Esben Piper

When Aarhus native Esben Piper in 2012 founded the coffee company La Cabra, no one could have foreseen that this initiative would come to challenge the contemporary perception of coffee. Now La Cabra has just opened their second coffee place in New York, the city that never sleeps. Not to keep the population awake on caffeine, but to take root in the middle of a vibrant metropolis, introducing people to a different, and deeper experience of coffee. We met Esben, at his home in New York, for a conversation about rituals, interiors and the longing for connection.

Can you take us back to the time just before you founded La Cabra. Where were you in your life and what led you to finally start your journey into coffee?

I was in my second year of college in my hometown, feeling a bit lost in terms of direction. Or to put it more accurately, I had recently developed a love for coffee, which was diverting my attention away from my literature studies.

Initially, I believed I could juggle both pursuits, so I embarked on my entrepreneurial journey at the age of 24, albeit with a lack of focus, but with an overwhelming passion for this beverage that many people, both then and perhaps still now, take for granted.

Taking something for granted can sometimes be due to a culture that has not sufficiently challenged our conception of the world around us. Now coffee seems to move on the border between science and culture. On the one hand we have the perfection of taste and on the other hand the cultural perception of drinking coffee. What importance do you personally consider coffee to have today?

It is changing these years. First, I think that there is a connection between the scientific aspect of coffee, and the culture that arises around this. When I started brewing coffee, there was a tradition of processing the beans towards relatively conforming and uniform taste experiences. It was as if coffee had to be nothing but exactly what you already expected. This changed as we started experimenting with lighter roasts. Instead of reducing the complexity of coffee, I experienced how it became possible

to preserve the original nuances that come from the cultivation itself. It opened coffee and a whole new language arose. We began to put words to coffee, to talk about it in other ways. I think it resonates with a basic human curiosity. We would like to take part in the stories that coffee can convey, and, in this way, coffee is no longer tied to caffeine as a culture but to a sensuality as you know it from gastronomy, wine or champagne.

This change in culture has made people drink coffee in a new way. Do you think that the way we drink coffee can say something about who we are or about the time we live in?

I am sure that it says something about our culture just as it says something about the individual person. It says something about me as a person. In that way, coffee is a kind of mirror of life. Life contains both restlessness and presence, and the same can probably be said about coffee.

We can drink it for the caffeine and to keep us going. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, but we can also let it anchor us through a sensual experience and that might encourage a different and more present way of being human.

It reminds me of the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty who once wrote that "The body is our general medium for having a world". The phrase is a kind of phenomenological determination of human experience and reminds us that the world always appears to us through our sentient bodies. In that sense, can coffee help to enhance our experience of the world?

It is quite clear that the body gives access to the world, but it is not easy. The starting point for making coffee for me was precisely about moving from my head down to my body. Today, a coffee experience can recall memories and be a direct access to the places where I experienced a specific bean for the first time.

In that sense, the coffee becomes a kind of ethnological testimony of a place. For others, coffee is linked to their personal memories. Over the past 10 years, we have shared many different coffees with our customers, and it is not uncommon for people to describe experiences that are linked to a particular coffee and that this coffee can recall again and again.

Does this mean that coffee creates attachment?

Yes, it can do that. It can connect people to personal memories, and it can connect us to places, to the geographical origin of a coffee, which is always nature.

Do you think it is a longing for nature that resonates in our search for sensual experiences today?

There may be. For me, it is definitely like that and some of the most intense experiences I have had with coffee have also been connected to something honest and almost unrefined. A completely pure experience.

Is there a particular experience that comes to mind?

A few years ago, I traveled around Africa to taste coffee. At one point I lived on an Ethiopian farm and lived here with the local farmers. In the morning, we started the day with coffee. The fresh beans were roasted over a fire before the coffee

was ground by hand with a mortar. Tasting the finished brew was much more than drinking a cup of coffee. It was something
deeply personal, a gesture – a place and a people that I became attached to through the coffee.

When we talk, it becomes clear that you have a hope that coffee can create a connection to the world. That it creates access to places, stories, people. I can't help but think about whether it also works the other way, whether places, rooms atmospheres also create a special access to the coffee?

