Anne Lunell & Charles Nystrand

12th November 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Noémie Reijnen

12th November 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Noémie Reijnen

The town of Helsingborg, on the southwest tip of Sweden, might seem like an unlikely place to source exceptional coffee. Even in Malmö, 40 miles to the south, a few people looked dubious when we told them we were going there to interview the couple behind one of the best roasters in Europe. But Helsingborg is where Anne Lunell and Charles Nystrand set up shop in 2007, and from this relatively obscure coastal town they’ve developed a distinctive roasting style which has won them dedicated followers around the continent – one top London barista told me their coffee, which balances high acidity and sweetness, is the best he’s ever worked with.

We meet Anne and Charles at their coffee shop in the centre of town1, a beautiful, clean-lined space with a long bar, wooden floors and old illustrations of Nordic fauna (eagles, bears) on the wall. It’s 11 on a Sunday morning and we’re all feeling a tad delicate – they were out last night drinking natural wine and eating bull’s testicles at a notoriously meaty restaurant in Copenhagen called Bror – but the conversation drifts along easily, taking in travel, caffeine tolerance and their favourite food experience. The coffee helps: they ply us with one glorious brew after another, including a surprisingly successful union of espresso and tonic.

Afterwards we head back to their place, a short drive up the hill, stopping along the way to pick up some bread. They live in a spacious mid-century apartment with a big kitchen, a huge living room and a corner balcony overlooking the channel between Sweden and Denmark. We get the sense that Anne, who has been collecting art and antiques since she was 15, is largely responsible for how the apartment is decorated, while the impressive vinyl collection in the living room is evidently Charles’ domain.

While she begins preparing mushroom ravioli for lunch, he puts on a record and opens the first of several bottles of wine. Languid jazz floats out of the living room, setting the pace for the afternoon ahead. Charles is recruited to make the pasta from scratch, an operation which Anne oversees with a certain degree of amused scepticism (the kitchen is evidently not his domain). But the pasta turns out well – the dish as a whole is incredibly indulgent and delicious – and we sit out on the balcony to eat it as the sun progresses across the midsummer sky and, down in the channel, big cargo ships drift slowly by.

Continued below...

Did you grow up around here?

Anne: Yeah. I spent my first few years in Lund, a university city south of here. Charles and I lived in Dublin for a while. Two years before we opened our shop in Helsingborg, we moved to Oslo. That was to work with coffee.

Who were you working with?

Charles: A roaster called Kaffa – they were one of the pioneers.
Anne: Charles had won the Swedish barista championships [in 2005] with one of their coffees and they offered him a job. I was still studying over here so he went by himself. After seven months he was thinking of moving back, but I was curious to try it out so I ended up moving to Oslo and working with him. The following year I won the Swedish championships as well.

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So Norway was where you learned the most about coffee?

Anne: Yeah. The best way to learn is by surrounding yourself with skilled people, or at least people who know more than you. They invited us – or we invited ourselves – to go in on our days off and watch them roast. It was a really good time.
Charles: We learned a lot in Norway but I’m still learning a lot now, every day.

If I go to Kenya and try coffees, I can taste 600 cups in a day. But then you kind of want a cold beer afterwards, or a gin and tonic

What was the coffee scene like here 10 years ago?

Anne: You couldn’t really find good coffee – you couldn’t really find good anything in Sweden 10 years ago. So much has changed, it’s incredible.

What’s changed in terms of coffee?

Anne: We’ve improved a lot on the roasting of course. It’s easier to source better coffees now. When we started we had to rely on other people doing the selection for us and the transparency and traceability was not what it is today – now everyone wants to know everything: where it’s from, who grew it, what variety it is… So it’s much more interesting to work with coffee now.
Charles: Definitely. But at that time it was interesting because everything was so new. When you look back you realise how little you understood.

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When you opened this shop in 2007, did it feel like a crazy undertaking?

Charles: Yeah, a little bit.
Anne: We’re friends with Niklas Ekstedt2, who had his restaurant in Helsingborg at the time. We’d been talking about opening a place of our own, and while we were in Oslo we asked him to keep his eyes open. Then he called to ask if we’d wanted his site because he was leaving for Stockholm. We weren’t expecting that.
Charles: We weren’t planning on opening anything as big as this.
Anne: It was intimidating for the first couple of years for sure. But we knew the area, and Helsingborg is quite well-off. Obviously, being in a larger city we’d have benefitted, but…

You would have been competing with 10 more coffee shops.

