Coffee Insurrection Hero: Chapter #1 Gian Zaniol
1- Introduce yourself: who are you, where are you from, where do you work and what’s your job.
My name is Gian, I’m originally from Treviso but basically from Venice, I’m based in Berlin as the Head Barista of Chapter One, in Kreutzberg, and I’ve made of coffee my choice of life.
2- When and why did coffee become important to you?
Ah… big question. There are two-three steps that pushed me in this direction. Firstly, my origins, because if you’re Italian, coffee is just “in your DNA”: I’ve got a lot of coffee memories related to my grandparents such as the smell of coffee in their house, and my grandpa giving me spoons of coffee just to try it. The second step was my breakfast when I was just a child, and it was always the yolk with sugar and coffee: a booster of energy based on coffee. And then I grew up in Italy, being just a “standard coffee consumer”, and it all changed when I moved to Berlin and I had the chance to try my first real specialty coffee. It was so unexpected and so different from anything I had before, that something just snapped in my brain: discovering the specialty coffees, the 100% arabica, I understood that there was so much more in a cup of coffee compared to what I thought until that moment. And the rest was just trying and trying, while discovering that it was a very complex world, with so many things to learn. So in the beginning I fell in love with something so new just for curiosity, but soon it turned into a passion, even because I love all jobs in which you are in contact with people, and when I find a new spot where I can put my “clown mood” into the job, it just become a kind of love story.
3- Do you remember the first coffee you had that was more than “just a cup of coffee”?
So, we’re talking about a serious coffee… well, it was December 2011, I was new in Berlin, struggling to find a job, kinda depressed after a month unemployed, and my girlfriend thought that maybe this “new specialty coffee thing” (that I never heard about before) could be something for me, so she dropped me in this specialty coffee place in Prenzlauer Berg (a Berlin neighborhood), and I tried a specialty coffee espresso for the first time and, I wanna be honest, my first thought was “What the Hell is this?”, basically because it was acidic, with a low body, and I couldn’t understand what was going on. And then, while it was cooling down, it became nice, and I decided that I wanted to learn more so I dropped my CV in that place and after a week I was hired. So, my very first specialty coffee was not a “wow” experience, because it can be that you have to train yourself to “appreciate” something so different, but I had the sudden feeling that there was so much more than bitterness in coffee, and it was like opening a door, and I started to work with curiosity to keep spying behind that door. And I can also tell you that it was an Ethiopia washed, and I said it was more a “shock” than a “wow”, it was an earthquake and it took me a while to deal with acidity in coffee, but I suddenly understood that there was more, that coffee could be something else. Plus, for the first time I discovered that the coffee was not just a bag of beans but there was the farm name, the process, the roasting date… it was really a first. I wanted to know more.
4- What’s your favorite thing about going to work in the morning?
My route to work… no I’m joking! I’m a “people person”, I really love to be in contact with people, to work at the counter… it gives me the courage to just face the world. I’ve got the feeling that when I’m behind the counter I’m the “king of the world!” (Gian laughs), something like that. I really love to make people happy, and my favorite day of work is Monday because I like to change the people’s mood. It’s all about be in contact with humans, share experiences, bring happiness with a cup of coffee. It’s like, you know, yesterday was my anniversary and this customer of mine knew about it, and baked me a cake… and when you know that you’ve touched people’s lives in this way it’s amazing. They’re not just people you serve, there’s more. For me, working humbly, with humanity, is the key factor to just have an happy life. And I don’t want to say the old bullshit that “if you love your work you’ll never work a day in your life”, because sometime a day feels like a month, but if you love what you do, it’s easy to just have a nice mood. Plus, I have the chance to drink a lot of great coffee, always different, seasonal. There are some days when it’s hard waking up, and you’re just sleepy, and it’s cold, and you arrive at work, and maybe you feel lazy, but then you take that Costa Rica, you take your time and brew the coffee, when the café is empty, no people around and just silence… I really love these moments, these ten minutes just for me before the opening. I normally seat in the middle of the café, drinking my coffee in silence, enjoying the quiet before the storm.
