It was a sunny summer day in Istanbul. I entered Mikla, a fascinating restaurant in Istanbul, selected as the fifty-sixth best restaurant in “Worlds 100 Best Restaurants” in 2016. I had brought a bottle of wine produced in the heart of Burgundy and waited to start our conversation with Mehmet Gürs. There was an on-going photo shooting at the restaurant and in a few minutes, I discovered the secret of Mikla’s success. The whole team was being photographed with different clothes and accessories, laughing and truly having fun. There is nothing better than having a happy staff I thought. When one’s daily work means more than just a ‘job’, success is inevitable I guess.
Mehmet Gürs came in after few minutes. There was a lot to talk about. After all, he is one of the greatest chefs and the pioneer of contemporary restaurant scene in Istanbul. He introduced a new approach of “New Anatolian Kitchen” by discovering local products with anthropologists and local people in many different villages of Turkey. He and his team created amazing dishes by combining traditional techniques with new ones. Furthermore, he is a great businessman, managing and running many different restaurants within Istanbul Food and Beverage Group. However, our topic was slightly different that day: We were going to speak about Coffee.
The Story of Kronotrop
Kronotrop Coffee Bar & Roastery is one of Gürs’s recent projects and it is known as the leader in specialty coffee movement in Turkey. I asked Gürs about how his adventure in coffee started. He narrated his own story:
“We had a great lunch at Noma with my team few years ago. I had been to Noma before, but I’ve never realized the coffee. They had just started working with Tim Wendelboe, who is a world champion barista. After our lunch, the server came and asked if we wanted coffee. We said yes. Then she just turned around and left. I was surprised; she didn’t ask what we wanted. Then she came back with a carafe and four cups. That’s it. No sugar, no milk. No questions asked…” After tasting the coffee, Gürs was amazed by the quality and felt that it was just like the continuation of the great food and wine. It was a revolution for him and his team and he said “I gotta do this. I have to get my hands on this coffee or a similar way of making coffee.”
This is how Gürs decided to get into coffee business. He started doing research and talked with several people in Denmark. There were some coffee collectors and he asked for advice about the equipment and investment and spent more than a day with them at their roaster. When he came back to Istanbul, he had two options. Either he needed to find a consultant or he had to find someone who was already doing it. “There were not many people around in Turkey” he says “We only found this little shop called Kronotrop on a side street of Galatasaray High School. It was 10 m2, almost like a home roaster. But it was the best coffee in the city. By far the best espresso you could have.’ After their discovery, they bought the brand as a group and worked on rebranding by changing the design of all marketing and communication channels, however they kept the name. They also bought a Loring Roaster, which is like the Tesla of Coffee Roasters as Gürs explains. ‘It is handmade in Northern California and it is an amazing coffee roaster. It is the greenest roaster you can have. Precision and the control of roasting is great” He knew that they were not going to make money for years but it was a decision they made as a team. This was not only to make good coffee at Mikla but it was more to get into the coffee business. They got training from the roaster producer and learned more and more about roasting. They spent the first two years only trying to understand the product itself. “Some of us are engineers, some of us are sommeliers and chefs. We had lots of cuppings together. We tried many varieties of coffees” he says.
Understanding the Terroir of Coffee
Gürs continued to explain the complexity of coffee. This is actually the main reason why I personally got interested in coffee myself in the first place. It has so many similarities with wine. Coffee is also a “terroir” product just like wine. It is not as simple as being an Ethiopian Coffee or a Brazilian Coffee. It’s like telling people “I like French wine”. What does that mean? Is it red or white? Does it come from Bordeaux or Burgundy? Which sub region are we speaking about? Pomerol or Pommard? All these details apply to coffee as well. One should know where the coffee beans grow, or what the altitude is or the roasting method. It might be fermented or not, or one should have an idea how the season was that year (yeap! Coffee has a vintage as well) and so much more. Moreover, the provider is also an important indication of quality as the coffee trade is very complex itself.
Source of Coffee
I continued speaking with Mehmet Gürs and Sabiha Apaydın (The manager of Mikla and Kronotrop & Sommelier) about how Kronotrop sources its coffee. Since 2016, they have been purchasing most of their coffee straight from the farmer, which is a significant advantage. “However, there are some places that you can’t do it legally” says Apaydın, like Kenya and Ethiopia. “Sometimes we can’t get our hands on the best of the best” adds Gürs, “There are lots of connections and long term relationships that goes into it. And also, sometimes I rather buy it from a reputable middleman, because I know they will pick the best.” Apaydin also mentions that they always have long-term plans because the export process can take long. They also do not like to stock high quantities to keep the coffee fresh and also be able to discover new varieties.
