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No filter: A conversation with Vienna’s coffee expert Oliver Goetz

This post is also available in: German

Around the globe, Vienna is known for its coffee houses – but not necessarily for its coffee. While the UNESCO recognized the idiosyncrasy of the Viennese coffee house, a place where to this very day  “time and space are consumed, but only the coffee is found on the bill”, these pivotal spots of Austrian culture were not primarily sought out for their exceptional coffee then, nor are they now. But is the coffee house really all there is to coffee in Vienna? To find out more, we spoke to a key figure among its movers and shakers, grinders and roasters, Oliver Goetz of Alt Wien Kaffee, and dove straight into the black heart of the highly addictive matter that is coffee.

 

teller-story: Oliver, over the past 12 years you’ve made the transition from being a delighted customer of Alt Wien Kaffee to becoming one of the co-owners. What did it take you to get to where you are now and which advice could you give other business changers?

Oliver Goetz: It’s essential to stay open minded. A few years ago, I was visiting an artisan who made zen bows in Japan. His son spent the first 15 years learning the craft merely by watching his father, he didn’t even touch a bow at first. The comparison might seem a bit over the top, but I think it’s important to first get a good grasp of all areas. You need to see a lot, try a lot of coffee, and read. Of course, it’s also important to ask yourself: What do I want from coffee? Which area do I see myself in? Am I a roaster, producer, vendor, barista? Then, you can choose your path accordingly. But it’s essential to acquire knowledge without any prejudice. It’s the worst mistake to get started, thinking you already know everything.

teller-story: You make a good point there: That one needs to find his place in the coffee sector. Where do you see yourself? I assume you’ve also made a lot of progress over the last years.

Oliver Goetz: Yes, absolutely. In the beginning, I had to learn everything from scratch about making coffee and my business partner Christian Schrödl taught me a lot. Soon after, I started roasting. Coffee can be so many things. We offer Arabica, Robusta, even Liberica, have all certificates, all levels of processing, so anything from naturals (*meaning, the coffee berry is dried to separate the bean from the fruit pulp) to honeys (*semi-dry processing, in which the bean is dried with its parchment and mucilage, a gluey substance) or weird anaerobic fermentations (*drying process by withdrawing oxygen). I can only speak for myself: I see myself as a roaster. 95 percent of our coffees are dry, chocolatey coffees which are ideal for espressos, because that’s what our customers want. But we’ve also realized that the extremes work well, too, and that’s why we started focusing two years ago: This is a filter coffee. This one is made for an espresso, this one for the ibrik, i.e. the Turkish preparation, this one for cold brew…

teller-story: Does that mean you pick the method of preparation and then select the matching coffee for it?

Oliver Goetz: I wouldn’t put it that way. We try to focus within our offer, so every single coffee is on point. That’s easily said, but when you get to do this to the same extent as us, it requires a lot of research and testing.

teller-story: What is the biggest challenge for you as a coffee roaster?

Oliver Goetz: The most important thing for a coffee producer is to take a step back: Not to persuade the customer to pick what you like yourself, but to ask questions and listen to him instead. That’s difficult and very often the customer will give you a wrong statement. Many customers ask us for a mild coffee, but actually want some of the strongest coffees we have, Robusta. Robusta has less fruit acid, it is dryer, straight and low-key when it comes to flavour, which is interpreted as mild. But judging by the level of caffeine, it is definitely not milder, quite the contrary.

teller-story: So, there is a discrepancy between the chemical composition and the sensory perception of coffee. Would you say your customers in Vienna like to experiment, given that Vienna is considered a traditional city of coffee?

Oliver Goetz: That has changed a lot over the past few years. Now, a lot more elderly people request fruity coffees. Younger, urban people are willing to experiment and there are clear preferences. But just because someone is young doesn’t mean he’ll like a certain type of coffee. That’s why it’s so important as a roaster to take a step back to ensure the customer gets the coffee which meets his description and which also tastes good when prepared at home, so he’ll come back. And that’s what we’re trying to provide.

teller-story: In other words, you don’t try to push your customer into a certain direction or make him try different flavours.