Anne: Yeah. It’s always a risk to open something, but if you believe in what you do it’s easier to convince people.

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How do you divide roles between you at work?

Anne: Charles does all the roasting.
Charles: And Anne does everything else.
Anne: I’m doing most of the travelling, most of the green buying3. I go all over the place. The one country Charles focuses on is Costa Rica, which I’m a bit envious about because he gets to deal directly with producers. In Kenya and Ethiopia, I deal with cooperatives so I don’t really meet the growers; instead, it’s five gentlemen in suits. You shake hands and introduce yourself, but you don’t connect to the coffee in the same way.

The better grinder you have, the better the chance that you get a good coffee
Anne and Charles on their favourite coffee gear – see Pantry

How many different countries do you deal with?

Charles: Colombia. Brazil, Costa Rica, Kenya, Ethiopia, Rwanda. Burundi this year is new.
Anne: And we’re working with a guy in El Salvador for next year.

Do you enjoy travelling?

Anne: I love it.
Charles: I do too, but I also love staying at home [laughs].

How many months in a year are you travelling?

Anne: I don’t know, but it’s a lot. Two months maybe. Of which I’d spend maybe four weeks actually looking for coffee.

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When you’re both at home, who cooks?

There is some confusion and laughter while they answer this, but it emerges that Anne cooks more.
Anne: You do the laundry.

And the washing up?

Anne: We have a dishwasher.
Charles: I empty it.
Anne: But I really like cooking so I end up doing it more.

Was food important growing up?

Charles: No not really.
Anne: It was for me.
Charles: I always loved food of course, but it’s not like our parents were food geeks.
Anne: No. We always had cooked meals at home, good food, lots of vegetables, fresh fish… But it’s not like they had a sous-vide and a meat thermometer.

Charles: Your dad is pretty into that…
Anne: Yeah, he is now. Anyway, eating well was a big part of my upbringing. I liked baking… When I was about 16, I became vegetarian.
Charles: We both did.

Are you still vegetarian?

Anne: No, I started eating meat again four years ago. And Charles started a few years before me.

What made you go back to eating meat?

Anne: I was almost anaemic. I’d been taking vitamin B shots, but then I figured it would make more sense to eat organic meat than vitamins made in a factory.

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Charles: The main reason I didn’t eat meat was because I didn’t really like to eat animals. But I think you can make just as big a difference or bigger by eating meat.
Anne: Last night, at Bror [see Address Book], we had deep-fried bull’s balls with tartare sauce. They were really good.
Charles: We also had lamb’s brain. And eyes. Brain is okay, but eyes… I don’t know.

Would that have horrified you when you were still vegetarian?

Anne: No actually not. If you’re going to eat animals, it makes sense to eat the whole animal. Especially if it’s in a good restaurant – you have to trust that it’s well-prepared and well-sourced.

What kind of restaurants do you like going to?

Anne: I’m a bit over the excitement of fine-dining places – you forget the joys of eating food. It can be an interesting experience but the meals I remember are the more laid-back ones when you’re with a bunch of friends just having a good time. It doesn’t matter what kind of plates you’re eating from or whether the porcelain is custom-made.

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I agree. The idea of eating tasting menus all the time doesn’t appeal to me, even if I could afford it. But I still find it pretty exciting on special occasions.

Anne: For sure. I think my best ever dining experience was Fäviken. I went there two years ago, on midsummer’s day, and it was like entering a different universe. First of all it’s very remote and surrounded by fields and forests. The surroundings are so incredibly beautiful. The great thing is that most people stay overnight, and when you wake up they are making your breakfast. The food was incredible – it’s kind of expected I guess – but the surroundings and the fact that when you’re done eating dinner it’s not over, you’re not going back to some soulless hotel… that makes a big difference.

This is a really good restaurant in Copenhagen that uses unusual cuts of meat… deep-fried bull’s balls with tartar sauce, half a pig’s head, lamb’s brain… It’s different
Anne and Charles on their favourite restaurants – see Address Book

But did the food match up to the experience?

Anne: In my opinion, everything tasted really, really good. Sometimes at the best restaurants there might be interesting elements, but you wouldn’t be eating the whole plate or fermented grasshoppers or whatever. Fäviken was both interesting and enjoyable. The flavours are very traditionally Swedish: they have an amazing butter that’s been aged for two years in peat moss so it can’t get rancid – it’s orange and really full on but absolutely delicious. Just eating the butter would have been okay. They have traditional pickled herring, or matjes, which they age for three years or so using cedar wood – the texture’s mental. The fact that you have to plan three years ahead: they have my respect for that.

