Kalle Freese, international barista champion.

Hello! Who are you?
My name is Kalle Freese, I’m 22-years-old and I run Freese Coffee. I’m also a Finnish Barista Champion, and have competed internationally as well.

How did you manage to change the street’s name to your last name?
That’s a funny coincidence. The street is named after Jacob Freese, a forefather of mine who was born circa 1690. He was a poet and lived in Vyborg, which is now part of Russia. He didn’t visit Helsinki because it kinda didn’t exist back then.

How did you end up in the coffee world?
Well, at first I thought I was going to be a chef. When I was fourteen I was already cooking, and at that time we had this experience-week at school, and I felt it would be a great time to follow the chef route. I wanted to learn at the best possible place (I saw no point going anywhere else) so I contacted the Chez Dominique restaurant, which had recently been awarded two Michelin stars. I said “hey, I’m Kalle; can I come to help?” and they said yes. I remember walking in, feeling the heat of the kitchen, smelling all the flavors… It was one of the most memorable weeks of my life.

Most kids are playing hockey at fourteen. Why were you so into cooking?
From my parents, probably. My father’s a foodie. He’s never cooked professionally (he works in advertising) but he’s always in charge of cooking at home. And my mother worked as a nutritionist scientist and researcher at the University of Helsinki. It’s funny how my father is always interested in how the food tastes, and my mother on what happens to food once it’s been eaten. I guess I developed more into the first category. But anyway, there was plenty of food around and I used to cook a lot, on my own or helping my dad.

And then?
Then the family moved to New Zealand for a year. My mother got a research posting at the university there, so it was easy to get the visas and everything. Me and my brother went to school, and my father went to play golf and tennis, and to cook a lot. There was lots of great food and produce around. But before leaving Finland I had discovered coffee, of which there was not a lot of variety back then. I had to travel all the way to New Zealand to have a coffee that actually tasted good. There are plenty of great coffee houses there, people go to meet friends, there’s a whole different lifestyle revolving around coffee. And the coffee is also excellent because of Greek and Italian immigrants who arrived in the 60s and 70s and brought with them the espresso-drinking culture.

Then I came upon a booklet titled “The Best Coffee in Auckland,” and started to follow the trail, going to all the places listed there. After a while I began to taste the differences: here it tastes a bit more bitter, here it tastes a bit better. I began to make a selection list. I thought, maybe it’s the machines, ’cause these guys have big, shiny machines, and the other ones don’t. So whenever I found a coffee I liked I noticed what brand the machine was (later on I found out that this is half the truth).

A year later we came back to Finland and I got an intern job at a shop that was selling coffee. They offered training for their customers and I jumped in, because I really didn’t know anything at all about coffee-making. The course was held by this kind of almost legendary, very strict, Finnish lady called Ulrika. When I got to make my first espresso ever, she communicated in very clear terms that I didn’t know anything about making espresso, that it would take me ages to learn, and that it is an art, and that one must love coffee. She used to work at Kaffecentralen, and is now at Helsingin Kahvipaahtimo. She was my mentor in my early stages, when I understood that yes, the machine is very important, but it’s the guy behind the machine that makes the coffee. By the end of the course I was literally dreaming about coffee, so it was obvious to me that it’s what I wanted to do.

But you were still in high-school.
Yeah. During the fifty-minute lunch breaks me and my buddy would run to this coffee shop in Punavuori to have espressos. They were rotating their coffee daily, so we could sample different varieties, and I would update the coffee diary that I carried on my rucksack. “What coffee? What did it taste like?” After I had a list of thirty or so, I was beginning to have a pretty clear idea of what I enjoyed and what I didn’t. They were importing coffee from Italy and it was boring, roasted who knows where, and quite dark. But then I heard about this roastery in Tuusula where they apparently were roasting their own beans, and I was intrigued. Ulrika nudged me to go there and check it out. So on a rainy day we went to look for it with my friend, got lost, and eventually found a small industrial area in which indeed a coffee roastery called Kaffa was located. When I stepped in I got the same feeling I got when I entered a professional kitchen for the first time: the smells, aromas, noises, and heat… It was so exciting. I asked if I could come and help, and after a month they called me in. I started to skip classes at school. Every Tuesday we would go and put some labels on, bag some coffee. I would be given some bags as payment, and I was really happy with that.