Oliver Goetz: You need to picture it this way: We have a hawker’s tray full of experience regarding what our customers like. So, we tell them “this is what we’ve got” and they make their choice. Due to our size, our USP is that we can now allow ourselves to offer, e.g., a Liberica. If you have a small production but 40 different types, the coffee grows old on your shelves. That’s not our case since we keep the batches small.

teller-story: People often ask: “Why is the coffee in Viennese coffee houses so bad?” What is your opinion as an expert: Is Vienna more of a city of coffee houses than coffee?

Oliver Goetz: For years, we’ve been saying that the focus in Vienna lies on the architecture instead of the coffee that is being served. But that’s also subject to change. One problem is that staff doesn’t get any training. About 50 percent of a coffee is down to its preparation. With some effort, you can turn mediocre coffee into something acceptable or absolutely spoil a great coffee if you’re not paying attention to it. It requires a lot of care and also cleanliness when handling the machines, which often isn’t the case. So, the preparation is essential.

Vienna is no different from other cities in that the preparation is not good or that there is a lack of know-how and time. It doesn’t take that much time to make a coffee the right way if you’re interested in it. Another problem is that due to a lack of experience bad coffee is perceived as good coffee. Imagine someone visiting the small café round the corner for ten years, where the coffee machine doesn’t get cleaned. That person is used to this specific flavour and when the machine finally does get cleaned, won’t like the taste, will find it unfamiliar. So, we offer our customers education to counteract that.

In general, we have a lot of tourists in Vienna, who spend up to three hours in the must-see coffee houses. The owners think they need to spend as little as possible to maximize the profit, so they end up purchasing coffee which is cheap and doesn’t necessarily taste good. It’s like a dog biting its own tail. However, there are some examples in Vienna and elsewhere, where the coffee culture has changed massively. There are some high level coffee shops in Vienna which counteract this image.

teller-story: Would you say there is a certain aesthetic which is typical for Viennese coffee?

Oliver Goetz: I wouldn’t say there is such a thing as the new Viennese coffee. When you look at modern coffee, you’ll find production aiming to highlight the coffee itself everywhere: Milan, Rome, London, Oslo. The new scene in Vienna is no better than the one in Stockholm. I’m not old enough to know what coffee was like before the third wave, during the first and second wave, the pre-historic ages of the coffee scene, and whether there was something like a common roasting style in Vienna. We’ll never know what coffee truly was like a hundred years ago and, honestly, I don’t want to know. There was no processing, barely any quality control. They merely grew the coffee and shipped it in huge bags. I don’t want to know what the coffee tasted like. Surely, more bitter and straining.

teller-story: In your opinion, what makes a good coffee?

Oliver Goetz: “Good” is a tricky term. We have a flavour profile which shows us if the coffee corresponds with the set parametres. What does that mean for me? That the description we provide to our customers is correct. Of course, I could also write this on 50 coffee types: “Smells like coffee, tastes like coffee”. But that’d make it hard for the customer to make a choice, after all every coffee is nuanced. A 100 percent Robusta, which is dry and very creamy-intense, needs to be on point and can’t have any acidity. The other way round, a fruity filter coffee can’t be dry and taste of cardboard because it’s too old. Those are the requirements of our palette.
But if you’re asking “which criteria do you go by when you buy coffee”, it depends on what we want. Would we like to make a new filter coffee? Okay, so what is on offer? What are the new harvests? Then we get some samples, do some tastings. Sometimes, we do 150 tastings in three days. You get one sample and when you’re not under lockdown, you gather other roasters, start cupping (in the case of filter coffees) and grading.

teller-story: Interesting! That sounds like two worlds coexist, that of the experts and that of the consumers, and you’re the translator.

Oliver Goetz: Yes, and the expert world is great but it doesn’t help us survive. We need it in the background, but we don’t try to promote it too much. Most people want a good coffee without having to think about it too much.

teller-story: Perhaps, the consumer doesn’t necessarily have the right vocabulary.

