Update: Congratulations to Michalis Dimitrakopoulos for WINNING the 2016 Coffee in Good Spirits World Championship!
On the 29th of this month, Shanghai hosts the 2016 Coffee in Good Spirits World Championship; the ultimate competition for baristas who love mixing coffee and alcohol. Rewind back to the beginning of February, to The Underdog in the Thiseio area right below the Akropolis in Athens, Greece. Michalis Dimitrakopoulos was getting ready for the Greek sectional that upcoming weekend, and we met with him to talk about the meaning of the “barista” title, how Greeks are educating themselves in the art of coffee, and the common ground of coffee making and bartending.
The Underdog is housed in a large neoclassical building on the slope leading up to the Akropolis, and walking there in the morning is a perfect way to set the mood before you enter the shop. It is one of the few places you can walk in Athens that is blessed with no street noise, and like a palette cleanser, the air gets fresher as you walk upwards to Thiseio, passing the stands selling hand-crafted jewelry and vintage artifacts on the way. People who have time to be here in the morning are not in a rush anywhere. Entering the Underdog feels the same way on a weekday.
The space is several light-filled stories, renovated with an industrial hand and decorated with whimsy and fun details like collectible toys and a shiny maneki-neko cat sitting next to the iPad that’s measuring the exact weight of the coffee being brewed.
This is no ordinary coffee shop.
Michalis greets us slightly out of breath – he was on his way to practice when he remembered our meeting. Coffee practice, that is. As we’re about to learn, the Underdog is a house of education.
How did you first get introduced to this job?
I started working in this field in 2009, back in Patra, where I am from. I was 20 years old then. I met Tasos (owner Tasos Delichristos) at a few seminars here in Athens and I was also a frequent customer at his previous place. When the Underdog was in its planning stages, he contacted me about the job. I’ve been here since the beginning when we opened on 8 may 2015. It’s been almost a year, and it’s made a huge difference for me.
Do you see a difference in the coffee drinking culture here in Athens, versus in your home town?
Yes! The people I used to serve associated coffee with something bitter. But bitterness doesn’t wake you up in the morning, the caffeine does. It’s kind of absurd that people would pay for bad coffee when there is good coffee around. As far as I know, most people go as far as to choose coffee from places that hold their favorite brand. But a cup of coffee is so much more than a brand, you have to know how to make it! People here in Athens have started to learn that.
And the place they learn is at the Underdog. Looking around us, the place is furnished to inspire education. Traditional classroom chairs are set up around several large tables fit for large groups and discussions. The coffee bar (there are two) is low, serving as a table where guests can sit and have a conversation with the barista as their coffee is being made right in front of them. Not only that, but the Underdog also hosts several classes in the art of coffee, taught by owner Tasos Delichristos and barista Georgos Koustoumpardis.
When people think of drinking coffee in Greece, their minds might go straight to the traditional Greek/Turkish coffee, and for those who have been here on vacation, to iced coffee made from instant coffee powder. Is this an accurate image of the Athens coffee culture?
First of all, I think people who are in the coffee business or interested in coffee know that Greece has a lot to offer when it comes to coffee. Tasos and Georgos have both won world championships.
But sure, anyone who visits Athens and want to see this coffee culture will have to go online and do some research. There are a lot of good coffee shops and tons of good baristas in this town though, you just have to know where to go. The shift from our old habits, which may be more familiar to a tourist, is happening now. Young people are taking the idea of quality coffee to heart, whereas older people won’t easily change their coffee drinking habits.
It’s sort of logical isn’t it? Coffee is such an important part of people’s day, and you want what you’re used to. I can’t imagine my grandmother switching out her Greek coffee for an espresso and tonic…
Yes, but it also depends on the person. When I serve my mom a flat white – the New Zealand coffee trend that’s a double shot of espresso ristretto, served in a large cup and topped with skimmed milk – instead of cappuccino, and I explain why it is a more logical order that a double cappuccino, she gets it. It tastes better, and it won’t get cold before she can drink it.
Informing people is what I love, and I think everyone should be open to learning what they’re drinking and why.
For my morning coffee, I choose one of the drip brews. I pick a spicy bean from Kenya which Michalis prepares in a pour-over style glass coffeemaker. He is careful but effective in every step; measuring the beans with precision before grinding them, and soaking the filter with steaming water to get rid of any papery flavor and preheating the glass at the same time.
How does the Underdog differ from most other cafes in Athens? What do you offer that other places don’t?