Then Kaffa moved to Punavuori and they hired me as a barista (I was their first employee). I was there just gaining everyday experience and gathering knowledge from the net, experimenting on my own, but there was no-one to learn from. Then a boss from Johan & Nystrom, one of Kaffa’s competitors from Sweden, came by and I joked that it would be great to work for them. Then suddenly I was on a boat to Stockholm! It was a great summer job that lasted for three months. We had paid, one-hour lunch breaks (which is rare in the coffee business) and after a quick lunch I would run to other coffee shops, chat with the guys, then run back and continue making coffee. Then J&N decided to open a shop in Helsinki and they would hire me, but it took longer than expected, so I went back to Kaffa in Helsinki, and to graduate from school.

It seems you’re always hungry for knowledge.
Definitely. After school I decided that, even though coffee was my thing, I would go to Helsinki University to study marketing. I was working basically full-time at Kaffa, 120 hours a week, also trying to manage a relationship, so I figured something had to give. I quit at Kaffa and focused more on my studies. But I missed work so much, so I set up my own sole trader business, and began working as a freelancer. First I borrowed an espresso machine and a grinder, and I kept them at my parents’ garage. Then I got the money to buy my own. And then I took part in the Finnish barista competition.

What is that?
It’s an open competition organized by the Coffee Association of Europe and its Finnish chapter. In fifteen minutes’ time you have to make four espressos, four cappuccinos, and four signature drinks (coffee cocktails with no alcohol in them). You are mainly scored by flavor, but also for overall presentation and technique, and for not making a mess. It’s about your choreography as well. Seven judges are closely following your movements and evaluating what you are telling them. For example, if you say “this coffee is sweet and it has some spices; you will find some bergamot and a little citrus acidity in it” and the judge verifies it, you get high scores. If you say “it tastes like chocolate and strawberry” and it doesn’t, you score poorly.

While I was at Kaffa I competed twice. The first time, in 2011, I was fourth in Finland out of ten. In 2012 I came in second out of fifteen competitors. And in 2013 I won and got rewarded with a trip to Australia, to participate in the World Barista Championships. So I bought a machine, rented a room in Kallio (a shared co-working space) and locked myself in to train for three months.

Did you get into Zen mode?
(laughs) You know, I should have done something like that, meditation, or something. Instead I was just focused on making espressos and knowing my coffee, and that didn’t work out too well. I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing, ’cause I didn’t have anybody to coach me. No-one in Finland really knew how to do well out there in the world.

What about your old mentor, Ulrika?
She is a bit too old-school, she wouldn’t have understood what I wanted to accomplish. I did a bit of traveling and so on, and I finally placed within the top twenty in the world (I was number 19th, but top twenty sounds better). I think I did pretty well because I trained so hard, but if I had had someone more experienced with me telling me what to focus on, just working with me for a week, I’m sure I could have placed within the top ten. The top twenty was my goal, but it is a tough competition. For example, the Japanese guy who won this year came number 13th back then. But it was really fun, and I learned a lot.

Crash-course on coffee, please?
Essentially, making coffee is chemistry. There’s a solute, which is coffee grinds. The beans present different surface areas according to how finely or coarsely they are ground (we grind it to maximize the surface area and get more flavor out of it). Then there’s the solvent, water. With filtered coffee and espresso we run hot water through it, because the solvent is more effective when it’s hot. It draws the most flavor out of the beans when it’s at plus ninety degrees Celsius. So the idea is to rinse flavors out of the coffee grinds, and this can be done badly or it can be done well. I have several tools for the job, and use a pretty analytical approach to the process. We can actually measure how much coffee there is in a cup, using a special device called a refractometer. We put a drop of coffee in it and it basically measures how much the solution reflects light (we previously calibrate it with distilled water that doesn’t reflect light) and measures how much coffee there actually is within the liquid. This coffee we are drinking has a 1.45 percent coffee, and the rest is water. This is pretty much the only objective way of telling how a cup of coffee is brewed, and it allows us to be consistent and stay on track (I calibrate the coffee every day).

(Kalle fires up a mathematical-looking app in his iPad). Then we input the numbers into this app that basically tells us how well are we using the grounds. So it’s a balance between hard numbers and practical exploration, and these tools help us a lot with that. But coffee tastes very differently because of the soil, the altitude, the coffee variety, the process, the picking… It’s so interesting. There in Melbourne I learned how to make these coffee shots, making filtered coffee on an espresso machine. A customer has named them “Fresspressos“.