5- What’s your favorite brewing method and why?
After I’ve spent years trying as much methods as I could, I went back to the V60, I don’t wanna say that I’m kinda obsessed with it… but I’m kinda obsessed with it. I don’t know if it’s because during these years I’ve become more skilled with V60 than with other methods but the big hole in the center, the control you can have on extraction, its shape… it’s a method pretty easy, it deals with acidity very nicely. It doesn’t work very good with old coffees (it’s better to use a full immersion method), but once you have good water and a good brew technique, it’s pretty hard to screw a coffee with V60. It’s possible, but pretty hard. It’s a combo of what I like in the cups and the fact that it’s the most known and friendly method I have. It was the second method I approached too (the first was Aeropress), the one I’ve the longest relation with, we made together two National Championship and one World Championship… it’s my favorite for different reasons, from the heart, from the mind, but basically it’s because it’s able to produce consistent coffees with vibrant acidity and not very aggressive bodies.
6- Which is the best coffee you ever tasted?
I guess the best one I had was the coffee I used for the 2017 competition: it was NinetyPlus Ethiopia natural multilayer fermented, by Semeon Abay. There are people that tried my coffee back in ’17 and still ask for it. It was impressive because it was a fresh crop and probably it was one of the first times that I drank something that was so much in the “tropical fruit direction”. There was mango, watermelon, yellow kiwi… and it probably was the best coffee I had in my life, but you know, sometime I really enjoy also some standard natural Ethiopia, sometime I just need an easy coffee that just give me body and a nice aftertaste.
7- Is there a country of origin that you tend to favor coffee from? Why?
No, there isn’t, because you know, when I made my second National Championship I had some issues and in the end I was so surprise because I won the second place with a coffee from Congo, and it did so better than other coffees so much more expensive… What I mean with this example is that with the right choice of beans, with the right water and the right method, you can extract something amazing also from those not super popular origin countries. Plus, countries are evolving a lot. Just think about Colombia: 7 years ago it was not cool as it is nowadays (a personal opinion of course). Now you’ve got many coffees from Colombia, Costa Rica, Uganda ecc ecc...that are just outstanding. I can tell you that I really like Kenya for the acidity, and Colombia and Ethiopia, but choose a favorite is really hard.
8- Suggest us a roastery to check (not the one you working at/you use at work).
I can suggest you two nice places that are working good, with high quality. I’d go for Three Marks Coffee from Barcelona and Java from Warsaw.
9- What’s the most important things you’ve learnt while working in the business?
That is an never ending learning process. Every time you learn one thing, you’ve get a hundred more questions, and you’ve got to dig deeper. And that’s the coolest thing because I’m so scared of the feeling when I’ll arrive at the point I’ll think “Ok, I’ve arrived, that’s it”. That day scares me a lot, I love to just postpone that day as much as I can, day by day. Plus, just be relaxed, it’s the best way to work; be open mind, and what I like to say is that you can learn something from someone that started to work just yesterday. I’ve worked 27 years in hospitality, but I can still learn from fresh minds, maybe 17 years old kids, super young but with really good ideas, and you have to take them… take all the good ideas that comes from everybody and everywhere.
10- How your work and the specialty coffee world are coping with Covid and the new challenges for hospitality?
