One on One with Marian Plajdicko from the Happy Baristas
Credit: Marian Plajdicko
Meet Marian Plajdicko! He’s the co-owner of the specialty cafe Happy Baristas in Berlin, Friedrichshain. Besides offering quality coffees and brunch style dishes, Happy Baristas also specialises in coffee based cocktails. Coffee and cocktails - two worlds that often end up colliding.
Hello Marian, let’s start with an introduction
I’m Marian Plajdicko from Slovakia, I’m the co-owner of Happy Baristas! I’ve actually never worked as a barista in Slovakia - I started working with coffee in Czech Republic as a side job when I went to University. That was for about two years and then I moved to Berlin - which was somewhat a coincidence: I had a job interview which turned out to work out but I also knew that Berlin was one of the most exciting coffee scenes in Europe with the main Berlin roasters at the time: The Barn, Bonanza and Five Elephants.
Talk to us about your personal successes as an award winning Barista!
I came to Berlin for a job interview at The Barn (coffee roaster in Berlin) as they were opening their roastery. I got the job and immediately packed my backpack and moved here! That was the best training I could wish for which is basically why I moved to Berlin. After working for a couple of years at the reception of a hotel, I wanted to bring my coffee knowledge to the next level. I knew I wanted to compete in the baristas championship but I needed to gain more practice more knowledge and experience. After about a year of working here I competed in the Slovak barista championship, which I won and it took me to the World Final in Melbourne which was an eye-opening experience especially getting to see the skills of all the other national champions. It was also extremely helpful to receive the feedback from trained and experienced professionals. I realised that I could improve and do better so a year later I competed and won again in Slovakia which took me to another world final. The experience I gained from those two years competing as well as the people I met were life changing!
A year after that, I met my business partner Roland and we opened Happy Baristas together.
What is the concept of Happy Baristas? What did you have mind when you first opened and how did your concept evolve with the time?
It has now been 5 years since we first opened Happy Baristas. The specialty coffee scene has changed a lot in the recent years. People used to think of specialty cafes as stiff places where you can’t get milk and sugar, where you get attitude when you ask a question and the coffee tastes sour. This is what we wanted to change - that’s why we decided to stay in a neighbourhood that doesn’t necessarily attract a lot of tourists, to be there for our neighbours and locals and introduce specialty coffee without being pretentious about it. We wanted to show people that specialty coffee doesn’t have to be intimidating: it’s about serving high quality coffee.
Damien: So to translate that into a cocktail bar environment: this place should be welcoming to anyone whether you want a nerdy cocktail and talk about drinks all night or just enjoy a gin tonic on the terrace?
Yeah exactly, it should always be about approachability and good quality ingredients. Make good coffee and be nice to people.
The way the concept changed: we started off wanting to be a cafe only with cakes and that’s it. But I think it’s important to adapt to what the customers expect and to your neighbourhood. We shortly realised that offering brunch would be a great addition to our concept and later, offering coffee cocktails in a cafe environment could be both unique but also perfect for our concept. It actually became a vital part of our business. You don’t see a lot of cafes around the world which offer drinks without having a proper bar set up and bar opening hours: we open from 10 am to 5 pm.
So how does that work then? Do people respond well to alcoholic beverages in a cafe?
That’s something that has changed over time as well. When we first launched our cocktail menu, we decided to open later as well, to offer more of a bar vibe. But because we still had a cafe clientele, people were a little reticent towards coffee as a component in their drinks - we had a lot of people who didn’t want to drink coffee late at night. So we went back to our regular opening hours. We adjusted and called our coffee cocktails “Breakfast Cocktails” and got a whole different reaction. People seemed to be more inclined to drink cocktails with their brunch rather than the evening. Some people come for the drinks, some look at the menu and try it because they find the idea interesting. There’s a niche concept here because of the coffee component: every single drink has coffee in it in one way or another: coffee liqueur, espresso, cold brew, coffee beans etc.
“We are dealing with an organic product - it’s still alive and evolves even after the roasting process.”
Now to the world of coffee, from sourcing to the end product: a nice warm cup of coffee - how would you sum up what it takes?
We always try to go for the diversity, especially if you are a multi roaster coffee shop like Happy Baristas - we do change our beans frequently, we buy our beans from different roasters. Coffee is a seasonal thing and that’s what a lot of people don’t know. As an example take your favourite supermarket coffee brand: no matter when you buy it, it always tastes the same. Why? Because it’s a blend of many many different coffees roasted and mixed to the point that it states homogenous. However, in specialty coffee we go for flavour nuances and differences that they have to offer, the same as wine.
Farming There are so many varieties of coffees, with each have their flavour profiles, then comes the processing of the coffee which still happens at the farm which influences the flavour of the coffee the most, then the roasting also affects the taste further. The actual farming is what influences the taste the most, more than roasting: whether you wash it, let it ferment, let it dry with the skin on or not … it all influences how coffee will end up tasting in the cup.
The roasting processis there to highlight those qualities, unlock them rather than covering up the natural flavours and processes and give it a burnt flavour.
When I’m looking at the offer list of a roaster, I’m looking at what’s in season, whatever is fresh in and we also know what our customers like. For example we know most of our espresso drinks are served with milk so using a fruity acidic Kenyan coffee wouldn’t make much sense, we’d need to find something more in the middle: medium/full body with sweet flavours. On the brew bar or on our retail shelf then we look for diversity to show case what specialty coffee really is, its range and what it can taste like - from a Costa Rican honey process honey that’s going to taste like maple syrup, cinnamon and chocolate and to a Kenyan coffee which will taste like black currant and mango.