How are they made?
Well, in normal coffee we run water through ground beans to extract flavors. To make an espresso, the coffee is ground so finely that it offers resistance to the water, and this resistance produces a really thick coffee with a ”crema”. To make our Fresspresso coffee shots we grind the coffee more coarse, so that the resistance is lower and the water runs through more quickly, brewing a kind of filtered-coffee-strength beverage. It comes out really good because the temperature is very even (espresso machines are built to be extremely stable in temperature, which is fundamental for the flavor of the coffee).

So what happened when you came back from Melbourne?
I came back looking for a place. I wasn’t quite sure if it was a coffee shop that I wanted to open, maybe it would be catering, consultation… Then I stumbled upon this place on the net. We’ve been always joking about how cool it would be to have a shop in Freesenkatu, and this was it. It had the exact dimensions I had in mind. Perfect size, big window, high ceiling, and the beautiful tiled floor, and located in a beautiful street that doesn’t even need an artificial story, because it has a story on its own. It’s five minutes’ walking distance from Kamppi, the rent is not too expensive. And it’s a lovely area to live in, as the current population is mostly seniors. When they um, move on, there will be lots of nice apartments to rent and more and more younger families will move in. It’s a sort of residential, inner-city neighborhood. I definitely think lots of interesting things will be happening here within the next few years. We started renovating in July because it was in bad shape. We had a soft opening in Ravintolapäivä (Restaurant Day, when anyone can offer their own recipes in pop-up stalls around town) which was a great way to start. My September was already booked for a barista competition in Oslo, then three weeks in San Francisco for a kind of university start-up trip, so formal opening was pushed for late September. And in the beginning we would open on weekends only, because my plan was to attend classes during weekdays, which didn’t quite work out. I assumed that running a shop that’s open only two days a week would be easy, and I was so wrong, because I was using the place for private events, like coffee tastings and so on.

So you are still at the university?
I technically am, but I didn’t get any credits last year. I’ve got half my credits done. But I study because I want to learn stuff. I’ve learned a lot at the university about marketing and business, and I have a minor in food sciences (food chemistry, milk technology) which is really useful because I really like to understand the theory behind why something happens. But at the same time I don’t feel a bachelor’s degree will validate what I’m doing. I run my business knowing that a paper won’t get me any job I want. When I finish it will be only to get the degree and nothing more. In many families (mine included) the rationale is that you get a degree to find a job, but I’m not wired that way. I’m driven by learning.

During the competitions I met lots of people, and I could have gone basically anywhere in the world and work in almost any shop I wanted. “Hey, I wanna move to London, or New York, and work for you” and it could have happened very easily. But I figured I was going to learn much more if I opened my own business. Over there I would be just another guy behind a bar, probably getting bored sooner or later. But by opening my own shop here – which has a way steeper learning curve – I can learn many more things on top of making coffee (which I can already do pretty well), like managing people.

Always improving.
Yeah, I am. But one of the reasons I got into coffee was because I realized I could be good at it. I am pretty competitive. I used to do sports, as a kid, competitive swimming and pesäpallo, and I was always good but not the best. I would place second, third or fourth, and it was really frustrating. I guess this perfectionism comes from my mom. But I’m gonna improve the service more and more, not to be the best, but to be the best that I can be. I wanna learn and improve.

Military service?
Yeah, that’s also pending. I think I’ll go the civilian route, where you don’t get military training but some preparedness in case of emergencies (how to protect civilians and so on). My plan is to educate unemployed young people and make them great baristas, so they can get jobs. I think that’s more valuable socially than me running in the woods with a rifle, for a whole year.

From an entrepreneurial point of view, would you be willing to walk away from coffee altogether and move on to another profitable business?
I ask myself that. Right now coffee is my thing. I’m doing it well, but there’s still so much I can improve on. I see myself doing this for the next twenty, thirty years. But I also see me doing other things. I’d like to open a ramen shop, for example. I know how to cook that myself, so I can train someone to make it the way I like, they cook it, I’ll eat it. I imagine having several restaurants and coffee shops around Helsinki, and spending the day from one place to the other, eating the stuff I love and drinking the coffee I like (laughs). So coffee is my thing, but not only.

Once this shop runs how I want it and I can make a living with it, I will expand (which has been clear from the start). For now it’s a kind a luxury that I can focus on improving it without having to worry too much about money.

Do you have a backer?
My father helps. He is not really involved in operations, he’s mostly an investor. So basically it’s me, but there really is like twenty people who have contributed to make it possible, so it is me and it’s much more than me.