For me personally, this place is different than anywhere else. I’ve honestly never not wanted to go to work here. We are such a great team and we all love what we do so sincerely. We are constantly discussing the creative part of the job, and Tasos and Georgos are amazing teachers.
We do very creative work here. We roast our own coffee, after choosing it ourselves, adjusting how we brew various coffees to suit our taste; not according to some manufacturer’s instructions.
Generally speaking, the Underdog wasn’t created with the sole aim of profit. That wasn’t part of it. We are here to do what we love.
You have gotten quite a lot of attention since you opened. Why are people interested in learning about the Underdog?
It’s definitely going well and people are very curious. Guests, especially young guests, ask a lot of questions. I’m asked to describe the coffee they’re about to drink so that they can better recognize the different notes and aromas. They want to know where their coffee is from and what it’s called. They’re educating themselves! They go home and Google stuff afterwards because they want to know more.
Where are your beans from, and how do you go about sourcing them?
We use beans from Ethiopia, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Panama. We work with 90 plus; a company that is world leading when it comes to distributing beans for gourmet use. We’ve travelled to their farms to learn everything there is to know about the production of the beans we turn into coffee. We get the beans raw and roast them ourselves, with separate roasts for espresso and for drip coffee, but we basically want to know everything about what the bean has been through up to that point.
What kinds of coffee do you serve and how many methods do you use for making coffee?
To make filter coffee, we use several different methods. I made the coffee you’re drinking in a chemex. We also use clever dripper, v60 and syphon. We choose not to brew with a kalita or French press because we don’t like the results.
The clever dripper and the v60 are both pour-over style coffeemakers consisting of cone-shaped filter holders built to be placed directly over a cup or over a carafe. The syphon coffee maker (or vacpot) on the other hand, looks like something from a mad scientist movie; consisting of two glass containers connected by a siphon tube, situated above a gas flame.
Tell me about the process of turning the beans into coffee. What do you consider the most sensitive part of the process?
That’s an almost impossible question, because every phase is important. I can only say that the earlier in the production a mistake is made, the harder it is to rectify. It will cause a chain reaction. If you have a good bean that gets damaged in transport – any moisture would do that for example – it’s destroyed. If the roasting isn’t done right, it’s almost impossible to rectify. If the packaging isn’t secure enough, hopefully that only affects some of your beans. If the barista makes a mistake, he can’t undo it, but he can brew another cup.
It’s a long process for us. We always have at least two different beans that guests can choose from, which means double the effort. We choose the green raw beans from samples sent to us from our distributor through a cupping session. Roasting is a delicate process of course, and once roasted, the beans for our drip coffee has to sit for 4-5 days before it can be served, and the espresso beans need to rest for 9-10 days.
Aging the beans is something you can play with to eternity. Coffee made from beans that have been roasted the same day will taste very different from a cup made from the beans we serve. A cup made from a bag of coffee that’s been sitting for a month will bring you yet other flavors; they might be either good or bad. Our beans have rested the exact time after roasting to bring their flavor out in the best way.
Before we start serving the new batch, we all do a tasting together, and set the espresso makers. We usually agree on how to brew the beans to make them taste best.
How often do you do this?
It’s not a big deal. There are just a lot of ways that we brew coffee and our selections vary, today we have espresso from Costa Rica and from Peru for example, so we try them out and help each other out. We might find that one of our espresso beans don’t go as well with the milk in a cappuccino as the other, and then that’s something that we needed to know.
We also ask our customers. Since a lot of our guests are interested in coffee and have learned a lot about it, we make sure we get their opinion as well.
How do you take your coffee?
Without sugar. Regular sweeteners are not compatible with coffee, but rather they cover the flavor of the bean. Mainly, it covers the bad characteristics of the bean, which can be a good thing, but you won’t completely understand its profile. I enjoy and will drink all kinds of coffee, but I want to taste the bean. I want to learn. Since coming to work here I have fallen in love with drip brews.
Who is the typical Underdog guest?
Mostly young people, and people who want to learn about coffee.
The espresso tonic, or “black tonic”, trend has been a fact for a couple of years now, but you put it on the map in Athens. What does it take to make a good espresso tonic?
Yes, just like cold brews and flat white, we introduced it to the Athenians, and it is extremely popular during the summer.
We make our espresso tonics with aged espresso. What that means is that we make the espresso the day before it is served. We bottle up double espresso shots and keep them chilled until the next day. This way, the espresso is very cold, which will ensure it doesn’t cause your glass to foam over when it’s added to the carbonated soda. We need this part to work so that we can safely let the guests add the espresso themselves, and make their coffee as strong and sweet as they like it by playing with the coffee/tonic ratios. It also means we do run out of espresso tonics sometimes, but that’s okay I think; rather that than less quality.
