19grams was founded in Berlin in 2002 as Tres Cabezas. At this time, specialty coffee was barely recognized in Germany. The company has built relationships with coffee farmers over the past twenty years, by visiting coffee producers from around the world, and with their experience, they have been running a sustainable business. We spoke with Gerrit, a senior executive who joined the company in 2018 and has been instrumental in the growth of the business, and Anthony, 19grams Head Roaster who joined in 2017.
Encountering the gem called specialty coffee.
19grams. The name of the shop is very simple and clear. The name comes from the first dose that was used in their cafe; 19 grams of coffee beans for a double espresso.
Gerrit, who suggested the name, states, “The name of the company when it was established was ‘Tres Cabezas,’ which was hard to read and pronounce. ‘19grams’ made sense as it was directly related to coffee, so there was no need to explain what the brand was. The idea of using ‘19grams’ as the brand name is a very logical one.”
The customer-oriented branding strategy of 19grams is also reflected in the pastel-colored product packaging. The pictures of pears, apples, cinnamon, etc. on the packaging allow customers to have an idea of the taste of the coffee at first glance. This was also born out of logical thought; “Making it easier for customers while being unique and playful so that people are naturally attracted to it.”
Gerrit, who used to work as a leader in the strategy office of a major automobile manufacturer, entered the world of specialty coffee because he found it appealing.
It was in 2018 that Gerrit met Sasha and others, who are the founding members of 19grams. He was at an event at the Embassy of Costa Rica in Berlin where they were giving speeches.
They talked about how specialty coffee is a good and fair choice for realizing sustainability through direct trade. How it doesn’t harm the environment and doesn’t wear out the producers. He understood the appeal of specialty coffee and its products very well but the strategy of how to sell it was not touched upon at the speech.
Gerrit says, “When I went home that day and thought about it, I realized that this was a tremendous opportunity. I was convinced that if we could polish a rough diamond they had with the company’s story, add a catchy phrase, promote them nicely, their business would definitely grow.”
Gerrit talked about it to Sascha and the other founding members and started to get involved in the business of 19grams. After a three-month probation period, Gerrit officially became a member. He took charge of the branding and expanded the business to not only serve cafes but also supply to hotels and restaurants (B to B) and online stores (Direct to Consumer).
One of the unique products of 19grams is their Advent calendar. It is a specialty coffee version, which is a popular product during Christmas in Germany and reaches a global level. Customers can have and experience a different kind of coffee from the 1st to the 24th of December. The store starts accepting orders in mid-August and they sell out quickly every year.
“People drink coffee from different countries, different varieties, brew with different methods every day, learn about the differences, and experience the big world of coffee. When we first started selling it in 2014, it was only available to buy at the store, but the interest from customers was greater than we expected, so we continued to improve the lineups and design of the coffees. Thanks to our efforts, the sales volume has skyrocketed from about one hundred in the beginning to several thousand, and we plan to create more than ten thousand calendars in 2021.”
“In Germany, there is a tendency with things that become popular in the U.K. and the U.S. coming in late, and this is exactly the case with specialty coffee. Coffee has always been a familiar drink for Germans, so my prediction was right that if this trend comes to Germany, it will be popular here.”
Someone will recognize us someday.
19grams has gained customers in Germany and abroad, with its online store doubling in sales every year, but it hasn’t been all smooth sailing.
Inspired by the specialty coffee culture in the U.S., Sascha and others founded Tres Cabezas, now known as 19grams. They began roasting and selling specialty coffee in 2002. The awareness about specialty coffee in Germany was next to nothing at that time.
Gerrit states, “Germany has a very peculiar coffee tradition. Since the arrival of coffee in the 19th century, it has been a cheap and practical drink that workers drink to stay focused and motivated during work. The average national consumption of coffee is about 160 liters per year, which is more than the consumption of beer or water, but since it was only for practical drinks, it didn’t taste very good or create a pleasant experience.”
Despite this, the founding members of the company traveled to coffee producing countries. They got to know producers that owned farms in Costa Rica and produced their own coffee. They believed that there would eventually come a time when people would understand and appreciate the quality of their coffee, so that they made a business out of it. They had been believing this and learning more about specialty coffee for about eight years. It was around 2010 that the seeds they had been planting began to sprout.
