Holvi Blog for Makers and Doers

Kalle Freese — entrepreneur passionate about coffee

Entrepreneurship · 06/01/16 19:00 · Elena Zozulya

Helsinki’s young and vibrant coffee culture has evolved rapidly in the last few years, and Kalle Freese is one of the key makers and doers behind this change. An entrepreneur passionate about coffee, Kalle is one of the World Top 10 Baristas 2015 and the Finnish Barista Champion 2013 & 2015. At the age of 21, he opened his first coffee shop in Helsinki on a street named after his 17th-century forefather, poet Jacob Freese. Today, his ambitions go far beyond running a small shop that serves delicious coffee. As Kalle also happens to be the Holvi customer, we couldn’t help but catch up with him for an interview to hear about his entrepreneurial story and his new coffee startup.

Your team of baristas and volunteers served coffee at Slush [a two-day tech conference that took place in November in Helsinki and gathered around 15,000 people]. In your Instagram post, you mention that your team served one cappuccino every 11 seconds at the event. How much coffee did you serve in total? And what does Slush mean to you?

We served over 14,500 cups of coffee. Before the event, I had calculated that we could make 260 cups of coffee per hour on one machine. We actually made over 400 coffee drinks an hour for 10 hours straight on both days. I don’t think anyone has done anything similar on this scale, at least not with this good coffee. In general, Slush has been a huge inspiration to me. I feel lucky to have found the group of people who are so passionate about what they do. I wouldn’t be where I am today without Slush and all the people around it.

Freese coffee at Slush

How did you get interested in coffee?

My story with coffee actually started with my interest in food. I was really excited about food as a kid and wanted to become a chef at the age of 14. I wanted to start at the best restaurant in Finland, so I got into Finland’s only two Michelin starred restaurant Chez Dominique when it was still in existence. Not long after that, my family moved to New Zealand and that’s where I discovered that coffee can actually taste good, which is not something you would learn in Finland. That was a revelation for me. I started going out to cafés and figuring out what drinks I like best and what cafés are my favourite.

When we returned to Finland, I took half a day barista course. That’s when I realised that it is not a machine that makes coffee taste good, but it’s the guy behind the machine. The following night I had my first dream about coffee, which still happens every few weeks. I started my coffee career at Kaffa Roastery, where I was the first employee and now they are twenty more. I then started my own company and opened my first café three years ago. I had been dreaming about opening my own shop for a long time and when I reached it that was naturally a very incredible and proud moment for me. I really loved that place on Freese street, but I came to realise that a small shop is a good hobby but not a good business.

So you are a businessman first, and then a coffee geek?

Not really. If I wanted to make money, I would be an investment banker and do something else rather than make coffee. The reason why I make coffee is that for me it’s a very concrete way of making somebody’s day better. I serve people great coffee, they leave with a smile. That’s what I get paid to do. It’s not about serving coffee, but making people happy, and my vehicle to make people happy happens to be coffee.

However, in my shop I could only make about 50-100 people happy per day and that doesn’t make a dent in the universe. That’s why I am now working on launching a new startup in the coffee space.

Can you tell more about your startup Sudden Coffee? We hear you're launching public beta in January.

Over the summer, I developed the way to make instant coffee taste really good. Instead of having one tiny shop that makes a few people happy, I can make a hundred million people happy each day. By turning great coffee into an instant form, I can help people enjoy delicious coffee anywhere — on Mount Everest, Slush, airplane or at home, just by adding water or milk. It’s like magic.

To be honest, it feels so wrong to me. I geek about coffee! But it turns out great coffee doesn’t have to be difficult. My instant coffee is probably not the best coffee I’ve had, but it’s pretty close. It’s super delicious and you can have it so quickly. I am asking myself: is there a reason we make coffee the way we do it now, when we’ve got a better method of doing it? That’s what I am super excited about at the moment.

This spring, I’ve been thinking about what I want to dedicate my career to and I have decided that I want to improve the day for one billion people through better coffee, which tastes great and is better for the environment and the people producing it. When you drink better tasting coffee it’s better for the people who produce it, because they get more money for it and it’s better for the environment. I think we can make a huge impact if we get people to understand that they should drink a little bit less coffee, but better coffee.

Freese Coffee Academy

There is a lot of competition in the instant coffee space. What is your strategy for taking over this market?

I don’t see currently existing companies in the instant coffee space as our competitors. These companies make instant coffee cheap and try to make as much of it as possible. We want to focus on the quality and make our coffee as good as possible. I am not afraid of big corporations, I’m more afraid of other startups who could be doing the same thing.

You are moving to San Francisco to build your company. Why San Francisco?

Nobody drinks instant coffee in Finland. I also prefer surfing over snowboarding. San Francisco is a great city. Everybody makes technology there, and when you make something very concrete in the intangible world of the internet technology, you can see that it really resonates with people and they get it right away. I think there should be more ideas like this happening, not only social apps. I am sure there are challenges in San Francisco, it’s so expensive and fiercely competitive. But I just have a feeling it would be the right place to do this.

Are you doing it on your own or you have a co-founder?

I started as a solo founder and I can tell you — it’s pretty tough and lonely. However, I managed to develop the product enough to raise $500k funding from top investors like Lifeline Ventures, Founder Collective and Caterina Fake. In early December my advisor Jyri Engeström introduced me to his former employee Joshua — a Stanford graduate and former McKinsey consultant. We clicked right away and after a month of working together I took him onboard as a co-founder and COO.

Who has been your biggest inspiration on your coffee journey?

It’s probably James Hoffmann from London. He runs a company cold Square Mile Coffee Roasters that is one of the best roasters in the world. He is the World Barista Champion in 2007 and he is just really good at making coffee. He’s been blogging about coffee for ten years and his writing has been probably the most inspirational to me.

For Better Coffee - Slush 2014

You were involved in various educational coffee projects, such as For Better Coffee and Freese Coffee Academy. Who continues your work in the Helsinki coffee scene?

It was a lot of work to get to where I am now, but I’ve always had good people around to help me. I try to pass on my knowledge and teach people. About a year and a half ago we launched Freese Coffee Academy where we trained 12 people to become baristas. The demand for baristas has tremendously increased, yet there is no formal education. In three weeks, I gave our students all the knowledge I had. We had a few great people at this course. For example, Julia Reinhard who used to be our customer and then she applied to this program. Now she works at Good Life Coffee, one of the best shops in Helsinki. I hope my success in coffee competitions inspires more young people to be more ambitious about their coffee career and show that you can do cool stuff if you want.

What are the best three places to try good coffee in Helsinki?

Good Life Coffee

Maija Coffee Roastery (This is a secret spot, which actually serves the best coffee in Helsinki.)

Johan and Nyström

Photos by Freese Coffee Academy, For Better Coffee, Maija Astikainen and Sami Välikangas for Slush.



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