I can only agree. The espresso tonic might be the ultimate coffee drink for those of us who want some sort of sweetener in our iced coffee, without it overpowering the bean. The tonic mirrors the bitterness of the espresso, and is the perfect companion to bring out the spicy or fruity notes in the bean. Not to mention, the carbonation makes it a perfect refreshing summer drink.
I am so in love with the espresso tonic at the Underdog in fact, that after my initial visit here all I could think about was whether I’d be able to replicate it at home. As it turns out, I can’t, so I take the opportunity to find out as much as I can.
What tonic and which beans do you use to make your espresso tonic?
We use espresso that’s on the fruitier side, like a bean from Ethiopia, and various flavors of Three Cents or Turbo tonic.
What other ways to serve coffee have you noticed that will be trending this year?
There are two trends I believe are destined to take off here at some point, but it’s tough for any coffee shop to offer them logistically. Generally, on a global level, nitro cold brews are bound to keep trending and become more and more popular. We haven’t introduced it yet. Also, i think pairing coffee and booze is something that we will see more and more of.
What about the food you serve? Do you pay attention to how the Athenians pair coffee with food?
Up until now, this hasn’t been our main focus. We are not an eatery per se. However, our lunch menu is being created as we speak, and it will be available from 1pm every weekday starting next week.
Tell me about the barista classes you host.
The seminars are taught by Tasos and Georgos, and they’re for anyone who loves coffee and wants to learn more about any part of the coffee making process. An aspiring barista can take part, but it’s also a great experience for someone who just wants to understand coffee and its flavors. My favorite seminar is Cupping, where you learn to pick up on the flavors and aromas of coffee. We also host a basic Barista class, and the Brewers class; where you learn everything about drip brews.
You serve other things here as well; a wide range of Greek artisan beers for example. What is your philosophy when sourcing these beers?
Yes, that’s all thanks to Tasos and his travels. He loves and tries beer from small breweries wherever he goes, and we love to promote good products. They’re small batch beers that are new on the market, and the menu changes all the time.
Baristas seem to be acting more and more the role of mixologists, and you have a long list of signature cocktails here as well. Is there a red thread connecting the way you make coffee and the way you make cocktails at the Underdog?
I am very restrictive with the word barista. I don’t even easily call myself that. I believe that a barista is someone who loves and cares a lot about his work with coffee; someone who is a creative and understands the techniques they are using. It’s someone who finds joy and meaning in being a barista. A bartender with the same values, in that same way, is worthy of his title.
When it comes down to it, baristas and bartenders are both mixing liquids to create a good drink. You can age rum and you can age coffee. Basically every barista has worked as a bartender at some point, and I believe it to be an important part of our training.
Cristos Chouseas from bar 42 created our cocktail list, which includes an Irish coffee, and cocktails with bitters made with coffee beans.
Before I let you go: You will be mixing coffee and alcohol this weekend when you are competing in the Greek Coffee in Good Spirits competition for a place in the world championship. Are you ready?
Well, Tasos was the first Greek barista to win this championship, and Georgos won last year, so it’s sort of like I have a chance to bring the title back home this year. I’m really excited, but not really nervous. If I get to go to Shanghai for the world championship that would be amazing, but you know, Greeks watch soccer, not baristas, so at least I won’t be mocked if it doesn’t go well.
As Michalis leaves for his practice, we stick around for a while, trying a couple of the small batch beers and Italian style espresso freddo and enjoying the calm morning. The Underdog might be busy on weekends, but on weekdays it is the ultimate place to unwind while you wire up. Once the caffeine gets me, I wish I had my laptop so I could make use of the creative work space. Michalis on the other hand, has. A few days after our visit, he is named the new Coffee In Good Spirits champion for Greece, and he will be travelling to Shanghai for the World Championship later this month.
Name of establishment: The Underdog
Adress: Irakleidon 8, Thiseio
Phone number: 213 0365393
Credit cards yes/no: Not yet
Hours: 9am – 00.30am on weekdays, later on weekends
Weekend brunch hours: 11am – 5pm
Reservation needed?: On weekends
This article was written for Toovia Magazine and previously published on Toovia.com (site currently down).
All pictures for this post were taken by Dimitris Drisas for Toovia Magazine, unless stated otherwise.