs we write, but that’s really not the people who are going to pay our bills.” For Kris this lead to an internal conversation: “how are we doing our best to make the best product for our customers, whether or not it’s the best product we can create in the roastery environment with special water, aligned EK’s, whatever? The goal should be to satisfy customers.”

“What is your motivation for roasting?” He continues. “Not to feel better about yourself, it’s to stand behind what we want to do.” Kris stops here and mentions Starbucks. The first direct trade coffee he bought for Five Elephant, from João Hamilton in Brazil, was only possible because he sold his Starbucks stock.

He definitely does not want to equate himself with Starbucks, “but one of the things I noticed as an observer is their staff are loyal. They have a great opportunity for upward mobility for management in your career. And it’s something that I think is non-existent in European cafes is this idea that you can work in specialty coffee and also have a career in specialty coffee. So that’s one thing you realise that as you’re growing, you really need to nurture people, and also on the farm level.”

Earlier Kris had made mention of trends in coffee. “There’s this cyclical trend that you can almost catch on and predict. But you get to the point where you need to find other reasons for doing what you’re doing. You find a great coffee, you freak out about it, push every year for the same coffee. But maybe what you liked last year doesn’t last the same as this year. Then after three, four, five years you think to yourself, maybe there’s something else you should be forcing on than the absolute best coffee that you can find.”

Then later: “We really are in the business of relationships, of meeting people. It’s not about the coffee. It’s about establishing meaningful relationships. Having the coffee taste great on the cupping table is perhaps an affirmation in a way that maybe we’re doing something that’s nice, and it’s a bit of a reward for it, but that’s not the ultimate reward for us.”

Kris had already shared an enormous amount of information about his roasting style, his philosophy on life, the minute details of the water he cups with. Sharing these ideas with other professionals he felt, was a good thing for pushing boundaries. Again, good tasting coffee on the cupping table was not seen as the ultimate reward. “It’s with people. And with sharing. Which means you have to share as a company and share what you do.”

“If you don’t it’s a pretty sad life. You die of something like kidney stones.”  

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