An Element of Stubborness — A Conversation with Klaus Thomsen


This post is the first in an ongoing series of interviews exploring the notion of Nordic creativity and innovation. To find out more about it, please click here.

In 2013, LA-based writer and editor Mason Curry published “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work,” a fascinating compendium of the rigurous — and often disturbing — schedules and working habits of 161 creative minds including Nikola Tesla, Philip Larkin, Stephen King, Truman Capote, Anne Rice, Gustav Mahler, Andy Warhol, and Franz Kaftka, just to name a few.

From reading the book, I can’t really tell you if there is a perfect daily routine that can help improve your creative output and guarantee the consistent production of highly creative ideas, but I did notice one thing: many of the artistic heroes profiled by Curry were truly obssessed with coffee; from Ludwig van Beethoven, Glenn Gould and Marcel Proust to Francis Bacon, Benjamin Frankling and Honore Balzac, some of the most creative minds to ever grace us with their talent were absolutely crazy about the black stuff.

(Although Dave Grohl it’s not featured on the book, I feel his love for fresh pots deserves an honorary mention here, too.)

So, as I set off on my year-long adventure across Scandinavia exploring the notion of Nordic creativity, I thought I’d start by talking to Klaus Thomsen, co-founder of The Coffee Collective, Denmark’s favourite micro roastery, which has been providing the country with delicious, lightly roasted coffee day after day for an entire decade. What appears below is an extract of an hour-long conversation we had on a sunny winter morning at their new Bernikow shop, a historic location in the city centre, where apart from their usual range of espresso and filter brews available in their other three coffee bars, lucky Copenhageners can also enjoy cold coffee, coffee kombucha, coffee beers and coffee cocktails. Not bad, uh?

As it’s often the case in these situations, the interview has been edited for brevity and clarity, but I have tried my best to stick as close as possible to the ideas and opinions expressed by my guest. I hope you enjoy it.

HR. MEANER: Hi Klaus, what is the first memory you have of you drinking coffee?

KLAUS: My first memory of me drinking coffee… I guess it started in seventh or eighth grade at school, maybe a bit later, and I remember I just wanted to feel more grown up so I started drinking coffee with a couple of friends. It wasn’t because it tasted good, we just wanted to prove we could drink this substance and get a kick from it.

When I told my mum I wanted to start drinking coffee, I remember she said: “don’t start putting sugar on it, that’s the worse you can do. If you can’t take it, to begin with, put a little bit of milk because it’s easier to use less and less milk. If you get used to using sugar, you never stop using sugar,” so at the beginning I put a bit of milk and then I quickly got used to the taste.

HRM: The Coffee Collective has been leading the specialty coffee movement in Denmark for ten years. How did it all start?

KLAUS: We were working at another coffee company at the time and we kind of felt stuck, things were not progressing. We felt that quality wasn’t getting explored, we were spending too much time on coffees that weren’t actually as good as they should be, and we also felt there was too little of that connection between the guest and the farmer at the other end.

In the coffee industry, it’s very common that you are either a coffee shop or a roaster or you are working at the farmer level, but there are very few that work on all these aspects and we thought there would be a lot of benefits if we just didn’t see ourselves as a roastery in the middle, buying a raw product and selling it to someone else, but instead getting involved in sourcing, involved in the farmer’s work and the challenges they were facing, and also trying to bring more value to them so they could run a good business.

But then, on the other end, we wanted to make sure that we got it to the consumer in a way in which that whole quality element was fulfilled. As a roastery, you can buy the best coffee from the best farmers but if you put it on a supermarket shelf and it sits there for six months, getting old, and then somebody takes it home and they don’t brew it very well, they might end up with a cup where they say, “this doesn’t taste any better, why should I pay twice as much for this coffee when I can buy a full bag for 100 kroners?”

That really frustrated us. We kept hearing people saying they had tried this specialty coffee and it wasn’t any better, but the reality was that they had tried something that wanted to pretend to be special, that maybe had a special story, but it didn’t really deliver on the taste and that for us is what it was about.

So, when we started thinking ideas for this company, we actually started by asking ourselves what could we do better in the company that we are in at the time but we soon realized that because we didn’t own the company, we were not in full control and we couldn’t make the final calls, so it was going to be very difficult to do what we wanted to do. In the end, we decided that the best thing would be to start our own company and do it ourselves.

HRM: What was it about Denmark’s social, cultural or economic landscape that allowed you to start and develop such a successful business?

