Founded in 2009 by friends Martin Elwert, Robert Bach and Moritz Waldstein-Wartenberg, Coffee Circle connects farmers and consumers in a way that has never before existed. The trio have created an understanding of coffee quality, underlining the importance of coffee in the growing countries and revealing the journey that the coffee has taken to arrive in your cup. And for every kilogram sold, Coffee Circle gives one Euro back to development projects at the cooperatives in Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee. Based in Berlin Wedding, Coffee Circle is known for producing one of the best hand-picked premium coffees in town. A truly impressive story, especially if one considers that coffee actually wasn’t the starting point of their journey.
The idea of Coffee Circle was born in summer 2009. Tell us more about it.
Martin: We took a sabbatical from work and went to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, to help open up a school for orphan girls. It didn´t take long until we fell in love with the country, the people and their special way of celebrating the enjoyment of coffee, which was present no matter where we went. Coffee in Addis Ababa is an integral part of people's lives. Nearly every house has its own drying bed to dry fresh coffee cherries under the Ethiopian sun. We learned that Ethiopia is known for being the cradle of coffee. But still, coffee farmers are often in economic trouble. Like in many other countries, the purchase price for Ethiopian coffee is based on the low prices in the global market. In countries like Brazil, Vietnam or Indonesia, most of the coffee is cultivated on huge plantations and harvested by machines, with an end result of low quality beans and low prices. Not so in Ethiopia. It is one of the few countries where coffee still grows wild and where the coffee quality is outstanding. However, the farmers are not even paid a living wage. Inspired by the Ethiopian coffee culture and motivated to make a significant change, Coffee Circle was born. A combination of extraordinary coffee with transparent and direct help.
"With the purchase of one kilogram of coffee,
you can choose to support any project and learn
exactly where the coffee comes from."
Over seven years later, you run your own coffee roastery in Berlin Wedding and produce one of the best organic coffees in town. You’ve also developed a new way of trading to connect producers and consumers in a direct and transparent way. How does that work?
Martin: We buy the coffee directly from the cooperatives and not on an anonymous coffee stock exchange. To understand this, you need to know that cooperatives function like a farmers´ association. In some regions there are up to 800 farmers, in others only 30. The farmers cultivate coffee in private gardens and bring the picked coffee cherries to the cooperatives, where the seeds get removed. The farmers get paid once they deliver the coffee cherries, as well as when the coffee beans get sold further to the Union. This is where Coffee Circle purchases its coffee beans. We negotiate directly with the Union but are also present in the cooperatives on site. The coffee prices are defined by a common agreement between the cooperatives and the Union, based on the coffee quality. Whereas, in contrast, conventional coffee is defined by a commodities exchange, where the prices of coffee, often a blend of different varieties from different regions, change every minute.
It´s our mission to sell the best coffee, so we need to ensure traceability and transparency during the entire process. And we want to give something back to the people. With every kilogram of coffee that we sell, we invest one Euro in development projects in the cooperatives. We sit down with the farmers and their families, and together we define the projects according to their needs. Once they´re set, we provide information about them on our homepage. With the purchase of one kilogram of coffee, you can choose to support any project and learn exactly where the coffee comes from.
"Our direct trading approach detaches producers
from the unpredictable world market trading system."
Tell us more about your projects.
Martin: Our very first project focused on providing teaching material to several schools in Ethiopia, followed by the construction of a well, together with the community members. We also built a school in Ilketunjo in 2014 and started to cooperate with Welthungerhilfe in 2015. Our first common project provided general knowledge in the field of hygiene and access to safe and clean drinking water to 19.000 people in the Jimma zone, including the Mana and Seka Chekorsa districts. Not all charity organizations start projects that actually help. More than once we heard about projects where charity organizations built sanitary facilities without offering courses in how to use them. Some also built schools without prior approval from the government, which meant that the schools never got used.
Your coffee is traded under fair conditions. Can you explain what it means?
Martin: Most of the coffees we source are certified organic and, if they do not have the official certification, we then pay high attention to sustainable growing and trading conditions. As mentioned earlier, our direct trading approach detaches producers from the unpredictable world market trading system. We pay the farmers premium prices for producing high-quality coffee. This also encourages them to keep their coffee standards high. The organic growing conditions matter to us, since sustainable production will ensure that the environment and soils will be secured and not drained. This is important, as the soil and environment is the foundation for the future of the farmers.
"Big coffee companies often optimize their production with a faster roasting process. In many cases the beans are literally burned, leaving not more than roast flavor."
Child labor is widespread in coffee cultivation. How does Coffee Circle act against this problem?
Martin: According to the experience we’ve gained over the past seven years, child labor actually doesn´t seem to be an issue. On all of our trips, we never encountered any kind of child labor. Farmers, NGOs and exporters informed us that in smallholder farming, child labor isn´t common. We do our very best to make sure there´s no child labor. Therefore, we maintain close contact to the cooperatives.
Are there some things to remember when buying coffee?
Martin: There are some basic rules. Buy coffee in whole beans and search for a roasting date on the packaging to ensure that you’re buying freshly roasted beans. You´ll not find any roasting date on supermarket coffees. These kinds of coffee are stored for a long period of time. Also, read about the roasting method as it determines the way the coffee tastes. All of our coffees are carefully drum-roasted, which is a very slow roasting method. Big coffee companies often optimize their production with a faster roasting process. In many cases the beans are literally burned, leaving not more than roast flavor. The short roasting time can´t develop the coffees’ full range of aromatic components, while creating unwelcome acidity in the bean. As a result, the coffees can taste sour, causing your stomach to ache. Each coffee is different and requires different roasting profiles. Also, check if the packaging of the coffee has an aroma valve. It´s a great tool to maximize freshness by allowing freshly roasted coffee to degas in the package.
Any tips on how to make the perfect cup of coffee?
Martin: To guarantee the taste of your coffee, I advise you to not decant your beans but instead keep them in the original packaging. Also, don´t put your coffee in the fridge, unless you want it to taste like onion, cheese or anything else stored in there. Start with grinding the amount of coffee beans you need. We suggest using 60 g of coffee per one liter of water. Coffee needs around 94-96 degrees to correctly extract desirable flavors. So boil your water and let it stand for a minute. Pour hot water onto the paper filter to remove papery flavors, and start brewing your coffee. Wait around 30 seconds for the coffee to bloom, before adding the remaining water in circular motions. Let it drip through the filter and your coffee is ready to drink.
What’s your favorite coffee shop in Berlin?
Martin: It´s hard to name only one favorite coffee shop in Berlin, since there´re so many great ones out there. I really like Ben Rahim at Hackesche Höfe though. The shop is very cozy and provides a very relaxed atmosphere in the busy and noisy city center. But also Five Elephants is a great experience. In both cases, I particularly enjoy the excellent service, the friendly staff and the great coffee that´s served there.
For more info visit the Coffee Circle website or Coffee Circle´s Instagram .
And for more FOOD stories from Germany, see our other stories from the country .
Photos: THE FRANK STORY, Coffee Circle