It is not a simple question to answer. Not too long ago I stood in a kind of coffee laboratory in Brazil and tasted coffees. As such, there was nothing authentic about the experience and the surroundings were as uninspiring as you can imagine. But I always try to isolate the experience of coffee to the cup and here I

suddenly tasted something that made all the context disappear. It was an insanely intense experience and quite descriptive of the vision we have for La Cabra. It's about the coffee, but on the other hand, I also believe that spaces can be of great importance in conveying that intensity.

How is that?

At La Cabra, we strive to let the space free the senses. From interior to service and uniforms, we work conceptually to create a space that somehow inspires the senses. The room and the atmosphere must not become unimportant or too easy to understand. The traditional decor of many cafes closes the senses through a predictability that in some sense conventionalizes

the coffee experience. If instead we create spaces that incorporate an element of unpredictability, something we don't fully understand, then the context will vibrate differently, hopefully it will make our guests stop, relate to the surroundings and e present in their sensory awareness.

For many people, the experience of being present is related to quietness and calm environments. How do you create this in a city like New York?

I think that calmness and presence arise in different ways. You cannot necessarily manipulate the silence if the place offers something else. We increasingly start from where we are, e.g. by letting the atmosphere of the area work its way into the actual coffee place. Take Soho for example, the place is more

streamlined than East Village where our other coffee shop is located. East Village has a special energy, we don't want to work against it, but to sort of direct the energy on into a coffee experience. It's about attachment and respect for the place you are.

The experience of calm is in general difficult to frame.  You can look for it in nature or it can arise unexpectedly, as when you are struck by a feeling that everything is as it should be. For many people, however, tranquility is associated with home. As an entrepreneur, you travel around the world. What significance has your home held in such a mobile existence?

It would be impossible to be in New York if there wasn't a home in which I felt present. The home anchors me and gives me peace. It is a place where I work, but most of all it has become a place where I can just be and feel a sense of constancy in my life.

Yes, exactly this experience of immutability is something that a home can offer. At the same time, it makes it possible to introduce a form of repeatability into one's life, often times connected to rituals or everyday routines. Is it something that you practice in your own life?

Rituals, yes definitely. But it is not easy. My day is almost impossible to schedule, so it's about always making time for the routines. This is something I am very conscious of. I have started to travel less and that gives me time for other things I care about. I exercise more, read, go for walks and visit museums,

and I've got a circadian rhythm that just basically gives me more peace. It is actually difficult to describe the meaning of one's home, but it is, on the other hand, easy to feel. When
I travel, I experience it as a longing, as something I'm missing and something I can return to, to find deep relaxation.

How would you describe your home?

It's a small home. It contains personal objects that are collected. A new piece of art from an artist that I met, objects that tell stories about places or friendships. Things I have collected from New York, but also from Denmark. I can feel that the connection to Denmark has become stronger by being far away. It is again this double movement of going out into the world and at the same time

experiencing the importance of belonging, the importance of your own history. The first thing I did when I got this apartment was to have send a lot of things from Denmark. I find peace in that, as I find peace in the immediate aesthetics of individual objects. How I compose is less resolved. I am quite casual, I guess.

La Cabra,on the other hand, seems rather stringent in the aesthetic conceptualization?

Yes, so we have great team led by my longtime partner Mikkel Selmer that is handling this with admirably precision. I sometimes chip in with ideas and inspiration from travels. In general, with all
our work, creatively speaking, we try to always stay curious

and draw as much inspiration from our travels, literature, art etc. La Cabra is definitely an echo of all of that but interpreted and conceptualized by our different teams within the company.

Esben, our conversation is coming to an end. Finally, I want to ask you if you have a place in New York that carries a special meaning to you? A place that inspires you or where you go to experience life's slow moments?

I love coming to the park, you know Central Park. Otherwise, I try to frequent the same places. There is something satisfying about not always exploring your own city but finding your places. But as time goes on, I also feel more and more that I find peace just experiencing the city as it is. There is something very special

about waking up in New York, stepping outside in the Lower East Side where I live, walking through the hectic China Town, through the more fashionable SoHo, finding a bench to sit down and start the day with a new cup of coffee.

Inspired by Esben Piper's New York oasis

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