Is it working for you, money-wise?
I’ve been running this for a year and a half and in august I started paying myself salary. But I’m confident it will be sustainable at some point. I also know that if I wanted to make big money I should be at biz school crunching numbers, not running my own coffee shop. But this is what keeps me happy. I’ve learned that good things happen when we don’t do them for the money. If I’m passionate about what I’m doing and I do it well, the public will like it and there will be a way to make it work financially. Some of the people I have engaged to help me are more experienced and capable of figuring out the angles business-wise, so I’m confident that in a few years I’ll be Director of Coffee of Freese Coffee, doing crazy coffee stuff without having to micromanage. I think I can be okay as a manager, but my strength is in making good coffee.

What’s unique about Freese Coffee, would you say?
Here you can experience coffee in a different way than in other Helsinki coffee shops. If you come with a friend you can have a personal tasting with two cups per person, which is lots of fun, and no other shop in Helsinki offers that. We also try to nudge customers into expanding their options, if they are in the mood. For example we have these Fresspressos, one called Comfort, which is more rounded, more attuned to what people are used to, and another called Adventure, which is a little bit fruity, a little bit unusual. If they dare, they may discover something new to like.

And I see my job not as serving coffee, but as making people happy. I want people to leave happier, or more satisfied, than they were when they came in. To me coffee is a vehicle through which we deliver our service. I’d be awfully bored if it was only about the coffee, but when I get to interact with the people, when I see they are enjoying it, or when they give me feedback (“hey, this doesn’t require any milk!”) it makes me happy and keeps me going. So great coffee from the best roasteries in the world, and the best service we can provide.

Where does the coffee you offer come from?
We don’t roast our own coffee (yet). We buy it from the best roasteries around Europe, people we have met personally during our travels. Like this great one in London called Square Mile Coffee, I know almost everybody there, even a few barista champions. Then from a nice place in Sweden called Koppi, run by a very nice couple, Anna and Charles. We personally taste each coffee before we buy it, and we know how good it is. In many cases we even get to know the people who actually grow the coffee. I’ve been to Kenya, Guatemala and Honduras, to know more about the process, and we’re currently serving coffees from the producers I met on my trip. So there are just two companies in between: the one that exports the coffee, and the one roasting it.

A pretty direct path.
In most cases yes. In others it goes to a warehouse in Europe to be distributed. But overall the process is very transparent, we know how much the producers are getting paid, and how much the company in between is taking to sustain themselves. So we speak for Better Coffee. Coffee that tastes better, but is also more ethical, and more economically and ecologically sustainable. It’s so hard to make excellent, good-tasting coffee, it needs so much effort and care, there is so little room for error, that I can’t conceive of anybody sustaining a working model under bad practices.

What happens if you go to a tasting session, put the coffee in your mouth, and it’s frankly horrible. How do you extricate yourself without causing an international incident?
It depends on the situation. With people I know I can be blunt and tell them directly (without being a jerk, of course) “I just don’t like this,” period. I usually say “it’s a bit too dark for me” or “it’s not the style I’m looking for” or “I know there’s a demand for this, but I’m into something fruitier…”

So you are more diplomatic than Kimi Räikkönen.
(laughs) One time I tasted a cappuccino, and when they asked me if I liked it I replied that it tasted like the machine was a bit dirty. I wasn’t trying to be mean, I was just trying to help them make a better coffee, but they became angry (looking back now, I was probably sounding like a pretty arrogant kid). But that’s how it is, even if your intentions are good, some people will be upset by your feedback anyway.

When you taste so many different variations at once, how can your senses not be overwhelmed? Isn’t it a bit like smelling perfumes, that after three or four your nose just shuts down?
Yes, but it’s a matter of training. Sometimes I sniff a neutral spot on my shirt, to zero-out my nose.

What do you think of a cappuccino made by an automated machine at McDonald’s, for example?
To this day I have never enjoyed a good coffee from a fully-automated machine. It’s a very good market, they can have a very low price-point, and their Paulig coffee is not the best in the world, but it’s fairly okay. Obviously there is a big demand for that, but our thing is the hand-crafted experience.

What about Robert’s, Wayne’s, Starbucks?
I respect their brand-building, they have done very well in that area. They can offer a very generic experience at a surprisingly high point. Robert’s, for example, charges 4,50 euros or so for their latte. Here you can have a coffee of way better quality for a lower price; a much better deal, in my opinion.

