Words by Ian Cameron (published CLASS magazine 25/Oct/11 and moved to this page 20/Mar/14)
Originally from: Regensburg
He trained as a political scientist and journalist, speaks four languages and is the author of several best-sellers. He's a boxer, gymnast and surfer, and only a few years ago was spotted on the street and began a career as a couture model. Oh, and he also happens to be Munich's most famous bartender - serving a bevy of the bold and the beautiful, from movie stars to sportsmen and politicians. Ian Cameron heads to Bavaria to find out what continues to make this septuagenarian a force to be reckoned with.
I'm not due to meet Charles until the following morning, but I've come to check out his bar - by the Hofgarten in Munich - the night before. It's busy, considering it's mid-week, but I find a seat at the small 'Camparino' bar that adjoins the main room. I order an Ichigo Ichie cocktail (gin, sake and Carpano Antica Formula). The bartender sees me making a few notes and asks what I'm doing, and when I tell him I'm going to be interviewing Charles the following day he instantly disappears out back. I take a sip.
The next moment the bartender reappears, and he's got Charles in tow, dressed in chef's whites having been working in the kitchen. Whilst I expected he would be there that night, I figured he'd simply be working the room or hosting a table, not actually working, still less slaving away in the kitchen. It's all the more surprising given that he's 70-years-old, not that you'd know.
He shakes my hand, and straight away takes me on a whirlwind tour of the bar and outside to the garden, where there are just as many customers as inside on this warm night. He introduces me to members of staff ("he's worked for me for more than 20 years," he tells me about one) and leaves me briefly to say hello to guests here and there. It's clear who's in charge here - he's cool, confident, self-assured, popular: the consummate host.
"I work every day, 14 hours a day," he explains the next morning. "I do it very personally." On cue, he recognises the signs of my hangover, and darts up from the table we're sat at, returning with coffee, orange juice and pastries. "I could never stop working - this is my world."
In fact, he only started working in a bar because he needed money while he was studying, and was told by his early customers that he might be a good bartender but would never make a good businessman.
"I never wanted to be the owner of a bar, and I never really wanted a bar like this," he says, gesturing around the place. "I don't even remember how it happened."
What seems to have happened is that he spent time in France during and after his studies (that's where the political science and journalism comes in), and gained an appreciation of the hospitality business and the 'intellectual types' that bars attracted. "France is my great love and French is my second language," he says, then on a tangent: "I go to Bordeaux, surfing off the Atlantic coast, I love to be out at sea." After a spell in the security police, and then after undertaking his military service - he says he suddenly found himself with a business partner and they opened a bar - Schumann's American Bar - in 1982.
While that partnership waned, he went on to open a 'day bar' in the centre of the city's shopping district in 2001, then Schumann's Am Hofgarten, where we are meeting, in 2003. Along the way, he published his first book, Schumann's Barbuch, in 1984 (it's currently in its 20th edition); and 1991 saw the first publication of American Bar, now in its 19th edition. Not that Charles will admit to ever having expected he would ever gain a reputation as any sort of trendsetter.
So does he recognise the role he and his bars have played in spearheading a cocktail revolution, not just in Germany, but central Europe? "It really was very important, not so much now but yes at the beginning," he says. "Everybody took our new bar list [menu] and when I saw other bars' lists they were a lot better. We got the ball rolling, making classics and high balls, serious champagne cocktails."
In fact, despite having helped German drinkers move from pilsner to Painkillers (he also published several 'tropical' bar books in the mid 1980s), Charles seems to be slightly sceptical about the monster he has helped create, veering between a profound respect for bartending as a profession but also critical of a self-indulgence that seems to have emerged, where bartenders see themselves as veritable alchemists.
"Most of the time being a barman is underestimated. Drinking culture has changed such a lot in 30 years. Bartenders know a lot about alcohol now - how it is made, the difference between brands.
"But why have 20-25 bottles of gin? I can understand why bartenders make their own syrups, but why flavour your own spirits? I would never do that. Bartenders are always looking in the shaker, making drinks for themselves, and trying to make new creations, encouraged by drinks competitions: they're too strong, too spirituous. Bartenders are always asking how Jerry Thomas would have made a drink. He was probably an alcoholic.
"I don't think you need more than 50 drinks," he adds. "Why do you need a cocktail book with 2000 recipes?"
We can't imagine who he's talking about...
He's also vexed by the abundance of speakeasies and members clubs emerging. "I always had in my mind that the bar is the place for all kinds of people - you can never have success if you have only one kind of people. I don't really get members clubs when you close our doors: a bar has to be for everybody. And if it's a matter of 'Don't Tell...' [ie keeping a particular bar a secret], well, fuck it." Japanese bartenders come in for criticism too ("they're maybe a bit serious") as do sombre uniforms ("I don't want to have a drink from a guy who is dressed in black").
So if it's all got a bit serious, which direction should we be looking in as an industry? "I think bar culture will go classic again. Drinks are never lost. A bartender should more or less concentrate on the classics." And he suggests that bartenders would better spend their time honing their hosting ability rather than with their nose in a cocktail book, to really try and understand why a particular customer orders a particular drink.
"If a woman wants a sour, they should know that what she actually wants is something between sweet and sour. They need to recognise that even the time someone orders a drink is important. I'm not a star. I'm a host. I'm here for everybody: no cook or bartender is bigger than the client. I'm not bigger than my bars - we fit together. We are so famous here because we try to work honestly and modestly. We have to make people comfortable, otherwise you lose them."
As for which direction he's heading in personally, he's steadfast in his refusal to expand within Germany, because he says he would be spread too thin and wouldn't be able to "personalise" each venue. "You can only lead one bar successfully: if I'm not there it's different." At the same time he is happy enough to be considering an expansion overseas, and says he is in talks with a large hotel group about opening a bar in China. He sees no inconsistency. "I always like to try new things. I'm always curious. China is just a completely different culture."
At a time when most people have long retired, Charles still finds the time to run both bars, manages to fit in boxing, going to the gym, playing football and running. And then there's the modelling. Spotted on the street by a scout for Yohji Yamamoto, he went on to model for the designer, and has since fronted campaigns for luxury goods, Hugo Boss and Campari (Google Image him).
Go at lunchtime and you might still find Charles at the stick. At those quieter times he is happy to make cocktails himself, though resents being asked to make drinks at other, busier times. "I think it's bad if people are asking you to make you a drink - my bartenders know how to make everything on the menu." More often than not, he's in the kitchen. "When we started Schumann's we said no kitchen. But it's hard to have success without a kitchen. The kitchen is really influenced by me. And bartenders who have never worked in the kitchen, well, I never trust them."
Charles clearly has strident views on how a bar should be run, and he's supremely relaxed and confident in himself, as a man should be when he's 70. But lest that comes across as arrogant, it's not, it's all delivered in an extremely friendly way - he's a touchy, feely kind of guy, laying his arm across my shoulder as we walk together. He exudes real presence, but remains approachable, definitely likeable. People wouldn't come to his bars if he wasn't.
His latter modelling career has given him another sort of confidence too, and who can blame him: he's very comfortable in front of the camera - a fact no more obvious than when we ask him for a hint of a smile. "I don't smile normally for photographs," he says, matter of fact. The corners of his mouth twitch, but don't move upwards.