Ralf Rüller's purist ideals are driving away young couples and parents.
Ralf Rüller wanted to create a sacred ground for coffee connoisseurs in the heart of Berlin, somewhere devotees of the bean could sip their brews free from distraction.
This purist – not to say militant – approach to coffee-drinking extended to a long list of rules at his brew bar, the Barn Roastery, including a ban on extra milk, spoons, laptops, dogs, mobile phone ringtones, loud phone calls and “media” (apart from newspapers). Sugar is strongly discouraged. But the rule that has provoked the most heated reaction is Rüller’s decision to prohibit pushchairs and prams.
“Coffee Nazis, choke on this swill” and “totalitarian coffee regime” are just two of the many messages of protest Rüller received after he installed a stone bollard – complete with a picture of a pram with a red line through it – in the doorway of his coffeehouse in the northern Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg. (The bollard is moved for wheelchairs.)
Marianne Burket-Eulitz, a family policy expert for the Green party, called Rüller’s attempts to keep prams out “a socially incorrect affront to families”.
But the former actor-turned-barista is unapologetic, upset only that his brews – which are prepared with the delicacy and attention worthy of a Japanese tea ceremony – are not receiving the attention he believes they deserve.
“People should listen to their senses when they drink a cup of coffee. Just as we take care of the coffee bean from crop to cup, we also take care of the people who come in here to drink it,” he argues, pointing to customers chatting, reading newspapers or gazing at the goings-on on the bustling Schönhauser Allee.
Rüller’s young team demonstrate the brewing process to customers, measuring temperatures, weights, checking aromas, “taming” froth, and timing to a second the silky brown creations magicked out of vacuum presses and syphons.
The staff, who come from as far afield as Australia and Mexico, include Rob MacDonald, a dairy farmer from Australia who claims his tastebuds are so refined he can tell what a cow has eaten from the flavour of its milk. “I love this artistic approach to coffee,” says the 27-year-old, who as well as training to be a barista is – perhaps inevitably – learning to play the jazz xylophone.
Rüller’s buggy ban comes amid an increasingly bitter turf war between two groups of locals. Prenzlauer Berg is famous for its high concentration of young families but over the past few years, tensions have mounted between these younger incomers and older, often poorer, long-term residents – many of whom feel squeezed out of the now gentrified district, which once lay ignored and crumbling in the communist east of the city.
Ill-feeling has shown itself in a string of incidents including arson attacks on pushchairs and an anonymous campaign of stickers and posters depicting babies with red lines through them. Rüller says he is caught in the middle. “I never meant to get involved in the social politics when I opened my coffee bar. I’m certainly not ‘kinderfeindlich‘ [against children],” he insists. “This isn’t about discrimination, it’s about specialisation – the only way for me to survive as a small entrepreneur against big coffee chains, whose margins are much higher, is to narrow what we do and do it better.”
That includes such time-intensive procedures as grinding fresh coffee for each cup, measuring the brewing ratio of water to coffee, pressure profiling, and purifying the water. He holds public “cuppings” (tastings) once a week. He has also signed an agreement with his bean supplier, Square Mile of London, “that I will never serve a mediocre cup of coffee”.
He is the first to call himself a geek, and takes comfort from the fact that support for his coffee shrine has been just as strong as the opposition. “Good move, dude! You’re setting an example that hopefully will be followed by many before long. Moreover, I’ve never met a toddler who liked coffee anyway,” wrote one fan on The Barn’s Facebook page.
Some young mothers have also expressed their appreciation at his pushchair ban. “There’s space enough here to fit in 20 prams,” says Anne Rech, 36, a sales manager watching her cup of washed El-Salvador Kilimanjaro being carefully prepared while, strapped to her in a carrier, her nine-month-old daughter, Philippa, gurgles quietly. “But why should they? There are plenty of dedicated kinder cafes people can go to if they want their kids to run around.
“German coffee can be horrible, so the more places dedicated to improving coffee that open up, the better.”
Before moving back to Berlin several years ago, Rüller worked as an actor in London where he often played Nazi soldiers in British TV war dramas. He says it feels as if he has been cast as the Nazi in his own coffeehouse drama.
Though initially hurt by attempts on Twitter and Facebook to label him the “Soup Nazi” – a reference to the infamous soup-stand owner in the US sitcom Seinfeld who demands of his patrons that they abide by a strict set of rules, he laughs as he suggests the comparison is not so far off the mark. “Like him, I’m incredibly proud of my product and want people to respect it,” he says.