St. Oberholz Celebrates a Decade of Caffeinating

Whether you’re the kind of person who enjoys mulling over the complexities of a single origin high quality blend or if you just love the heart your barista draws in your morning flat white, it’s safe to say that the third wave coffee scene has made its way into Berliners everyday lives. Gone are the days when 1€ coffees reigned and were welcomed with open arms. Boasting ten years under their belt, few cafes understand the development of Berliners’ coffee palate better than the team at St. Oberholz. They pride themselves on working with their customers rather than preaching to them about this. Holding claim to being the fuel behind start-up giants like SoundCloud and the company has an impressive history to look back on. They also have a bright future ahead with cafes and co-working spaces at Helmholtz Platz, Rosenthaler Platz and a third place opening on Zehdenicker Straße this week. This impressive rap sheet has left them fully immersed in Berlin’s coffee scene.

Head barista Mathew Charles Johnson in action.

Head barista Mathew Charles Johnson moved to Berlin from London with a third wave background. He joined St. Oberholz two years ago and has seen them move from a traditional Italian style into this third wave of coffee. He says that while the scene is far behind places like America, United Kingdom and Australia, Berlin’s third wave scene is burgeoning nicely.

‘It has only really started kicking off in the last few years and I think you’ll find now that most places have some kind of quality rating and some kind of standards’ Mathew said.

This has gone hand in hand with the gentrification of Berlin as it has accustomed its resident to a new level of quality in coffee.

‘I think it’s a good signal for the gentrification of Berlin as well, like it is with any city that gentrifies you’ll see the coffee shops start booming and become more equipped for the needs of people demanding a higher quality; it becomes more artisan’ Mathew said.

This demand has solidified the third wave scene as the future, allowing it to become a new calling card for Berlin.

‘A few places got in there early and now most places are getting on board, you’ll be left behind if you don’t’ Mathew said.

For the team at St. Oberholz the need to adopt this method was no different.

‘It was really only since last May that they started thinking seriously about changing it. They changed the coffee bean suppliers to local roasters Bonanza and really looked into buying new machines and started revamping everything and relaunching the business into the third wave coffee scene because they saw that it was the future’ Mathew said.

‘Now I see us making as good espresso as any other place in Berlin…I don’t think it’s any better in some of the really modern places compared to what we’re doing here which is a little bit more approachable’ he said.

Taking this step into the future and immersing themselves in the third wave scene has been a big step for St. Oberholz and along the way they’ve taken care not to alienate any of their customers. This meant picking the perfect beans to introduce the Oberholz regulars to this new style of coffee.

‘For espresso we didn’t want to scare off the customer with anything too sudden of a change, particularly from going from a dark roast Italian style to go straight to a third wave single origin state with really high acidity is actually really disconcerting for someone who isn’t expecting that. So we’ve got a middle ground, we’re using a 80/20 blend of Indonesian Sumatra and Ethiopian, it offers people a higher quality and yet enables them not to feel like they’re ignorant about what we’re doing’ Mathew said.

Koulla Louca and Ansgar Oberholz.

‘As for filter coffee we’re using a really intense and jammy Ethiopian Konga Sedie and I think it’s something that people don’t expect. It tastes really sweet and is perfect when it’s black and shows our customers an alternative of what they’d normally get. It starts developing people’s palates in a subtle way so when we offer something different and more complex I think they will appreciate it much more.’

Having a clear and open dialogue with their customers has always been at the heart of St. Oberholz’s ethos and it is something that owners Ansgar Oberholz and Koulla Louca are proud of.

‘We were always committed to providing the highest quality possible and we’re excited to move in this new direction, however we had to make sure we were never talking down to our customers or turning them away’ Ansgar said.

For St. Oberholz this meant ensuring the experience of their cafés in Helmholtz Platz and Rosenthaler Platz remained true to their second wave roots. Leaving them room to embrace the third wave style in their third café opening in Zehdenicker Straße.

