Sina, a man in his mid-30s with dark tattoos protruding beyond the sleeves of a tight black shirt, greets me in German before realizing I’m the complete opposite of fluent. Unfazed, he switches to English drenched in an Australian accent. “I lived in Australia for two years,” he explains, “it’s where I learned most of my English.” Understandably, it’s also the accent in which he best comprehends, as evidenced by continual leans forward to decipher the nuance, but mostly mumble, of my fast-talking native Californian dialect.
He, the proprietor of The Coffee Gang, gets our second order in as many days started with a smile: One cold brew, one cortado, one slice of cheesecake. It’s a banal request from an American, or perhaps more specifically Pacific Northwest perspective, but in Germany this is groundbreaking stuff. The Coffee Gang might very well be the only place in the entire city of Cologne where such an order could even begin to be filled. “We’ve been here two and a half years. We were the first of our kind in Cologne, and for the most part we’re still the only ones doing this,” Sina says proudly.
It’s not that Germans are uninterested in coffee; according to a 2012 study, 86% claim to drink coffee on a regular basis with most drinking daily. This is, after all, the birthplace of the modern coffee filter: In 1908, after becoming dissatisfied with over-brewed coffee and grounds left behind to soil the drink, Dresden-born Melitta Bentz began experimenting with various methods of filtration before settling on the use of blotting paper poached from her son’s school book. The result was a more enjoyable, less-bitter, grounds-free cup of coffee that was met with genuine enthusiasm. Since then, filtered coffee has ruled in Germany where taste preferences for all things, from food to beer, tend to err on the side of mild.
In 2016, German attitudes toward coffee resemble mainstream USA before the Starbucks explosion. “Coffee culture” – a term I mostly loath on account of it being a drink, not a lifestyle – is in its infancy. “In Berlin, there are 20 of these shops,” he says. I think briefly about the four shops within walking distance of my house in Portland before coming to terms with the weight of his comparison. He claims the demand in Berlin, poised as the nation’s clear frontrunner in experimentation and execution of specialty coffee, is driven by British and Australian expats. Working class Cologne lags behind although demand continues to grow among the city’s blue-collar creative class. For now, The Coffee Gang’s clientele are mostly young and hip, people who wouldn’t look out of place in any high-quality shop from Portland, OR to Brooklyn, NY.
Fittingly, The Coffee Gang’s quality product and design-forward atmosphere could just as easily fit into any of the world’s coffee hotspots. “We work with roasters local to Germany who roast when we order,” Sina says. The Coffee Gang’s dedication to maintaining relationships with local producers and the use of quality ingredients extends to their food menu where the majority of offerings are made in-house from scratch. The delicious cheesecakes, carrot cakes, and loaves of banana bread – offered as-is, or buttered and toasted – are baked on a daily basis. Various sandwiches infused with house-made sauces share space with the exceptional baked goods in the display case.
Before walking out the door to hop into the Smart Car parked right outside, Sina stops by our table to thank us for coming in. If he’s somehow blissfully unaware of his status as a pioneer, not only in Cologne but in the burgeoning coffee scene of greater Germany, I’d be deeply surprised. However, when I ask how he got started, Cologne’s trailblazing Coffee Gangster replies simply and immediately, “I was always in hospitality, but I got tired of working nights.”