What's better than a cup of coffee? When it's responsibly sourced and served along
with its story. At least when you ask Irfan Asghar, a Brit who, after moving to Denmark and starting a family, found his calling in one of the Danish national pastimes. Coffee.
Photographs: Rebekah Joy Portraits / Irfan's private photographs
Text: Michaela Medveďová
When you hear Irfan Asghar, the Copenhagen-based coffee shop Social Brew co-founder, talk about coffee, two things happen almost instantly.
You find yourself wishing you were sipping a nice cup of coffee. And you find it hard to believe that coffee has not always been Irfan's path.
The UK native immersed himself in the coffee business after starting a life and a family in Denmark - and the Copenhagen coffee scene is all the better for it.
Change of plans
But why did Irfan exchange the British Isles for Zealand in the first place? As he says with a chuckle, there's always a woman.
His wife is from Denmark, and they met when she came to the United Kingdom to study. But as a lawyer, the professional opportunities for her weren't as great as they would be in Denmark. Irfan had his own business at the time - importing electronics and selling them online in England. "I was young and confident, thought I would just start a similar business in Denmark. When I came to Copenhagen, it was a beautiful summer city. I thought: yeah, I could live here."
Initially, the couple decided to stay in Denmark for five years, and then they would reassess the plan. In between, two main things intervened. First, they had two children - and Brexit happened. "Looking back at it, we decided we were in the right place to have and raise kids. And this year will mark my tenth Danish year. I feel like I should get an award," laughs Irfan.
Food scene that sleeps early
While it was the right place to be, a significant cultural shock was how similar people were in Denmark and how prescriptive the culture was. "So, for example, whatever you want to buy, it has to be one out the famous 5 brands or trends. And it's great if you do fit into the box – but society isn't fair to those that don't."
Irfan considers himself lucky to have met his wife before moving to Denmark, as he got a small network through her. "It's one of the reasons why I stuck to the coffee shop culture. It was very easy for me to network through it, a way to have a social life without really trying to find it. It probably would be more difficult and disheartening if I worked in an office."
He was also missing more colourful meals, food from all around the world - and meal times threw him for a loop. "I was in England last weekend, and we went out for dinner at 23:00. I was thinking it was midnight now in Denmark - and there's nothing open. England's much more lively in this sense, open until three in the morning. The cold is the same, the dark is the same, but you don't feel it as much."
But after ten years of living in a different country, its culture and customs start becoming your new normal. For example, Irfan spends much more time at home with his kids. In England, there was always something to do, somewhere to be. "I'm getting used to the privacy. In Denmark, you don't have that much interaction with others. In England, anyone can just call you out for dinner. We don't really plan that much ahead. Here, my wife tells me she has dinner with her friends booked for August."
To go back to living in England, at this point, Irfan would probably have to reverse-engineer everything he's been through for the last 10 years.
But he's no stranger to reinventing himself.
Back to the drawing board
After moving to Denmark, it turned out that Irfan's business model was not replicable. 10 years ago, online buying still wasn't a massively popular thing, and the market size wasn't sufficient. "The buying habits are different here as well. It's all about being recognised, being a brand. England was primarily about price. Here, as long as the product is a test winner and is recommended, they can sell it for whatever prices they want. So it sent me back to the drawing board."
Down the line, the new plan would turn out to be Social Brew, which opened in 2018.
But in the meantime, just to get out of the house, Irfan picked up a few shifts at a coffee house. "I came here as a boss of my own, with employees. And now I was taking instructions from 18-year-olds on how to wash dishes. But that's the expat life, right? You leave everything behind, start over, and have to take a few steps back. It's about finding your way."
But what started with just learning about coffee and its culture - he was a Brit, after all! - ended with him growing alongside the company to being the operations manager, overseeing about 170 employees.
Along with his start in coffee came the beginnings of the language he calls coffee Danish. "But when it got conversational, I'd switch to English again. I found my British accent to be an advantage - people wanted to know my story. I think if I spoke broken Danish, nobody would be interested. Just another immigrant." By now, thanks also to his brief work as a taxi driver, and a much more permanent role as a father of two bilingual kids, he can carry out a basic conversation.
But the family life in Denmark differs from the English family structures. "Here, the family values and how parenting is split up are more balanced. In England, it's still a bit traditional, where the breadwinner is the father, and the homemaker is the mother."
The nursery shock
But as critical as he can be towards his Danish progression, Irfan's kids can be his harshest language critics. "My daughter told me about two years ago: Dad, you don't speak good Danish. It was kind of cute but offensive at the same time because I've been here longer than her."