‘The experience we want to give our customers does vary between our two and soon to be three cafes. Here at St. Oberholz in Rosenthaler Platz it’s about producing the highest quality possible for such a high volume café. Here we are making a lot more coffee than most of the top third wave places. I don’t think you’ll find another place in Berlin with this high of a turnover and level of quality’ Mathew said.

‘Ultimately with the new place there’s going to be a lot more emphasis on the coffee bean itself and less so on the café. I think that’s what you get at our places in Rosenthaler Platz and Helmholtz Platz, you get that second wave café experience with sitting around all day and using the Internet and I think that’s great and it’s apart of it as it’s a co-working space as well’ he said.

The revamping of the St. Oberholz brand and the excitement of launching themselves further into the third wave scene with their new café has been in line with with the milestone of celebrating their 10th anniversary. This mixture of present and past provokes a lot of nostalgia for Ansgar and Koulla as they look back on the past decade.

‘If you were to look back over old photos of the place in Rosenthaler Platz you wouldn’t believe it was the same place. It looks so different and so undeveloped that if you saw pictures you would assume it was the beginning of the 90s after the wall fell’ Ansgar said.

‘There were no shops, no other gastronomy, only the tram and Donner and a lot of galleries’ Koulla said.

‘It’s nice to look back, particularly because Berlin is moving so fast and the past decade has flown by’ Ansgar said.

However, as all great stories go, they certainly didn’t set out to create the extensive business you’ll find today, instead they allowed the brand to develop organically.

‘The story goes that Koulla was managing a café and I had just left my job at an advertising agency and opening a restaurant had always been a dream of mine. As Koulla and I had been friends for 28 years I approached her with the idea. The landlord for the café she was working for had asked Koulla before if she would consider opening a café there. When we saw it we thought it was too large and too risky but then we started to research and found out the history of the building and this is what excited us’ Ansgar said.

The space in Rosenthaler Platz has a rich history of innovative owners who embraced fresh ideas. The building was established by two Barvian brothers aiming to open their ninth beer hall in Berlin and ended up being the first restaurant chain in Europe.

Building in 1920s.
In the 1920s the beer hall became a prominent venue for Berlin’s art and cultural avant-garde scene. Alfred Döblin, author of the novel Berlin Alexanderplatz furthered its popularity by mentioning it in several scene of the iconic Berlin novel. During this time the brothers started giving away small pieces of bread with meals and even beer. For Ansgar and Koulla it is this anecdote that resonates most with them. As this unique point of history can still be found within the building today, with many people comparing Oberholz’s free WiFi and power outlets to those pieces of bread.

Furthermore Ansgar muses that they are still housing the bohemians and creative’s of Berlin today.

‘We house the digital bohemians, because in many ways coming to Berlin to found a start-up is the new artistry and this is what St. Oberholz is about, that we have fostered the history of the building and brought this spirit in our own way into the present’ Ansgar said.

This unique sentiment of the past and present meeting within the walls of Oberholz has certainly helped shape the company’s energy. They are proud of the buildings homage and the spirit that dwells there.

‘WiFi and the power is just a small part of it, more so it’s the place that you’re in and the spirit that you feel there. The feeling that you’re not alone and that you are empowered to do things that you might not be able to at home in your kitchen or Starbucks’ Ansgar said

 ‘At the end of the day our unique selling point is not WiFi or power but the people and the special spirit that we have in Oberholz. People really feel this power and want to start something. This is in the end our unique selling point, you cannot touch it or put it in a box but it’s there’ Ansgar said.

Barista Lily.

This energy was something that could be clearly felt as the gang at St. Oberholz celebrated their tenth anniversary last week. The evening bellowed with laughter and a sense of openness and community filled the air. The juxtaposition of the past with the embrace of the future gives the St. Oberholz brand a buzz that transcends even their delicious cups of coffee.

By Alice Dundon

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