KLAUS: It was actually really difficult because when we started. Our original idea was to start a roastery and a coffee shop together, so that we could show that physical element of the coffee being roasted, but the bank wouldn’t lend us money to do that project; they would only lend us money to buy the roastery, which meant we would have to start the wholesale business ourselves. So we actually did that at the beginning and started up for half a year in a storage facility near the airport, basically a tin shed. We got a roaster and we moved in.

From day one, we started buying directly from two farmers, which is interesting because I hear every single new roaster say, “we would like to do this direct relationship but we are too small, we can’t do it,” but we started with nothing; no investors, no money, and we were able to do it. I think you can do it, it’s a matter of prioritizing, maybe spending less in marketing and machines and putting the money back into the coffee instead. It’s possible to do.

Anyway, we started and then the financial crisis hit, about half a year later. I think we were lucky we started before the financial crisis because at least we got money to start the roastery, if we had started later maybe it might have been even more difficult. But then again, I think the financial crisis meant we knew we couldn’t spend a lot of money and really be clever about how we did things. We couldn’t just go out and hire a designer to build our first coffee shop or anything, we had to do everything ourselves. That was a big part of it, I think. We had these constraints and that just became a framework for how we had to do things.

We were able to grow the company because we started at a good time; there weren’t a lot of people focusing on coffee and that meant there was this huge gap to be filled. When we started, we knew there were lots of people out there who were interested in coffee and found it to be fascinating in the same way that we did, there just wasn’t anyone facilitating that opportunity to experience flavours, to go in and taste different coffees or to see how we brewed coffee and learn about the things we were excited about.

So, from the get go, our mission was to share that excitement.

HRM: What drove you to keep going during those early days, when you were facing so many setbacks?

KLAUS: Well, what’s the drive for having a kid? [laughs] You know, you just want to do your own thing. I wanted to be in control of it and explore what could be done without having somebody telling you that you can’t do this or that. That was a big part of it.

Financially, it was tough. There were lots of constraints but at least we were the ones deciding what compromises to make, we didn’t have anyone telling us we couldn’t buy this expensive coffee or telling us to buy a pallet instead of buying directly. No, we could say we wanted to buy directly, go ahead and do it.

In a way, I guess there’s an element of stubbornness to it as well. You want to prove that it can be done.

HRM: Had you started any other business before The Coffee Collective?

KLAUS: No, I never had the intention of starting a business. I didn’t grow up thinking I could start a business, it was very far removed from where I saw myself. I remember thinking, at one point, I was definitely not the entrepreneur type; I thought I’d just find my hobbies outside of work, have a paying job, and so on. But suddenly something changed… probably because coffee was a hobby for me for a long time and it was really interesting so I thought maybe I should try it, and I did. I kept going at it and then I won the World Barista Championship, I got to travel, and it was amazing. At that point, I started seriously thinking of taking the leap into the coffee business.

HRM: Why didn’t you see yourself as an entrepreneur?

KLAUS: I think is the culture in Denmark, especially where I grew up, in West Jutland. Trust me, you really don’t want to stick your head out there. My family wasn’t from that area, I never really spoke the accent, I was a little off… so in a lot of ways, I think I really wanted to keep myself under the radar rather than standing out. I never heard anyone talking about entrepreneurship, it just wasn’t a thing of the culture there. In other parts of the country, people might have been talking about startups but not where I was.

On the other hand, I think that was a good thing for me because once I started, I actually wanted to do things. With The Coffee Collective, we are always looking to start new projects and we want to do things our way, because they are fun and interest us, not because we want to be on the cover of a magazine. Recognition is great because it opens up opportunities but in the end, that’s not why we do it.

HRM: One aspect that was very characteristic of the first shop that opened in Jægersborggade is that it lacked a front bar. You entered the shop and found yourself in the kitchen, so to speak. What was the reason for that?

KLAUS: Yeah, that was a really fun process. Actually, I think that has been one of the most creative processes I have ever been involved in.

Going back to the framework that I was talking about, if you really want to be very creative, it’s good to be pushed. If you have a pile of cash, you are not creative, you will just take the easy solution. We had a lot of constraints; we didn’t have a lot of money, we had this small and awkward room that was in a basement in a dodgy street, they were even renovating the foundations of the building so this trench had been dug out just in front of the entrance, which meant you had to pass over this wooden bridge to get into the shop. It was a total nightmare.

On top of that, we had been running our business for half a year and we were close to being bankrupt so we had almost no budget, but we looked at this tiny room and said, “what can we do?” We sat down and we did a 3D layout of the room and started thinking how we could fit in a fully working roastery with a roasting machine, air filtration, packing area, and then how could we fit in a fully operational coffee shop that is also going to double as a training space to do barista classes and courses for wholesale customers and private clients. Then we also needed and office, and a bathroom because it’s the law. We got super creative and built this tiny bathroom in the back and we managed to have a little office and a storage space and the roastery…. everything was super crammed.