Why is good coffee so expensive?
Ah, but it actually isn’t. Most people don’t realize what an incredibly accessible luxury coffee is. Let me explain: you can go to R-Kioski and have a crappy filter coffee for one euro, and it’s horrible. Then you can come here and have literally the best coffee in the world for five euros, a four-euro difference in price. Now, you can drink a glass of cheap wine anywhere for six euros. But if you want to drink a glass of the best wine in the world, just one glass, you’re expected to pay several thousand euros! When you witness first-hand how much work goes into production, the amount of people contributing to make your coffee taste good, you understand it’s really, really cheap.

If you wished to make excellent coffee at home in the morning, for example, and leave your house smiling, we will soon offer some La Esmeralda, which is a very rare geisha variety from Panama. It yields a very unusual taste, almost tea-like, and is very appreciated by many pros around the world. We’re getting some of it and it’s going to cost us around 160 euros per kilo, and we’ll sell it for eight euros a carafe. Brewing it at home, the price per cup would be around two or three euros. Perhaps it’s not something you’ll drink every single morning, but is it really so much to pay for a cup of the best coffee in the world? Coffee should be actually much more expensive, and we try to communicate this in a gentle way.

When one gets to know so much about something there’s a natural risk of becoming pompous, or arrogant. How do you deal with the snobbery that permeates the coffee scene?
Oh, I try to stay away from that stuff. It also depends on the context. It’s one thing when I’m tasting with friends here at the shop, and another when I’m hanging out with the best baristas in the world. (sounding a bit like C3PO) “What is this? Is it raspberry or strawberry?” or “this is a tad sweeter than the other one…” But that’s what we need to do, we wade through a whole selection of very good coffees, from which we need to pick the very best. And we can because we’ve got this common language. But with the customers I always try to be conscious (I hope) about coming down from snobbish-level to street-level. If I go “we got this coffee with bergamot and strawberry or this Colombian with sweet and caramelized apples, blah blah blah…” they’ll probably turn around and never come back. But if I tell them “we got Adventure and Comfort, and one is fruitier and spicier” I give them options without complicating their lives. If they want to know more, I am ready to tell them. We know a lot about coffee and of course we want to talk about it, but our customers probably don’t wanna, and if we go over their heads we may risk alienating and losing them.

Often I rather not comment on what I’m serving. And sometimes we have these tastings, when I offer a white cup and a yellow cup, one comfy, the other more adventurous. Are they interested, do they want to know more, why is it like this? Easy, fun, and approachable for everyone who walks through the door. Our furniture here may be custom-made but we are not arrogant hipsters (laughs).

You have some nice, minimalistic aesthetics here, what were you aiming for?
I wanted to create a place a bit different from the usual coffee shop. Something like a living room, a place to come and enjoy the drinking of coffee (I rather not have people here coming to work on laptops). And I have seen so many shops with crappy posters on the walls, that I wanted to offer something of quality, that’s why we have a rotating exhibition of artists’ works on the walls.

What do you do to get away from coffee?
I’m pretty bad at that, actually. I work here six days a week, and the rest of the time there’s lots to do related to it. I enjoy eating and cooking, some sports (cycling, swimming, climbing). Girlfriend, friends, movies, museums, reading…

Is your girlfriend into coffee too?
Not that much. She studies film and media production at Lund University in Sweden. It’s a good thing she’s not into coffee, actually. Otherwise there would be too much caffeine in the family.

I wanted to ask that. Is it possible to have too much coffee?
You know, I’ve been getting pretty hard heart-burns lately. But perhaps it’s because I like to eat and drink… who knows. But the fact is I don’t drink that much coffee myself, two or three cups per day, tops. I taste it a lot, of course, but I spit it out. And when I’m really drinking it I do it without analyzing it too much.

Ideas for the future?
Many. A couple of shops more in Helsinki, maybe a roastery… The problem is that it’s not scalable. You need 100.000 eu up-front, which you only get back drop by drop. And I’m not keen on taking investors at the moment. At the moment I’m focused on our coffee service at SLUSH, the start-up conference held in Helsinki every November. This year there will be around 15.000 attendees, and we’re brewing and serving all the coffee at the event!

But like I said, I knew from the beginning that this is not the only thing I want to do, this is kind of the showroom for what we offer. And whether it’s five more shops or a roastery, or something completely different, we will always have this place, where it all began.

Freese Coffee can be enjoyed at Freesenkatu 5, Helsinki. Their website is here.