Oliver Goetz: Consumers articulate a lot better because they are used to our variety. Once they’ve tried five different types, they go: “Not that one, it was too soft, too strong, too roasted”. The terminology is merely a matter of practice.

teller-story: When I think of the different steps it takes to make a coffee, agriculture obviously is the first step that comes to my mind. The height, climatic circumstances, but also the harvesting, storage and so on, basically, what we know as terroir. The next step is the roaster. The way I imagine it, you have certain predispositions within the coffee bean, ideally a broad palette of flavours, and your job is to decide which of these you want to highlight. So, they first step is to evaluate: How much and which flavour is present on a chemical level?

Oliver Goetz: Exactly. We do a few sample roasts and slowly fine-tune according to our experience. We have a rough idea of what we want and, of course, can control the heat and duration of the roasting precisely. But there are no two identical roasts. Every roast is different. You can try to replicate the previous roast and it often works out, but sometimes you’re not successful. As a roaster you can really highlight a lot of different aspects, if that’s what you want.

teller-story: Since Covid-19, regional products have been getting more attention from consumers. With coffee, the attribute “local” however does not apply, since it has been exported and cultivated around the world as a product of colonialism. It’s hard for us to use the term “regional” or “local” from a European point of view, apart from when we’re referring the local know-how of the roasters.

Oliver Goetz: I’d translate “regional” as “small production with a fresh final product, high quality beans”. In my opinion, consumers should pay attention to certification. Sometimes, the labels only sound good, but there are some substantial ones, like Demeter, a very strict organic certification. I think we’re still the only roasters in Austria who carry it. It’s important to say: It’s worth paying more, so coffee doesn’t stay the colonial product which it has been and still is today. None of the people cultivating coffee drive a Bugatti. It’s still extremely hard work, very poorly paid. It’s important to not only pay attention to the country of origin but to ask ourselves: Who is producing the coffee? Is it an industrial giant or someone who asks himself every single day “How should I roast my beans today? How can I meet my customers’ expectations?” To me it’s clear which path we have to take.

teller-story: Around the globe, coffee is one of the most industrialized, standardized products, a beverage we consume multiple times per day in an almost thoughtless fashion. Often, the coffee itself takes a back seat: Going for a coffee is synonymous to meeting friends, the social component overshadows the actual act of consumption. What you just said evoked the idea of terroir to me. Do you think that it is required to go back to the terroir of the product to create more appreciation for it?

Oliver Goetz: It’s appreciated and also paid for on a small scale. The mass market does not focus on it, but rather regards coffee as a convenience product with several benefits: caffeine kick, a warm beverage, pleasant, familiar flavour and also, strange enough, the relaxing qualities of coffee. But I think that’s the right path to take and the scene has developed well. Let’s see if it’s viable over the next few years. That’d be nice. Wine experienced a similar shift: 20, 30 years ago people referred to it as “red” or “white” on the mass market. And now there is this shift to natural, nude and Orange wine, and there are many variations which haven’t made it into the mass market but are an essential and elementary part of the wine scene. And in a similar way, specialty coffee also promotes innovation, whether it is regarding the cultivation, the roasting or the production.

teller-story: Could you give us an example?

Oliver Goetz: Since roasters and baristas have discovered the nuance of flavours in coffee, they seek it out more and more. So, they ask the producers: “How do you process the coffee? Alright, so you dry it in the mucilage and make a honey. How often do you turn the coffee beans during the drying process?”

teller-story: So there is an exchange between roasters and producers.

Oliver Goetz: Exactly, but only in this tiny segment. Compared to commercial coffee, which amounts to over 90% of daily consumption, that’s nothing, but it does promote innovation.

teller-story: Another difference with specialty coffee is that at some point a roast is simply sold out. That’s something you don’t have within an industrial production, where you can always buy the same brand or tabs again. The experience is very different for the customer to step back from everything being available all the time, the same at all times. I can imagine that also creates a stronger sense of appreciation.