In the beginning, our first layout had a bar in the middle of the room because that’s what you typically do but then Casper and Linus (co-owners) said, “what if we don’t have that bar? What if we just put it up against the wall, like a kitchen?”, and I remember thinking, “no, no, no, this is never going to work!” but at the same time, I remember thinking it was actually interesting because it would allow us more space and it would be good for the training part of it. Also, to be honest, I guess we never thought we would be a busy coffee shop anyway so it was fine if we only had it for training.

Then we thought there was something fun about walking in behind the counter, basically walking into a kitchen, so we started playing with that idea and because of the budget constraints, we didn’t have money to buy anything fancy so one of Casper’s friends, who is a carpenter, helped us build the entire thing and we bought everything in IKEA. Just a regular IKEA kitchen with a cheap countertop. That’s when we realized how cheap IKEA kitchens actually are, they cost nothing!

The Coffee Collective’s first shop in Jægersborggade

But it worked brilliantly, not only because we managed to get something up and running with no budget but because doing it that way also meant that when people came in, it looked like a regular kitchen. I don’t know how many times we heard people say, “that’s the same kitchen I have at home!” So, they felt at home, it was very personal. There was also a huge aspect to that and it was the fact that you walked in and you were just met by a barista instead of a counter; some people were a bit confused and thought they had walked in to the wrong place, but that was also an opportunity for us to engage with them and invite them in to taste the coffee.

There were, of course, some setbacks to that design. As soon as we started getting busy, we could see how horrible it was because you had two people working continuously with their backs to the customers, which wasn’t nice for them or the baristas. So, as we ran a more busy coffee shop, it really didn’t function but it was a really nice space to have for those years.

I remember one of the big events we did was a coffee tasting. We bought Hacienda Esmeralda from Panama, which is probably the world’s most expensive coffee, and we did an event where we gave away free samples of this coffee for an entire day and that was the first time we experienced the interest there was in coffee; it was a rainy day, the weather sucked, and we still had a line out the door and down Jægersborggade. That was the first time in Danish history anybody lined up for coffee in that fashion, for sure. It was crazy.

HRM: Many people see a connection between coffee shops and creativity, and often see them as a sign of an area’s creative potential. What relationship do you see between the two?

KLAUS: Sure, coffee seems to have been the fuel for creativity throughout history. I love the stories of the old London coffee houses and how the biggest insurance company in the world actually started as a coffee shop, for example. I think coffee has the advantage that it has caffeine, it makes you think and it makes you talkative so I guess that in that sense, a coffee shop is a good place to discuss and play with ideas. You can do the same with alcohol, I guess, but alcohol is also dumbing so I don’t think it has the same effect.

I also see a bit of an overlap with people who shared creative interests. A lot of the chefs we know around town, very creative chefs, are super into coffee as well. It’s their fuel. And the same with musicians; most musicians we know, especially the indie musicians coming out of the States, whenever they come to Denmark, they go to coffee shops. I think they don’t really want to be drunk when they go on stage but they do want to go out and experience things and they love their coffee.

The other thing I have noticed is that in most major cities around the world, there are always coffee shops in the neighborhoods that have some kind of creative vibe, just like Jægersborggade. There’s always a coffee shop where people meet and brings that neighborhood together.

HRM: As a roaster or barista, how do you experiment and express yourself creatively?

KLAUS: I think people overestimate a little bit the creativity that goes into making coffee. It does look very creative when we do latte art and so on, but it’s also very mechanical.

Having said that, I do feel a sense of creativity when we are going to look for which coffee to buy. You’re tasting something and you’re thinking about what you want to put on the menu, what range of flavors you find interesting to present to our audience in Denmark… and then for the roaster, the creative process comes when they need to interpret that because you are buying this green coffee that doesn’t taste like coffee at all, it has no flavour of coffee, so as a roaster you are responsible for bringing out that potential. The potential can be there but if you don’t know how to roast, if you don’t know how to manipulate that temperature profile through the roast, you can take it in a multitude of ways.

Years ago, I remember having the most amazing experience during a blind tasting. There were four coffees and they were dramatically different so I thought they were probably from the same country, maybe four different farms. By the end of the tasting, I found out it was actually the exact same coffee, from the same farm, just roasted with four different roast profiles. They were so different I would have never guessed they were from the same farm. And they were roasted to the same end color so it wasn’t like they were light and dark, they were actually roasted to the same degree so it’s just a matter of how the roast master manipulated the roast profiles throughout that process, which is fascinating.