Dial-in:when you bake or cook you are looking for the right recipe. With us it’s the same - when you get a new espresso in, you start pulling shots: you try different variables, different times, the weight and you’re looking for a balance, for the sweet spot: the balance between sweetness, bitterness, acidity in order to highlight the nice flavours of the coffee. Then throughout the day we try the recipe again, we clean the machine and we make sure the recipe still fits.
We are dealing with an organic product - it’s still alive and evolves even after the roasting process. For example after the roasting process we do what we call degassing: the roasting unlocks the co2 which needs to leave the bean, so the longer you wait, the more co2 leaves the bean which means your beans get drier and drier which obviously changes the flavour. If you have a super fresh bean its going to taste different from a 2 weeks old bean which is why its important to try often enough and adapt the recipe.
Coffee and cocktails: why do you think these two worlds always end up meeting?
Because bartenders need their coffee in the morning after their shift. I think there are lot of similarities and what the bartending world experienced - this renaissance, going after good quality ingredients - that’s what the coffee world just started experiencing too. Also this shift of focus from the cocktail itself to realising how important it is to focus on the guest, the service, the ambiance. We’ve moved passed the nerdy, geeky approach and realised wait a second, it’s not what it’s all about. Our two industries bounce ideas and, learn from each other. In terms of flavour combinations but also hospitality on our side and for bartenders, learning how coffee works, combines and varies.
“And then there was seeing professionals working and moving: it’s like a little ballet, I love watching professionals behind the bars.”
What drew you into the cocktail world?
I’ve never been a big drinker, I’ve only ever had my first real cocktail when I moved to Berlin. I think what drew me in the first time is the whole “mixology” part of it: combining already existing ingredients to come up with something new. Taking flavours and creating a new synergy of flavours that taste even better than the original ingredients themselves. And then seeing professionals working and moving: it’s like a little ballet, I love watching professionals behind the bars. Then I got into classic cocktails - trying different recipe variations, you see the different nuances, different approaches.
I think the tipping point was my friend Martin Hudak who is sort of the bridge between coffee and bartending. When my partner and myself started playing with the idea of making alcoholic drinks part of our concept, I talked to Martin and he came up with a menu of 10 amazing coffee based cocktails and it was fascinating to see how he approaches them but also to learn from his sense of hospitality. That’s when I started diving deep into the cocktail world and learned more about it and created my own cocktails. Martin was a mentor in this sense.
“How is the process going to unlock certain flavours and how am I going to find the right spirit for it. It’s fascinating.”
For you who started working with alcohol much later than coffee - does the coffee or the spirit comes first ?
It’s a little bit of both. For example you have the season, which coffees are available - in a season where you have more African coffees, then you’re going to have more fruity and fresh coffees available so it’s going to be easier to come up with more of a bright, fruity drink. Generally, when I make drinks, I also have an idea of what the final product should taste like and I try to figure out what type of coffee would go well with it, and what spirits would go well with the coffee. It’s really interesting to combine the variety of flavour from coffee with booze: the way your process your coffee - whether it’s a filter with blueberry and milk notes or an espresso etc.- how is the coffee element going to be used? How is the process going to unlock certain flavours and how am I going to find the right spirit for it. It’s fascinating.
Bartenders have been using coffee in cocktails without a deep understanding of it - I probably pull a shameful espresso shot. Yet, we still like to use coffee components in cocktails - do you have any tips to avoid simple mistakes?
I think a simple mistake that I see too often is to use bad quality coffee. If you use cheap supermarket coffee, you’re going to end up with that uniform “coffee flavour” which can only go so far. I would recommend to go talk to a local roaster, specialty coffee and ask for recommendations and buy some good coffee. Then there’s the process. A lot of bars have a coffee machine at work but that doesn’t mean it makes good coffee, so instead of using a mediocre espresso, why not do something easier like a nice cold brew concentrate - it’s easy, it doesn’t need much preparation. Instead of buying an espresso machine which is a huge investment, you’ll be better off buying a brewing kit that costs a fraction of that and will give you way better results in terms of flavours and how to unlock the coffee’s potentials.
It also depends on whether you simply want a coffee component in you drink or a coffee driven drink with less alcohol but that gravitates around the coffee.
What about coffee based non-alcoholic and low-abv drinks?
Quelle: Marian Plajdicko
We used to have non-alcoholic drinks at the beginning. Especially when I was competing as one of the requirements was to create a signature non alcoholic coffee based cocktail. It was always the hardest part because without the alcohol you are limited: it’s harder to create a body and add weight to a drink without the presence of booze in it. Once I started experimenting with alcohol the doors opened wide and I became so fascinated with it that I decided to focus on alcoholic drinks. I feel like I’m still at the beginning of my learning process so I want to keep diving into it.
“…it is important to treat your private life as a priority as it is beneficial to everyone in the business, as a colleague, the leader of a team, in terms to guest relation too.”
Let’s talk a little bit about Corona and how it’s affected you and your business…
Obviously it was extremely hard for everyone. In a way it was actually beneficial because we started looking at our business and re-evaluated everything - what do we actually want and how do we want it? We realised that being opened 7/7, always adding to the concept maybe wasn’t what we really wanted. We were forced to scale down and think smaller, we re-designed the menus, put all of our drinks on tap to go faster, made everything available for take away. We looked at every single cost of the business and stripped it down to what was actually essential. If things keep going this way, I think we will be ok. We came out stronger and healthier because we all realised how important our private life and family life is. Of course the sales are still 50% lower than they were before the crisis but it is a healthier business in the end - it is important to treat your private life as a priority as it is beneficial to everyone in the business, as a colleague, the leader of a team, in terms to guest relation too.