charles schumann

Charles Schumann on Bar Awards, Making Movies, and Japan

Bar legend Charles Schumann looks back on a very busy 2017, from winning awards all over the world to starring in a movie, and mixing drinks in between.

What can you say about Charles Schumann that hasn’t been said before? The man is, quite rightly, a living legend. We caught up with Schumann after what’s been a busy year: not only did Les Fleurs Du Mal win Bar of the Year Germany at the MIXOLOGY BAR AWARDS 2017, Schumann himself was honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award at Tales of the Cocktail, and he also had time to put together a ‘small’ movie. Schumanns Bargespräche (Schumann’s Bar Talks) first screened at the Berlinale earlier this year and was released in theatres this month.

Our phone interview was moved no less than seven times. Once, he called me hours before our agreed time, his thick Munich accent perhaps the oddest start to what otherwise would have been a perfectly mundane day. Charles Schumann is obviously quite busy, something he freely admits. Producer and director Marieke Schroeder didn’t have the easiest time working with him on the film – in Schumann’s own words – getting him to commit to a certain time and place can be a tricky task. But after a couple of false starts, the man himself is finally free to talk.

Awards and Nepotism

Humble to a point, Schumann rejects the pomposity that comes along with his job. He was very pleased with the Lifetime Achievement Award he was given at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail, “deserved or not.” Awards in general are important for bars, specifically if they’re handed out by barkeepers and publications. He admits that he wouldn’t know how to go about handing out awards himself but laments the fact that so much of our industry’s awards are determined by nepotism.

For example, the World’s 50 Best Bars list, which Schumann doesn’t have a lot of time for. Not because his bar didn’t make the cut in last year’s list, but because only one German bar – Berlin’s Buck & Breck – made the list at number 50. “That’s malicious and it’s not okay. We just need to go ahead and create our own, which we’ve already done!” He goes on, “If you’re creating a list of so-called World’s 50 Best Bars and only one German bar comes up? That’s pure nepotism and it’s not okay.” This year’s list had better news for Schumann, with his eponymous bar, Schumann’s, jumping to number 38. Of course, that’s unlikely to placate him: it was the only German bar on the list.

He still thinks that awards are important, as much for the bar as for the customer. Winning awards like Bar Team of the Year can be highly motivating for a team of many people who come together, put their egos aside, and create something larger than the sum of its parts. “Managing a small, or large, team is hard work. Getting all these different characters on board and making it work, that’s a very certain kind of talent.” He’s obviously proud of his team, not only the permanent bartenders, but also of his temporary summer stuff. “They did incredible work, they were such an addition to the team and really, it wouldn’t work without them.”

Drugs, Cigarettes, and Alcohol in Berlin

When asked about future plans, Schumann simply responds: nobody knows what the future holds. He aims to continue doing what he’s doing. Though it’s been a good year, exciting in fact, he’s also happy to see “the whole circus” come to an end. It’s no secret that Schumann is a big fan of Japan. And is he planning a stint there, renting a small bar, hiring one other person, and serving a maximum of 10 guests at a time. It’s unlikely that things will calm down then: “I can imagine having a second mainstay someplace else.”

We discuss the bar world as a global phenomenon, and how hard it is to decide what to see and where to go. For the film, Schumann and his team visited New York, Japan, Cuba, Marseille, Munich, Berlin, and Paris. Turning the tables, he asks me which place I think he most enjoyed. I go with either Japan or Munich, both of which are incorrect. “Of all these places, I really enjoyed Berlin the most! What a diverse city. We obviously couldn’t visit Gonçalo (de Sousa Monteiro) for the movie, he didn’t want that, but we went to Victoria and Becketts Kopf, where they make truly fantastic drinks.” As a born Berliner a sentence like this fills me with pride. He continues, “If I were to live in Berlin, and wouldn’t own a bar, I would be a regular at the Schwarze Traube. Now that’s a bar. It smells like drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol – just like a bar should!” He also very much enjoyed the Salut! Bar and aptly describes it as a mix between a “Berliner kneipe” and a bar.

It’s clear there’s no stopping the incredible force of nature that is Charles Schumann: “I’m not leaving the ship anytime soon but I am trying to find a solution to managing the whole thing when I’m not there quite as much. But really, I only have two options: stay on board or leave completely. There’s no in between.” For all our sakes, let’s hope he goes with the former.


Foto: Photo via Benjamin Schmidt.

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