Kanen Coffee
2319 Fourth Street (between Bancroft and Channing ways), Berkeley

At first glance, the YouTube page for Berkeley’s Kanen Coffee seems like the most boring account in the world. There are thousands of videos, most of them two minutes or less, of a hand as it pulls test espresso shots from newly repaired machines. The page’s description is just as unadorned as the videos themselves: “Videos of espresso machines that Kanen Coffee, LLC has repaired.”

But watching the videos, one after the other — the hot brown liquid slowly dripping into a glass, a test of the steamer, a mumbled “if you’d like to see more videos like this subscribe to our channel” — is soothing, almost meditative. And every once in a while, the video stream is broken by an actual meditation, from shop owner Sam Kanenwisher.

Kanenwisher knows a thing or two about mindfulness, about spirituality and the meditative nature of working with one’s hands. The former Minnesotan came to Berkeley with a plan to spread his Lutheran faith — but instead, he’s spreading a somewhat different ideology, through his shop’s scores of customers and his channel’s millions of viewers.

A winding road to Kanen Coffee

He served for four years on a Coast Guard Cutter out at sea as an electronics technician, repairing everything aboard the ship — radios, radars, air-traffic control systems — before seeking a degree in social work and a Masters of Divinity.

His plan was to become a pastor, but after a discouraging review by a graduate school committee who said he didn’t have a “strong enough sense of Lutheran identity,” Kanenwisher realized maybe he was better working with his hands than working with people.

It was a relative who got him into espresso machine repair. 

“He asked me if I wanted to fix his La Pavoni espresso machine,” said Kanenwisher. “And I said, Sure, I’ll give it a try.”

Kanenwisher, who was a stay at home dad at the time, used all the skills he learned as an electronics technician in the Coast Guard, did lots of research and made lots of calls to different companies asking for advice, eventually figuring out how to fix the machine. When he mentioned what he’d done to others, the interest started flowing in.

“Oh yeah. ‘You know, I fixed this espresso machine’ and then people started saying to me, ‘Oh, well I have an espresso machine. Can you fix it?’ And I was like, ‘well, sure. I’ll fix it.’”

From Fargo to the Caribbean

Kanenwisher’s aptitude for fixing machines wasn’t a surprise.

“I grew up learning to work with my hands. My grandparents were farmers in North Dakota and my father is a custom cabinet builder and my mom’s a nurse. And I had grown up around a lot of people who used their hands to make a living.”

Kanenwisher was raised in the weird liminal space on the North Dakota/Minnesota border that locals call “FM.” Fargo on the North Dakota side and Moorhead in Minnesota.

Kanenwisher, who grew up on the Minnesota divide, said “It’s like Siberia with cafes,” borrowing a phrase from the Coen Brothers, who also grew up in the area and made it, and the area’s accent, famous with their film, Fargo

Like many young people stuck in such a winter desert, Kanenwisher wanted to see the world. And he also wanted to make a difference in the world. Joining the armed forces seemed like the best bet, and after weighing his options he decided on the Coast Guard. It was the most desirable of the armed forces for two reasons: he wouldn’t have to be in combat, and there was no chance he’d be stationed back in Minnesota. In fact, the place where he spent most of his time was about as far away from Minnesota and its harsh winters as possible, in the Caribbean. 

“But the thing about being in the Caribbean when you’re on a Coast Guard boat,” he said, “you’re just kind of floating out there and there’s not a lot to do.”

Discovering meditation

After four years in the Coast Guard he returned to Minnesota, where he got a degree in social work at Augsburg University in Minneapolis. He then moved to Berkeley, where he attended the Graduate Theological Union and studied to become a Lutheran pastor. The inspiration for this career decision came from the Coast Guard itself. 

“I wanted to learn how to help people with their emotional and spiritual struggles,” he said. “I had this sense that I was doing that in the Coast Guard to some extent. Everybody was going through a lot in the Coast Guard and there wasn’t a lot of support on the ship,” he said.

“People were lonely. People are away from their families. People were working really long hours. And so we would talk. There was a lot of time to talk with other people.”

In graduate school, Kanenwisher had what he described as a “major life crisis” that led him to seek the help of a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist prescribed medication, which quickly helped him get back on track, but also meditation, which Kanenwisher said has had a longer and more profound effect on him and his health. He dove deep into mindfulness, started going to the Berkeley Zen Center and sought out teachers online.

Kanenwisher, himself, is quick to jump into meditation teaching mode, hence his guided meditations on the Kanen Coffee YouTube page. At one point he gives me a quick lesson on the connection between mindfulness and drinking coffee.

“It can be as simple as just looking at the package of espresso or coffee. It’ll often say, ‘oh, you know, you’re gonna have notes of chocolate or maybe some cherry flavor or something.'”

“So then you can take time to say, ‘oh, do I taste that chocolate? Do I taste the cherry? Do I taste the nuts? You know, maybe I taste walnuts or almonds or something’ and you know, so you can just give yourself the time to enjoy it. Allow yourself to feel the pleasure of making coffee and espresso. It’s like a little meditation, right? Making your coffee can be just really this moment of peace.”

His mindfulness practice helps him deal with the biggest stress of his job: customer service. Indeed, dealing with customers nearly made him quit the business, but over time he’s gotten the hang of it.

For instance, he’s learned the best way to determine the type of machine an individual should buy. “There are two types of people in the espresso machine world,” he said. “There’s people who want to just push a button and the whole process is automated. And then there’s someone who has a more manual machine where you have to grind the coffee and then you tamp it and then you make it manually that way.”

Sometimes people come into my shop and they have these $2,000 espresso machines and they don’t even know how to adjust the grinder properly or how to clean it.

Sam Kanenwisher

According to Kanenwisher, “the people that like to do the more manual stuff are the kind of people who like to cook. If people don’t know what kind of espresso machine they want to buy, I’ll often say, ‘well, do you like to cook in the kitchen?’ And if the answer is no, then I do not usually try to sell them a manual machine.”

Customer service is also where the YouTube channel comes in. Espresso machines are expensive to repair and new customers can be distrustful when picking up their newly-repaired machines, worried that they won’t actually work. An employee of Kanenwisher’s hit on the YouTube idea, as a way to prove that the devices were back in business. Customers loved it and were excited to see their functioning machines on the channel.

But even with the channel and its success (it’s garnered more than 3.7 million views to date), customer service still weighs heavily on Kanenwisher. 

“A lot of times people have a machine and they want me to take full responsibility for every single problem they have,” he said. “Sometimes people come into my shop and they have these $2,000 espresso machines and they don’t even know how to adjust the grinder properly or how to clean it.” 

Backflushing — the process of cleaning a machine’s brewing components — is especially important to Kanenwisher: he is religious about the process and how it improves the taste of coffee. When his customers begin backflushing on a regular basis, Kanenwisher said that they too become converts to the practice. But others instead return to the shop, repentant.

“I have a lot of repeat customers and they come back to me and they’re like, ‘I’m so sorry, I haven’t been backflushing it. I haven’t been cleaning it.’ I’m like, ‘there’s no shame,’ you know. It’s like going to the dentist. Right? Maybe you haven’t been flossing, but you know, I’m still here for you.”


Featured image: Sam Kanenwisher inside his espresso machine repair business, Kanen Coffee. Still from a video by Nathan Dalton for East Bay Nosh