During this period we decide to stay open, with all drinks just to go, and considering that Germans have got a “to go culture”, it was not a big issue for many of them; and we like to describe ourselves as an unpretentious coffee shop, we are very relaxed, we love people to just be happy, enjoy the coffee and go out with a smile. You know, you can serve damn’ good coffee, but the customer service is always the key factor. You go nowhere if you don’t have this approach with your customers, and in a period like this when everyone have less money it’s even more important. I’ve got customers that used to come four-five times a day and now they come just one or two times, and one of the regulars moved to another district but he still comes to us, because he says “I prefer just walk and have one of your coffee, because I know you, and I wanna support you”. So with the job that we made in the years before Covid and the way we decided to face this period, with the best mood possible, trying to keep people as much safe as possible, it’s working. And even if in the beginning we probably seemed too obsessed with “safety”, with the growing of the pandemy people started to realize that we did that just for them, and they started to really appreciate it. So, if you’re clever enough to realize how to change your protocol for the time we’re living, and to let people know that your priority is their health, they will appreciate you a lot. That’s why we’re working every day better. Obviously we’re not in a great condition, because as everyone else right now we’ve got much more expenses, but it’s going good, and we also had this idea that if you take your own cup, you’ve got a 20 cents discount, because also the message we wanna give is that customers must understand that they have to be part of the solution. You must have your own cup, it’s much better for you, for the environment and for the taste, and we try to give you also a “money push”, so you can save some money, and it’s actually working. We stopped to do handbrew, just batch brew to be faster, but we didn’t change the quality of the coffee, and this is a thing that people noticed. We’ve got rules: just one by one in the coffee, only wearing a mask, only to go, they cannot stay in the shop or outside the café, they just have to go immediately, and it’s not easy now with -10°C, but it’s working.
11- How do you see the specialty coffee scene in 10 years?
What I like to say first is: we’re still just a drop in the ocean and I know that we are serving the best but sometimes I have the feeling that if we’re not gonna change the general mood, this snob mood that too many time is around the scene, in 10 year we’re still gonna be just a drop in the ocean. There’s no grow if we don’t understand that. People will understand us if we’ll invest time on explain them what’s going on, and we have also to find the most appealing way to bring them on our side. If I just say “no, there’s no sugar because my coffee is perfect” it’s wrong, I’m gonna say “look, I’ll give you two coffee. Try one with sugar, and one without, and tell me which one do you prefer”. To me this is the clever way. Or if someone ask for a cappuccino extra hot you cannot just say “no!”, but you can say “sure I’m gonna do it, but you have to know what’s going to happen to your cappuccino, so if it taste miserable it’s your bad”. And you know what is gonna happen next? Nine customers out of ten won’t ask for an extra hot cappuccino, no more. It’s just a clever way to approach customers. Sometimes you have to invest two-three minutes with a customer, trying to be humble, explaining easily, because often customers want to learn more. Avoid be snob, using super professional terms because they don’t give a shit. Because sometime people just want a coffee, and you can let them understand that is not “just a coffee”, but you have to do it in a friendly way. Also, every country is different: traditions, culture, approach to coffee… something can work in Germany but not in Italy, but the most important thing is the part that we play behind the counter, and we have to understand it, because just serving crazy good coffee, is not enough. Because we work with people, and people are made by feelings and not just by “taste”.
12- Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Well, in ten years I really hope to be still behind the counter, in my own café, maybe with a little roastery… something like 35square meters of happiness, me, myself and I. Something like that, I don’t have crazy plans, I just want a quiet life, where I can survive with my business, that’s it. But I don’t know exactly where I’ll be, in which country… that’s I cannot answer, but I’m pretty sure I’ll keep working with coffee.
13- Any last word? Any tip or suggestion you wanna share with someone that want to start this path?
Don’t forget that you can go far just if you’ve got lust for learning, and if you’re curious. What I mean with “being curious” is: listen to everybody, put everything in doubt, try the other way around, and try to just be “yourself” in what you do. Just because a world champion told you that “that’s the way to do it”, probably he’s right but you don’t have to believe it blindly. Just try, be curious, make errors, waste coffee… I know it’s bad, but it’s the best way you can develop something that is just on you. And when you are making something that is personal, you’re adding something to the cup of coffee. Is not just serving something, but you’re “putting yourself” in the cup. And be you. In my personal experience you can reach this point just through experiments: brew something that satisfy you first, and after that you can deal with others. That’s it. Don’t learn blindly from others, try to understand why, even because also many times when you have two ideas what happens is that in the process you develop a third one, a we may need that third one. Is something like frozen coffee: until seven years ago, if you talked about frozen beans you were just crazy, but look at it now… just because someone said “I wanna try to freeze it”. Let’s see what’s gonna happen in two years! That’s it. And just be humble, be humble because we just brew coffee, and it’s great, but just calm down.