In terms of roasting coffee, is your approach different to other roasters?

Charles: Well, flavour-wise at least, we like coffee with high acidity and high sweetness. We’re not so much into heavy coffees, we prefer coffees that are clear and bright.
Anne: We like to highlight what’s unique about each coffee, the terroir, as you would with wine.
Charles: Of course, there are always trends. This year, there is a lot of focus on the caramelisation process, on getting more sugars. There is a lot of focus on the last 60 to 90 seconds [of the roast].

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What’s going on in the last 60 to 90 seconds?

Charles: It’s perhaps the most crucial part when it comes to developing the taste. The coffee starts giving off heat and caramelising due to the Maillard reaction4. You don’t want to talk to the roaster in those last 90 seconds [laughs].Roasting coffee is easy: you put it in the machine and it gets brown. But having a profile that really suits the coffee and getting there is complex. And doing the same profile over and over again is difficult too – that’s where all the work is.

I love drinking coffee but I go a bit haywire if I have more than one cup. How do you deal with the caffeine?

Anne: That’s one of the things that’s good with me. I’m not sensitive to caffeine. I could easily go a week without drinking, or I could have lots.

On The Menu

Lunch with Anne Lunell and Charles Nystrand
Helsingborg, July 2015

To eat:

Pata negra
Anchovies
Brödkultur sourdough bread
Mushroom ravioli with fresh peas and brown butter »

To drink – at Koppi:

Kathakwa AA (made with V60)
Gachatha peaberry (made with V60)
Espresso and tonic (Kabingara peaberry)

To drink – at home:

Freedom of Peach, Jean-Marc Brignot & Anders Frederik Steen
Hellsass, Jean-Marc Brignot et Anders Frederik Steen
Musikanto, Bernabé Navarro
Rhubarb and ginger lemonade

It doesn’t affect you?

Charles: Never?
Anne: No.
Charles: Wow.
Anne: At least if it’s quality coffee – I don’t know how I would react if I had robusta, which is much higher in caffeine. If I go to Kenya and try coffees, I can taste 600 cups in a day. You spit, but you still have to try 600 cups. But then you kind of want a cold beer afterwards, or a gin and tonic, for sure. Some people do get nauseous.

Are you still able to make judgements after your 599th cup?

Charles: It’s difficult.
Anne: Yeah. But I have a method that I think is working pretty well.

What is it?

Anne: If you have a flight of 30 coffees, I go over them all once and make a note of the good ones. I’ll go over all of them one more time, but focus mainly on the ones I’ve picked out. Which makes sense. You don’t want to waste time on something you’ll never buy anyway.

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Do you find that your first judgement is often the right one?

Anne: Yeah. If it’s a very tiny defect, or a problem in the processing – it’s been dried too fast – you can taste that when it cools down. You may not notice the problem when it’s hot, but when it cools it will have an astringent finish.

Charles, do you have a coffee threshold?

Charles: Yeah I think so. But I drink more than you do anyway.
Anne: Yeah, you get a headache if you don’t have coffee.

So you get up in the morning and have one straight away?

Charles: It depends. If I’m working, I’ll wait till I get to the shop, because the equipment is better. But on Sundays when I’m off, yeah sure, that’s the first thing I do. I’ll get up before Anne, make coffee on a V60, listen to records, read. The coffee won’t be perfect, but it’s always my favourite cup of the week.

Koppi coffee shop is at Norra Storgatan 16, 252 20 Helsingborg, Sweden. You can buy their coffee online at www.koppi.se. Follow Anne on Twitter and Instagram

  1. Previously it was a restaurant run by chef Niklas Ekstedt, one of our recent interviewees
  2. A well-known Swedish chef who opened his first restaurant, Niklas, in Helsingborg but later moved to Stockholm, where he now runs the restaurant Ekstedt. The site of his Helsingborg restaurant is now occupied by the Koppi shop. We interviewed Niklas a few days before we visited Anne and Charles – you can find it here
  3. Anne is referring to unroasted (green) coffee beans which they source around the world and roast at the shop
  4. A chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that gives browned food its desirable flavor, according to Wikipedia

Posted 12th November 2015

In Interviews

 

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Noémie Reijnen

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