Natalie Holmes drops in to her neighbourhood cafe to find out what all the fuss is about…
I walk through the door of Five Elephant exactly one year after it opened – but there appears to be no time for birthday celebrations.
Out front, customers mill about or sit absorbed in laptop land. Just beyond them, a roasting machine is working its magic, surrounded by a crew of human assistants overseen by co-owner Kris. In the background, Kris’ partner Sophie prepares a generous batch of cakes for the weekend rush.
Despite these bustling scenes of activity in what is essentially quite a small space, the first impression is overwhelmingly olfactory, a hit of coffee delivered directly to the nose like a gentle punch. The roaster, Kris explains, was imported from Idaho in his native US, where by a stroke of luck he was trained one-on-one by the CEO of the famous supplier, Dietrich.
This incredibly complicated process required painstaking attention to detail: each bean has its own idiosyncrasies and there is no set formula to follow. Perfection lies somewhere between art and science, graft and graphs. But the end result is coffee that’s by far the best in the neighbourhood and has quickly become the talk of the town.
And while the machine plays no small part in Five Elephant’s success (Berlin has scandalously few in-house roasters) the true stars of the story, as always, are the people and their passions.
Sophie, the co-founder, is almost single handedly responsible for the baked goods on offer in this simple but dedicated cafe.
Having tasted the Philadelphia cheesecake, I can relate to the depth of emotion it sparks; Sophie has received requests for hugs from strangers and even marriage proposals on the basis of her prodigious patisserie talents.
Speaking of nuptials, perhaps the most unique aspect of the Five Elephant enterprise is its sincere commitment to remarrying product and consumer. As a cartophile I was captivated by the giant wall maps depicting Africa, South and Central America, and Indonesia, thinking them a wonderfully fitting design decision.
But the maps are more than that: they’re a nod to ethics as well as aesthetics, part of a conscious effort to put the journey of this precious commodity into perspective. The owners strive to know exactly where each and every batch of coffee comes from even though this is a frustrating impossibility for a business of their size.
As connoisseurs may know, prices of coffee spiked in December 2010, a cause of both stock market speculation and a warming climate forcing growers further uphill, exacerbating the situation for farmers and all those committed to transparency and fair trade across the supply chain.
The good news is that Kris and Sophie have recently contracted their first micro-lot of direct trade coffee from a sustainable farming project in Brazil. They plan to release details about the farmers and openly account for every penny.
There is even talk, thanks to technological advances in grower countries, of introducing customers and farmers via Skype during after-hours events.
While you can’t taste abstract concepts like humanity or humility, these ingredients are as essential as all the others in the popularity and importance of this place.
True, some complain about its location in a lesser-known pocket of east Kreuzberg; but this was actually a canny move, and not just because I happen to live next door, since the area – increasingly desirable but still affordable – is on the cusp of a new phase and Five Elephant represents a new kind of gentrification that promotes sustainability and provides an opportunity for the community to consume quality products ethically.
Like the roasting of the beans, the formula of Five Elephant’s popularity is a fine balance of people and product, passion and action, where the key to continued success is trial and error with a healthy dose of perseverance. Fortunately for us quality caffeine addicts, Kris and Sophie are modest masters of this abstract algebra.
Reichenberger Strasse 101
T 030 960 815 27
Open: Mon-Fri 8:30 – 19, Sat-Sun 10 – 19