“When I started selling to customers overseas, people started to tell us, ‘Your efforts are really great, and we would like to become your customer because you have such deep knowledge about specialty coffee.’ ”
“Needless to say, we could come this far maintaining our motivation and continue our involvement in the specialty coffee business because there are hotels and restaurants in Germany that appreciate what we do and have continued to buy our coffee.”
With a focus on sustainability and its relationship with producers in mind, 19grams has been working with established producers for many years. As they continue to discover and meet new producers that they can do business with, the variety of coffee is also increasing.
Anthony, the Head Roaster from Australia who joined the team in 2017, says, “I’ve worked in roasteries before, but 19grams is the only roastery I have worked in that gets coffee from direct trade. While working for a company where I can see how the coffees are grown and processed, I feel connected to the coffee community. As a roaster, it is very rewarding to be able to roast coffee from coffee producers I know.”
To deepen this connection, 19grams planned ‘a coffee travel program’ where the employees would visit coffee producers for at least one week in 2020. Unfortunately, the program was cancelled due to Covid-19, but they plan to do it when the situation improves.
Gerrit says, “We purchase, roast, and sell green coffee beans that are carefully grown by the producers. Our customers say to us, ‘It was an impressive taste,’ ‘It’s just a pure bliss,’ ‘It’s wonderful taste without any peculiar flavors,’ or ‘You guys are doing a really good job. You’re on the right path.’ There is no greater happiness than that, is there?”
“Our company at the moment is growing steadily, but we have to take steps to ensure that we stay relevant as the market evolves. Not only do we want to make good coffee, but we also want to provide educational content that is also entertaining, so that more people can learn about coffee from us.”
Balancing business and ethics.
When he met the founding members at the Embassy of Costa Rica in Berlin in 2018, Gerrit was in a phase where he was exploring a new life.
“I was fed up with working for a big company although I could make a lot of money, I didn’t feel connected to the products I was selling, and even though I was speaking to hundreds of people, it often didn’t accomplish what I was trying to do.”
Gerrit wanted to work for a small company where he can influence people and he feels connected with the products. He wanted to do something that excites him more, rather than just focusing on profits. It was during this time that Gerrit met the founding members.
“The birth of my son in 2015 changed the way I think. It’s no exaggeration to say that our affluence in the developed world, where we waste energy and resources, is at the expense of those “who have no choice” in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America.”
“If we want our son to be living in a world that it’s worth living, we have a responsibility to change something. Many people say that we need to look at our lifestyle and change it, but only a limited number of people actually take action. When I thought about it, I decided that working for a small company was the best choice for me.”
“The most important thing is to make money with this kind of business model. I am not a socialist or a communist and I am not against making money. I just believe that we should change things that we need to change while fulfilling our responsibilities to society while making money.”
The rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. If it is human beings who create this, it is also human beings who can stop it.
“We are proud of the quality of the coffee we roast, and we continue to maintain relationships with our producers, so it benefits them financially as much as possible. Of course, we have a lot of challenges and things to learn, but I am convinced at least that we are running a more sustainable and high-level business than any other company I have worked for.”
“I have a job where I feel happy to wake up and head to work every morning for the first time in my life.” I think the secret to the continued growth of 19grams is that we are building our business having both business and ethical perspectives.”
The global company that Gerrit once worked for must have had “a face-to-face relationship” when the company was founded where they could feel connections with people.
Specialty coffees, which are carefully handled from person to person and delivered to consumers, may remind us of the origin of human beings. We are connected to one another while we are living.
Originally written in Japanese by Tatsuya Nakamichi.
“It was not until I started working at 19grams that I began to enjoy coffee, which used to only be consumed as a practical drink. I’ve learned to appreciate the flavors of coffee, such as funky flavors and notes of grapes and apples. The coffee made by Anthony and the other professionals is exceptional. Arriving at the office in the morning and having a cup of coffee has turned from a routine into a blissful moment of enjoying the taste of coffee.”
“As a roaster, it’s a wonderful experience to discover different flavors and aromas by trying different coffees from around the world. I like to sit back in my chair on a Saturday morning and enjoy a cup of coffee that I brewed myself. It’s a precious moment when I can get away from thinking about “how to make it taste better” to spend time with coffee as an ordinary person. I feel at peace.”