The talents of Tallinn

Slowly but surely, the Estonian capital’s cafés are introducing new and innovative takes on coffee to the city’s inhabitants. Douglas North searches out the fledgling scene’s leading lights.

The historic city of Tallinn – famous for its crimson red roofscape and its medieval Old Town, a world heritage site – lies on the shores of the Baltic Sea across the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki. It’s the capital of Estonia, a country with 50% of its land covered in forest and a modest population of just over one million.

It’s only a three-hour flight from London, but you couldn’t feel further away. Here you can breathe fresh air and swim in clean, transparent lakes. But despite the apparent charms of rustic living, within a few hours of landing I find myself scanning the capital’s streets for a good cup of coffee.

Estonians pride themselves on their coffee consumption and see the beverage as a quintessential part of their morning, afternoon and evening routine. But despite such promising traditions, standard coffee quality here is mostly governed by the company Paulig, a roaster with a more traditional approach that puts a higher value in crema than in sweetness. Paulig and its robusta and arabica blends seem to have a monopoly in the familiar, Parisian-inspired cafés that pave Tallinn’s streets, but all is not lost to the dark side thanks to a few pioneering individuals.

Coffee People (aka gourmet coffee)

Coffee People is the driving force behind Estonia’s speciality coffee scene, steered by Annar Alas, a WBC judge, and Heili Politanov, a Cup of Excellence judge. The company was originally named Gourmet Coffee, but was rebranded after copycats imitated the product. I met the pair at their roastery in the suburbs of Tallinn to discuss what is happening in the Estonian coffee scene.

“All the places you can get a good coffee in Tallinn have grown out of Gourmet Coffee. It has been 15 years of work but I think Estonia is now a good place for coffee,” says Annar as we embark on an expedition through his warehouse, which is equipped with a Loring roaster and ping pong table.

The project not only involves direct trade but also educates selected farmers on how to improve their yield quality. “There is a native tribe called Inga Aponte on the border of Equador and Colombia,” says Annar. “I found the tribe, took part in the rituals and helped them to switch from cocaine to coffee four years ago.” He bought the tribe’s harvest at more than three times the market price, and Inga Aponte is now exclusively sold to Coffee People.

Five minutes from the Old Town’s Freedom Square is the company’s most recent branch, Gourmet Coffee City (keeping the original name). Here you’ll find a metropolitan feel, with a sleek, titanium-grey wall with shelves for coffee and paraphernalia. If you’re in the mood for a coffee cupping while in Estonia, this is where you’ll find it – there’s a monthly showcase of coffees from all over Europe.

The company’s first café, located by the beautiful Kadrioru Park on Lydia Koidula street, sings a different tune, providing a more conventional mishmash of traditional Estonian design. This is where it all began: a separate room at the back once housed an old Probatone roaster.

The coffee beans here are world-class, served by knowledgeable staff who are itching to tell you more about the process. At the roastery, I was fortunate to get a coffee cupping, trying the Inga Aponte tribe’s coffee. It was a blast of red wine acidity and a heavy, silky body that put it at 88 on the Cup of Excellence standard, not bad for a first harvest.

“Internationally, coffee is going where beer and wine has gone, from branded products to specific farm-, region- and varietal-based products,” says Annar. “Above all, people love the stories behind the products – and Coffee People is all about connecting people.”

With exclusive sources and extensive experience, Coffee People seems to have it figured. Its angle resembles a similar ethos promoted by James Hoffmann of Square Mile, in which stories are an essential part of the experience, humanising the farming process and, crucially, widening the audience.

Trühvel Kohvik & The Brick Roastery

In northern Tallinn you’ll find Trühvel Kohvik, a high-end restaurant located on the outskirts of the Telliskivi cultural centre, an area with the rough-and-ready vibe east London is known for. Behind the restaurant’s bar you’ll find a whirling Diedrich IR-12 and the seasoned head roaster, Henry Politanov, who has his roots in Gourmet Coffee.

This project is young – it only began roasting in late July – but already very promising. Head barista Paap Pihelgas believes one of the advantages of the blooming Tallinn scene is the size of the country as a whole. When everyone knows each other, it’s easier to get people involved.

On entering the premises you immediately come face to face with a three-group La Marzocco Strada, each with separate water pressures. Here, the baristas have specific variable changes to the preparation of every coffee lot. Grind size, blooming stage and pouring method all differ depending on your choice.

I went for a Guatemalan red bourbon, a clean cup with honey sweetness. It’s served in a wine glass, which makes the experience feel exclusive – less a caffeine hit, more a celebration in taste. From the chairs to the lampshades, the atmosphere here brings a certain level of confidence in the quality of the product. Prices are around €3,50 (£2.50), with a Chemex setting you back only €7 (£5).

Renard Coffee Shop

Last – but definitely not least – on my tour was Renard Coffee Shop. It’s located next to its parent company, Renard Motorcycles, an enterprise whose aim was to revive the Estonian motorcycle industry after the Second World War. Just off Telliskivi and a three-minute walk from Trühvel, this café is a hidden gem, curled up between a craft ale store and an unused, graffiti-riddled train carriage that will soon be converted to a restaurant.

It’s also the newest of the bunch, only officially opening in September, but its leadership team have plenty of experience. Keit Lillemae previously worked in the wine industry, while head barista Sille Küttner started out at – you guessed it – Gourmet Coffee.

The decor is fresh, clean and balanced, with exposed brickwork and white-tiled central coffee bar. There’s a tattoo parlour and barber upstairs, and the atmosphere is one of excitement. There also seems to be a genuine interest in transforming Estonia into a coffee-loving nation.

The coffee selection itself comes from all over Europe and includes some of the best-known names in the business, from Drop Coffee to The Barn, all for the sweet price of €2.50 (£1.80) for a V60.

I cannot stress enough the pleasure I experienced when choosing from the plethora of roasters elegantly displayed on a revolving platform. According to Keit, it was designed to illustrate to new customers the vastness of the industry. And it seems to be working, as she recalls various stories of customers who were taken aback by the unfamiliar flavours but have since become café regulars. I opted for an Ethiopian Bifdu Gudina from Five Elephant with notes of black tea and apricot, prepared in a Chemex. At Renard the combination is up to you – making the decision is an integral part of the experience.

The creation of an Estonian Barista Association earlier this year is testament to the optimism flowing through Tallinn. Tourists and residents alike no longer have any excuse not to find a good caffeine source. Serious players are popping up all over the city and with this comes a momentum that leads to competition, community and, above all, a damn fine cup of coffee.