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The face behind our coffee: Nina Verhoef, Head Barista at Vienna’s Coffee Pirates

Where there is coffee, there are people. This motto informs the business decisions of Coffee Pirates, one of my favorite of Vienna’s coffee shops. One of the most influential of these people behind the daily drinks of this specialty coffee shop’s regulars is Head Barista Nina Verhoef. Last Sunday afternoon, I sat down with Nina over coffee to discuss the story that has led her to serve your favorite drinks.

Nina's latte-making work in action.

Nina did not always know that the coffee would be in her career cards. Rather, becoming a specialty barista was a “slow, natural process” that developed over the course of several years. She began working in a coffee shop while living in her hometown, Melbourne, Australia. Here, she gradually took an interest in improving the quality of coffee that she served. She recalls, “(My) interest started with making what was not such a good coffee better or as good as it could be.” Following her urge for culinary perfection, Nina taught herself techniques of the trade by “playing around” with latte heart-making, among other creations.

My drink of choice at Coffee Pirates: Soya dirty chai graced with a latte heart.

Nina took a break from coffee-making to follow her heart to Vienna. She says, “It was love, not coffee.” Yet her passion for coffee was refueled by the appeal of the tight-knit craft coffee scene after making the move. Nina remembers her early longing to work at Coffee Pirates while she worked as an Au Pair. She adored the acceptance that she felt within the warm coffee community that contrasted with the less-than friendly demeanor of customer service sometimes found in the city. She fondly recollects, “I really wanted to work in Coffee Pirates… The baristas were always so friendly to me and always open to having a conversation. It can sometimes be hard in Vienna to find a place that you like and where the staff are also so open.”

Swan-shaped latte art and vegan streusel cake at Coffee Pirates.

Coffee Pirates is undoubtedly unique in Vienna for its warm, welcome and laid-back ambiance. The specialty shop prides itself on this artistic, anything-goes atmosphere. The owners have taken the signature Viennese classic coffee scene and updated it with a healthy dose of modernity. In some ways, Coffee Pirates is a blast to the past, decorated with thonet chairs (classic Austrian coffeehouse chairs), record players, second-hand furnishings, aesthetically-pleasing coffees, and vintage brimmed hats that make their staff stand out. Yet Coffee Pirates artfully molds these items for their own creative use by creating chandeliers from their thonet chairs and dressing their drinks with innovative latte art – everything from the classic heart to zebras and swans. This trendy modernization is a deliberate attempt to create a relaxed, work-friendly space for customers. Nina observes, “(The owners) just want it to be a cozy environment. And for people to feel like they can stay here all day, and they do. From students to freelance workers to writers. They sit the whole day, they drink coffee, and they write.”

One of Coffee Pirate's cozy writing corners.

Yet Coffee Pirates doesn’t stop with modernizing its décor. The shop also prides itself on being “pirates” within the coffee scene, following an atypical business model that is align with coffee culture’s current needs for social change. Coffee Pirates was the first organic-certified 3rd wave coffee shop and specialty roastery to be established in Vienna. The owners trace their coffee to the people at its source, engaging farmers in direct trade in order to ensure fair payment for the finest beans. Nina explains, “(The owners) were just in Kenya a few weeks ago, visiting one of the farms where we source coffee, to work on and see the coffee farms, and to build a relationship with the farmers themselves.”

Forming a relationship with the farmers benefits all people across the supply chain. As Nina says, “(The owners) always come back with new knowledge and stories.” These stories enable the owners to tailor their techniques, from sourcing to roasting to brewing in order to lovingly serve the highest-quality, premium coffee.

Yes, that is a chandelier of thonets peaking out of the corner.

The care that goes into Coffee Pirate’s production is evident in the taste of the brew. For this reason, Nina’s favorite caffeine fix is pure espresso or filter coffee. She elaborates, “I like coffee black, served as an espresso or as a filter because then you can taste all the different flavors, you can smell the aroma, and you really taste what’s inside that coffee. If you take filter coffee and you put sugar in it, it almost defeats the purpose of ordering this coffee because you will not taste the different flavors inside.”

In particular, her favorite beans are those imported from Kenya. She explains, “My preferred coffee is usually those from Kenya. Every coffee is different, but there are really high-quality coffees coming from Kenya so that I suppose is the reason why. Generally, I like them for their delicate fruit notes and bright acidity”

Catch Nina behind the bar at Coffee Pirates.

Nina’s love of coffee doesn’t stop with her ability to serve others by serving up these specialty drinks. She says that she aspires to someday take her skills to a new level by starting her own business. She hopes to eventually pay forward the lessons learned through working in Vienna’s small and developing specialty coffee scene by eventually returning to the larger, more diverse artisanal environment of Melbourne. She states with hope, “Ideally for me, I would love to have my own specialty coffee shop. So in the meantime, I gain as much knowledge and experience as possible working in specialty coffee and we will see whatever that leads to in the future.” Evidently, the story of this face behind our coffee does not end here. Catch Nina while you can while she makes your favorite cup of joe with a smile behind the bar at Coffee Pirates. Find her now before she takes her artistic passion for coffee to her next chapter in life.


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