Oliver Goetz: That’s also due to the seasonality of coffee. The harvest doesn’t take today or tomorrow but can stretch months or take place twice a year. Coffee is a product of nature and as such it is always subject to change. So, it might taste different sometimes or not be available or sold out. That’s the next step to distance yourself from the concept of the one coffee and to see the different variations, subcategories and specialties.
The reason why many of the huge coffee companies make coffee blends using multiple types of coffee is that if one of them is no longer available, they can easily substitute it without spoiling the coffee. But if you have to replace 30 percent of a blend, that’s pretty tricky. That’s the secret behind industrialized production, whether we’re talking about coffee or whisky.

teller-story: Do you notice the consequences of climate change on coffee and its cultivation yet?

Oliver Goetz: Certain varieties no longer exist due to different factors like pests. That can also be traced back to climate change: The warmer it gets, the more the pests thrive. But there have also been storms and earth slides, which have destroyed entire farms. That’s been the case and will become more frequent in the near future. Robusta is a more resistant variety and just because it has had a bad reputation, we shouldn’t disregard it. There are quite a few interesting coffees, of which one wouldn’t think that they are Robustas. That might be the future: Maybe Robusta will have a comeback. It won’t ever be Arabica, but it doesn’t have to be an overlooked stepchild either. In blind tastings with our customers, Robusta is very popular. If it’s roasted well, you get a dry, smooth coffee, sometimes quite strong, full-bodied, very creamy, which people absolutely love. We even put a 100 percent Robusta blend on the market during the lockdown and completely sold out because our customers like it so much.

teller-story: I was surprised to learn that many people from typical coffee cultivating countries don’t really consume coffee and often discover the product when they move abroad.

Oliver Goetz: That used to be the case in the big coffee countries, but has changed a lot over the last few years. Five to ten years ago, Brazil was barren land in that regard. There were barely any coffee shops, they only started opening in recent years.

teller-story: How do you get your coffee? You can’t always get it directly from the producer, I guess.

Oliver Goetz: Retailers bring the coffee to Europe and we order it. Sometimes, we opt for direct import from the producer, but in small quantities and they are usually linked to a lot of logistics. It costs a lot of time and money and is risky. Middle men always had a bad reputation but it’s great if direct traders bring roasters together like Roasters United. It needs to be practical for us, since we have so many different kinds of coffee that it’d be impossible to direct trade with so many producers. That’s why there are specialized direct traders like Eli from Coffee Quest. They have great coffees, which sold out in no time. Their job is to travel those countries, to help improve the processing on the spot, develop entire programmes and the myth of the evil middle man is rubbish, an invalid generalization. The trader has become extremely important: he gives feedback, can help in developing and then he comes to us with his hawker’s tray and we select what we want for ours.

teller-story: When it comes to the process of roasting, I picture you filling in the beans and then turning on the machine but then there’s pretty little you can change.

Oliver Goetz: You can also adapt certain parametres during the roasting process the gas, the intensity of the heat, drum speed, airflow. Otherwise, simply put, you need to reduce the temperature by turning down the gas while monitoring your curves on the computer.

teller-story: So, you adapt the temperature during the roasting process?

Oliver Goetz: Sure, but you need to establish the dynamics of the roast first. If you don’t do that, you can’t fix it later. Otherwise, you need to continuously reduce the temperature and monitor your curves. We have a hundred curves of different roasts, compare them on a sensory level and then plan our next roast based on the outcome. There is a lot of literature about the curves and the flavours of the coffee. The roast depends on quite a few factors: the type of coffee and the desired preparation, e.g. filter coffee or espresso, the age of the green coffee beans, the preparation, the humidity and activity of water, the size and density of the beans, the heights in which they were grown, the microclimate, transportation: was it vacuum sealed in plastic bags or transported in gunny sacks, how was it stored? All these factors play an important role. Roasting isn’t a precise science, you need to know what you’re doing, you need to have tested a lot and to really have delved into the topic – then it’ll turn out great.

teller-story: And what are your plans for the future?

Oliver Goetz: My future is making cool coffees. It’d be interesting to offer trainings to our customers, but that’s not my main focus. My aim is to produce great coffees and that’s not going to change.

Words: Mia Schlichtling
Images: Johnny What Photography

 

Special thanks Elisabeth Volant, Jessica Thompson and Jessika H. Sosa for your recommendations and to Erik Pratsch for the research material!

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