While born and raised in Denmark, the kids love going back to England, as their extensive extended family from Irfan's side lives there. "And obviously, when they go to England, they are the guests, so they get spoiled rotten. They really love the culture of going out, shopping, and eating out a lot. My son told me the other day: I'm tired of Danish rules - I want to live in England because we eat fish and chips and relax. He doesn't realise there are schools there."
But the family life in Denmark differs from the English family structures. ""Here, the family values and how parenting is split up are more balanced. In England, it's still a bit traditional, where the breadwinner is the father, and the homemaker is the mother."
One of the biggest shocks for Irfan was sending his children to the nursery at mere nine months old. In England, mothers usually stay home with their kids until they are three. "I was really not ready for sending my son into a nursery when he was still in the 'goo goo ga ga' phase. I'd have to go in and hand over my son, my most prized thing in life, with a language barrier where the handover process was very much like 'værsgo' (here you go). If this man asked me for the keys to my car, I would think five times about it. But here I am, just handing over my baby for him for a day."
However, after suffering the initial shocks of the system, Irfan appreciates the system. "You can carry on with your own career. And we understand you need to leave at three to go and get your kids. In England, you really don't have that culture."
Having kids made Irfan want that work-life balance, too.
"You can't be available all day. You can't go and teach someone how to close a store every day. So one Saturday, I promised my kids I'd take them swimming. And then, I got the usual phone call - somebody is sick, somebody hasn't got the keys to enter the shop… And I have to drop my life and fix it; that's my job. But I thought: I can't do this anymore."
So instead, he decided to turn his attention to coffee and social responsibility in the business. And he wouldn't do it alone.
On a coffee forum, he bumped into his now partner Don Mousavi. He had just landed from the Middle East, been doing coffee projects, and now was asking general questions about coffee in Copenhagen. Irfan reached out, and they decided to meet. "We talked about coffee over the next two or three weeks - what's missing in this society and in the understanding of coffee, how the farmers are not getting the attention they should."
They were a perfect match - Irfan knew the operation side of coffee, and Don had the necessary coffee expertise.
They decided to supply coffee differently. Firstly, they wanted to choose the coffee source correctly, with farmers getting proper attention. "It's about giving Danes the background knowledge of coffee. The beans don't just land in the coffee shop - the story starts with the regional farmers. While it is 40 DKK a cup for us, they are getting paid peanuts for working all day, and a bad crop could mean total ruin. So we wanted to work on that, tell their story."
Irfan and Don also decided to only work with speciality coffee - the top 2% of coffee in the world - and only with single-origin coffees, not blends.
"I had a very good salary in my previous job. Then, I was headhunted by a commercial coffee chain to be their operations manager. I originally said yes to the job, but it was ethically not the right place for me to be. I don't just want to be in coffee; I want to make a difference in coffee."
Supporting your local
And they do! The social part of Social Brew is about three aspects. Besides social responsibility, there's the element of working locally: donating or helping out with local events or charities. And there's the importance of creating a good social environment for their staff. Irfan calls them his second family in the coffee world.
And in Denmark they are also in one of the best places to make that difference. Irfan laughs and says he never really pondered why Danes are so coffee-crazed. They rank high on the list of the world's biggest consumers. "And Danes like to support the small man, their local coffee shop instead of supporting the large chain stores."
Irfan's role is to look after the shop's operations - recipes, menu, developing relationships with external clients, and the day-to-day running of the store. "My wife tells me I talk to random people all the time. I'm from Manchester, and we're very much into small talk. I think she's weird because Danes are reserved, and she thinks I'm weird. I like talking to people, making them laugh, and giving them good service to feel valued. It gives me feedback and the energy to move forward. And I'm in a brilliant place to do all that in the shop."
While the past 10 years did not strictly adhere to the plan, Irfan is happy with the outcome. "The best thing I have in my life is my kids. I love being a father, being around them daily, and making things happen. I live close to the beach. The infrastructure is made for parenting. I wouldn't have it any other way."
"There are too many rules pushing you to fit into the box. I have a beautiful life, and I think Denmark has much to do with it. I wouldn't be able to have a small independent coffee shop in England. I'll take the positives - but hopefully, move on at some point. Life's too short to be living in one place. I don't think I can go back to the UK anymore either. So I'll move on. That's also a by-product of being an expat - once you've done it, it's easier to do it again and start all over."