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Food and Drink

Forget the filter, flat white reignites Berlin's coffee affair

Once a desert of insipid filtered coffee and scorched milk, Germany's coffee scene has emerged from the Dark Ages. Berlin is at the cutting edge of the caffeine craze, with no drink more emblematic than the flat white.

Thomas Jefferson called it "the favorite drink of the civilized world," while the protagonist of T.S. Eliot's "Prufrock" famously measured out his life in spoons of the stuff. Coffee is the black gold that keeps the world abuzz.

Café culture has been the soul of continental Europe for centuries, from the heady Viennese coffee houses to the pungent pleasure-seeking sanctuaries of Sartre and Verlaine on Paris' Boulevard St. Germain.

Over the past few decades, the global café scene has undergone a seismic transformation. No longer does your brew simply come black or white - it can come baked, blended, bitter and bio, and that's before your barista has even touched the milk.

Cities such as Stockholm and London have led the charge in coffee's evolution here in Europe as early adopters of trends emerging from café culture's global nerve centers such as Melbourne and New York.

Out of the depths

So how does Berlin fare? "Terrible," according to Shannon Campbell, owner of The Dairy café in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg district.

While whipping up two espressos and a perfectly ornate flat white, he recalled the local coffee scene when he first arrived from New Zealand 12 years ago: "Absolutely shocking! There was literally nothing until like five or six years ago. What was on offer was a really rough grind so they could get it through the heads quicker and fill the glass up with lots of basically filtered coffee."

Espresso dripping into a cup, Copyright: DW/J. Tompkin

Pre-warming the cup is a must

When it came to the milk, the status was equally dreadful, continued Campbell. "Then they'd take some heat-treated milk and steam the shit out of it until it burned and was almost curdled. And then they'd have this really stiff foam, like you'd have in shampoo. It would look like that, and it kind of tasted like that!"

Letting off some steam

They say you can tell a person by the coffee they drink. So what does that say about Berlin, a city perceived as one of most progressive capitals in the world? The truth is, at least when it comes to coffee, Berlin was until recently a virtual wasteland - a grim abyss of stale beans and seared milk, of dreary drip brew and morbid Milchkaffee.

Thankfully today, the vista couldn't be more transformed: Berlin's artisan coffee scene is booming, with local roasters, regular cupping events and a cache of cafés that would give Seattle a run for its beans. Saunter down any street from Kreuzberg to Mitte and it's impossible to dodge the mind-boggling array of coffee styles on offer, from ristrettos to piccolos, melloccinos to macchiatos.

But no style has become more emblematic of Berlin's café culture evolution than the flat white. The drink's so symbolic of metro savvy that economists in England have named an entire economic sector after it: the Flat White Economy refers to young creative types with MacBooks and trendy hairdos.

Storm in a cappuccino cup

Menu at a coffee showing cappucino, flat white, latte macchiato, etc, Copyright: DW/J. Tompkin

Every coffee has its place, says café owner Campbell

So what exactly is the flat white and what makes it so unique? Originating from Australia and New Zealand in the 1980s, the flat white was born from a marriage of tastes - the union of immigrant Italian tradition and an Anglophone love of anything creamy.

To make the perfect flat white, you need to start with the basics of the so-called Third Wave coffee movement - good equipment, great beans and extensive knowhow. You'll need a pre-warmed cup, which keeps the espresso from turning bitter, and some premium quality milk. The flat white is all about the treatment of the milk: Steam it too quickly and you'll wind up with an archaic coffee catastrophe.

The milk in a flat white isn't so much frothed as gently warmed to around 70 degrees Celsius (160 degrees Fahrenheit). It is gradually heated until the texture gleams with millions of tiny bubbles, better known in the trade as microfoam. This is the fundamental difference between a flat white and a cappuccino - the cappuccino has big, airy bubbles while the flat white has tiny, creamy and oh-so-sublime microfoam.

Café owner Shannon Campbell in his café, The Dairy in Berlin, Copyright: DW/J. Tompkin

Shannon Campbell has witnessed a coffee evolution since arriving in Berlin 12 years ago

Equally important, the espresso - preferably two shots for the extra kick - and the milk need to be harmonious and perfectly integrated into one creamy and delicious brew with no separation between milk, coffee and water. In its essence, the flat white is the supreme harmony between coffee and milk, an emblem of both barista aptitude and coffee-drinker sophistication.

Like all new trends, not everyone is doing it right.

A symbol of craftsmanship

Ralf Berlit was one of the first to bring the flat white to Berlin through his pioneering No Fire No Glory coffee bar. As well as being a founding member of the Berlin Coffee Society and a member of the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe, Berlit is also a guiding force in the German Barista Camp. The event is aimed at ending Germany's reliance on imported baristas as well as changing the way Germans think about their coffee, from where the beans are sourced to how they are treated and presented.

"A good barista should have a good theoretical knowledge about coffee farming," Berlit explained over a croissant. "A basic understanding of coffee roasting and coffee trading and, of course, being an absolute specialist in producing coffee drinks - from pulling espresso shots to adjusting the machines and dialing in the coffee, making good pour-over coffees. And doing good service (…) is also very important."

Café owner Ralf Berlin in his café, No Fire No Glory in Berlin, Copyright: DW/J. Tompkin

Ralf Berlit is reshaping the way Germany views its brew

"It used to be that an artisan coffee shop would make flat whites and it more represents artisanal respect for coffee and someone making the effort," Campbell concluded, steaming a jug of milk. "It's more like a poster child of that aspect of coffee culture. Every coffee's got its place and they all have what's good about them, but I think that's [the Flat White's] thing - it's got that poster boy thing about it."

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