That’s what we have been working very hard over the last 10 years, figuring out how to change that roast profile and figuring out what flavors we can get out from the different beans by adjusting the temperature at various intervals. For the roaster, there’s a lot of creativity that goes into figuring out how to get more of the juicy acidity in a certain coffee by doing things in a certain way.

We also cup every coffee, every week. Even if we roast ten batches of the same coffee in one day, we cup all ten of them and we taste them to see if there are any differences. We think there should be a level of consistency — we shouldn’t put out anything that is not consistent — but at the same time, we should always push to do things better. That’s what I think we do each week. For example, let’s say we try a coffee that is four months old and we notice that the acidity is starting to fade a little bit, we can try to amp up the sweetness and then we can do something else in the roasting profile to get that out so there’s a huge creative element, I think, in tasting and being able to control those aspects.

Also, I think we have been very lucky to be creative by working with other products. We have done a coffee caramel with Karamelleriet, which was really fun; we did coffee liquor with a booze maker in Denmark; and we did coffee cheese, which has been one of my favorite projects, for how it happened. We were at a Mikkeller beer festival and I was there alone, serving samples of coffee to beer people, and they were so into it. At one point, I was standing next to this guy from Arla Unika, who does their new cheeses, and we just connected. He hadn’t drunk coffee for, like, fifteen years, he just didn’t like it, but I served him some and he thought it was amazing. And he had some cheese that blew my mind, so we started talking about all sorts of things, like how red wine and cheese doesn’t actually work very well. He always thought it was a bit of a bad thing, the two together.

Then I told him I really enjoyed coffee and cheese because I think it’s such a natural combination, maybe because we Danes are used to having rye bread with cheese in the morning, and a cup of coffee. I think we are programmed to like that flavor combination. So we started talking about how it would be fun to do a cheese infused with coffee and we ended up making three different versions of it now, I think.

So, going back to your question, I think what we do is a combination of creativity and craftsmanship. It’s not like we are creative like an artist; that would be pushing it too far, we are not expressing ideas or anything, but I do think there is a creative aspect all around what we do.

HRM: You just told me a story of how your coffee inspired someone from Arla to team up with you and go after the idea of a coffee-infused cheese. Let’s turn things around now. Whose ideas have inspired you, in recent years or while growing up?

KLAUS: I think, especially when we started the company, I got a lot of inspiration from music and fashion. Neither music or fashion are controlled by dogmas, it’s very free-flowing and fresh. For example, when we started, I think every coffee company was either brown or beige, brown or beige, and we thought, “why can’t it be full of colors?” I think the fact that music and fashion are always looking ahead, wanting to do things differently, is something I find inspiring.

I also got a lot of inspiration from food and the food culture in Copenhagen. Obviously, Noma gave us a lot of inspiration in terms of both being brave enough to dare to do new things but also to keep pushing things. When Noma said they were closing their restaurant and rebuilding things completely, that was such a great feeling. It was like, “yes, we don’t need to do the same thing all the time!”

When we closed the original coffee shop in Jægersborggade, we knew we were moving to a much better location that was just a few meters away, but we still were a bit hesitant because the other one was the original shop and all that. Then we realized we couldn’t be romantic about it.

HRM: What best captures the spirit of Danish creativity?

KLAUS: That’s a tough question but off the top of my head, I think we like to constraint ourselves in a lot of ways. I don’t know, it’s hard to say. When I look at other countries, I think they are much more extravagant but we are much more introvert, maybe that’s one of the things I think define us.

Scandinavians are very reserved, as you know. We can be a bit hesitant to meet other people sometimes, and I think that means we can be very much in our heads, being creative just on our own, whereas I think other people around the world are more about meeting with other people and jam on ideas.

Want to read another interview discussing creativity in the Nordics? — Check out my conversation with Kasper Birkeholm, Director of The Inventor Advisory Service, a publicly funded Danish organization that helps thousands of Danes explore their creative potential and turn their ideas into validated, commercializable inventions, products and services.

You can read the interview here.

Hr. Meaner is a Copenhagen-based visual artist from Venezuela, currently on a quest across Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, talking to artists, scientists, educators, designers, musicians, politicians, researchers, and entrepreneurs, to better understand the forces and attitudes that are shaping innovation in the region and try finding out if there is such a thing as Nordic creativity.

Follow his visual diary on Instagram or find out more about his work at hrmeaner.com


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