We had a warm chat with Fran, owner of Café Lab, an amazing multipurpose space in Cartagena, the beautiful city in Murcia. His approach to coffee has got the attention of many of the locals, as well as of many coffee enthusiasts all over Spain. His love for coffee is true and knows no limits, we let ourselves get carried away by all of his new projects involving laboratories and experts from around the globe.
How do you make a perfect coffee?
The starting point for the perfect coffee is excellent raw material, I would choose Colombian, of the geisha variety, from the La Esperanza estate, with a light toast. The next step is the fine tuning of our machine, an Iberital, perfectly calibrated, with extraordinary technical characteristics, carefully taken care of so that it makes the best coffee.
Then we weigh up 16 grams of coffee for a cup which can fit 32 grams. The extraction can take up to 30 seconds and we serve it in a thick crystal glass with a concave bottom.
How did Café Lab start?
The idea comes from the need to create a space in which the new coffee culture is dominant. The concept, the space, the product as well as our baristas Edwin, Juan and Alisha are as important as each other.
In Café Lab our clients can have several experiences at once. A space in which the raw material is exceptional, something we are very careful about, because we have been roasting for 40 years now. We also offer innovative techniques to prepare our coffees. The baristas in our coffee laboratory are authentic alchemists with regards to the product, they experiment and artisanally elaborate each cup, each glass, and each mug.
We have created an atmosphere where recycled products are given precedence, in which they are mixed with vintage decoration or directly with antiques.
We have a world map from the 19th century, the display cabinet – which is behind the bar and which I myself have customized – is an art deco piece of furniture from the 1920s that I bought from an antique shop, which in turn got it from an emblematic modernist house in Cartagena. The tables are recycled coffee makers, and if you go into the bathroom you cross a recycled door where the bell is a coffee maker top.
For the coffee fanatics who visit our premises we offer a complete experience: they ask for a coffee, we explain to them what they are going to have, we prepare it in front of their eyes and after they get to savour it in a unique space. They can also take it home, since there is also a shop where you can buy all Café Lab-Cafés Bernal products.
The most daring among them can also learn how to extract coffee, by becoming authentic specialists, because we offer tasting and barista courses. It was also very important for us, given the double dimension of toasting and catering, to take care of our traditional clients (mostly caterers) so as to spread this taste for good coffee.
What is the coffee scene like in Spain and in Cartagena?
The coffee lovers’ revolution can also appear in a provincial city. Cartagena has 216.000 inhabitants and a, shall we say, limited coffee culture. Only three months in we are already showing that our concept can triumph. Our establishment is groundbreaking, not only for this city, but also for the region of Murcia, and not to seem arrogant, we can say that we offer something which does not exist anywhere in the country.
Little by little, those who love this product are creating interest for good coffee. We invite our clients to come and learn; this is why we offer the tastings and the courses. For most people coffee is a business for us it is a culture and this is the real revolution we want to bring about.
What do you think about the Specialty Coffee?
Speciality coffees are at the core of what we offer. We try to select unique coffees, which we find in select estates. Usually these are few and far between, the limited production of small coffee growers, with unique characteristics from where they were cultivated and from the singularity of the microclimate in which it was grown, like for example our coffees from the Sofia Estate. We look for special and exclusive flavours.
It is expensive but worth it. They are small gifts which we offer our best clients. It is also a plus for our baristas who get to have these coffees at their disposal to compete in regional or national championships. These special coffees become a completely unique product when we give them the slight optimal toasting which comes from our knowledge as master toasters.
What do you think about the Third Wave of Coffee?
We want the Third wave of Coffee to spread, and our eagerness is to bring something – “our coffee” – to the table so that each establishment where there is a coffee maker, caterers realise that there should be a barista and not only a waiter. In these places, those professionals give absolute importance to the coffee which is treated as a delicacy, and that’s what we do. We share a vision of a coffee without disguises, without additives, with flavour where what matters most is the origin.
Behind every bar and in front of every coffee machine in these establishments there are baristas who understand that serving coffee is a specialised profession. They know about tasting and toasting, they usually get involved in the production chain, some foment relationships with coffee growers and other possess abilities and knowledge which go way beyond the making of an espresso.
Our barista Edwin Chaverra is preparing in our training room for the national championship of baristas. Our professionals are capable of preparing a wide variety of coffee-based drinks, they are skilled in the latte art technique and they know the product they are working with.
Is the public in Café Lab different?
In theory our public is not different. At first they are attracted by the interior design of the premises. After they fall in love when they try the coffee and come back time and again. In small cities, Starbucks has not arrived yet so it has not needed to lose its charm. We have waiting lists for the tastings, for the courses; we are fast tracking the creation of a coffee culture…
What’s the best music for a coffee?
Classic jazz to give it rhythm and pace to the experience of having a good coffee.
A good book for a good coffee?
I suggest the classic “100 years of solitude” by García Marquez, which inspired our Macondo blend, the name of the small town invited by the Nobel Prize winning colombian….
I can also suggest you sit in CaféLab with Don Winslow’s latest book, the Cartel, which talks about drug trafficking between the US and Mexico, two countries which also have a lot to do with coffee, one because it is a producer and the other because it is a consumer.
Coffee alone or in company?
Coffee as you wish: coffee makes for an extraordinary companion to chase away loneliness and hardships, to stimulate reflexion and awaken thought. In company it is fantastic, there is no better drink to fuel good conversation and a spirited chat.
Your Coffee guru?
My coffee guru is my father, Francisco Bernal, who founded this business when I was four years old. My father passed down to me the passion for coffee, almost without realising. He probably doesn’t know but he is the only great guru I know. He owned a foodstore and he put his own small mini-toaster in a corner…. He did it all alone, without help, he has lived through the first, second and now third wave of coffee.