Viticulture and winemaking; both field needs different skill set. “It is similar to picking up a green bean and roasting,” says Gürs. Roasting is about unlocking the flavors of the beans. Temperature and timing are both important. Different beans from different regions require different treatment. Each stage changes the color and the aromas. Chemistry and art determine the perfect level of roasting. “Lots of small coffee shops wanted to roast, but it is just too complex,” he adds. “That’s why many coffee shops closed over the last few years.” He makes sure that his team gets the necessary cross training. For instance his barista had roasting training and his roaster learned the details of being a barista. With this, everybody got to know the whole cycle.
And some more about Turkish Coffee
I simply asked how people reacted to this new way of making and drinking coffee. “The hardest part is that people are used to drinking really burnt and bad coffee. Think about Turkish coffee for example, it is pretty much the worst coffee in the world. The quality of the bean, the way it’s prepared, the grinding, the timing of cooking… All wrong. It is really controversial because if you think, that’s one of the few products here that they put the name of the country in front of it. But they still completely ignore the quality of it. Whereas, around the world if you have the name of the country in front of your product, it better be good.” He emphasizes that coffee is actually a fruit. It is naturally sweet and doesn’t need any sugar in it. So Gürs and his team completely revised the way of cooking it. Turkish coffee is usually 2 or 3 TL per cup or even free in the end of the meal as a tradition. However they started selling Turkish coffee with the same price as filtered coffee because they made sure that it’s the same quality. He mentions that they buy Turkish coffee beans at wholesale for 15-30 $/kg, but many others buy it around 3$/kg. “A good coffee is acidic, fruity and very complex” he says. But it’s not easy to get rid of habits I suppose, if you are used to it for so many years.
Apparently people started moving away from using the term “Turkish coffee” worldwide, because the memories they have are not very pleasant. They now call it Cezve/Ibrik, not only Cezve, or not only Ibrik, but Cezve/Ibrik to avoid any national relation. In the end, it is just a cooking technique, not a specific type of coffee bean. “It is an international preparation method but obviously people in the region haven’t managed to capitalize on it and to launch it as a high end product. When I say high-end product, not necessarily expensive. One can drink the best cup of coffee for lets say, 5$. That’s it. That’s why; it doesn’t make any sense for high-end restaurants not to serve but the best. They make a huge profit out of it anyway, why not give the quality to the customer and have them enjoy it.”
Coffee Lover’s Perception and Cupping Trials
We spoke about the big trend of third way coffee shops and the misconception following this trend. “People usually look if you have a hipster barista behind the bar or if you have a vintage lamp. Specialty shop is not about the coolness or the design of the shop, it’s about the product” Gürs says. However, we agreed that it’s a part of a learning process and it does take time until people actually start discovering the product itself. There is always some marketing in it, and there should be. But if quality is not combined with it, they will eventually die out. “Even huge coffee chains realized that they can’t keep on serving what they are and they are trying to produce their own niche brands. The same thing will happen with Turkish coffee as well” says Gürs. For example when he does some cuppings with customers, their first reaction is “This coffee is almost transparent, this is ridiculous, coffee is black”. Well, not necessarily. They also mix up the acidity with sourness he adds. Consumer still doesn’t know how to define what they taste, because they are not used to drinking coffee like that. It’s same with wine. It does need some sort of education. So when they have cuppings, mostly people do not enjoy the first cup. They taste 8-10 cups, starting with easy drinking ones, let’s say a Brazilian and go slowly with an African and follow up maybe sometimes with a blend. In time, they realize the complex aromas they can actually find in coffee.
What does Mehmet Gurs prefer?
As a last question, I asked Gürs what he personally prefers. “It’s a generalization but I can say African. Ethiopthia is one of my favorites. High acidity, super fruity and edgy. That’s what I like. Not too dark. Quickly brewed and not over extracted. Light roasting – almost like a Scandinavian roasting.
I would like to thank Mehmet Gürs and Sabiha Apaydın for the great talk. And also, please stay tuned because I’ll continue with the story of my trip to Kronotrop Roaster!