A Little Bit Of Home, Everywhere
In every city I visit, I can always seek out and find an aspect of the familiar in the form of the specialty café. A tasteful use of natural tone woods, open, airy spaces and gleaming espresso machines would feel just as at home in Williamsburg or The Mission as it does in Amsterdam and Berlin. The U.S., which for a very long time was seen as the home of the watery cup of diner coffee, has done what it does best and pulled elements from across the world into creating a cohesive, recognizable experience. Regardless of where you find yourself, this aesthetic has come to provide, at least for me, a familiar, and comforting feeling of home.
It feels strange to begin a post on coffee speaking about design and aesthetics, but to me this focus represents just how far flung the gospel of thoughtful, true-to-origin coffee has become. By no means is specialty coffee the norm - over roasted, robusto heavy coffee continues to be the expectation in most situations. Now, at least, there are needles in every haystack. The spread of specialty coffee culture, as well as myriad review sites, coffee blogs and helpfully impassioned baristas has made these gems easier to find and get to.
Opens @ 10am
One of the most shocking differences between these shops and their cousins in the U.S. has more to do with their role within the lifestyles of patrons than the cafés themselves. To an American eye seeing a café that only opened at 10am was both shocking, and on one occasion lead to just a bit of despair. Many cafés in The U.S. serve a dual role: a place to grab your morning cup of coffee on your way to work, and a “third space” where people spend time, enjoy a leisurely cup and read a book. The cafés I visited certainly had the second function down in spades- they were full throughout the morning and afternoon and I overheard more than one business meeting, or creative collaboration taking place.
The food, in general, also transcends the typical offerings one would expect at a café in The U.S. In one café I had sous vide salmon, served on a bed of arugula tastefully dotted with three or four separate homemade oils and herbal sauces. In another, I was treated to a vegan mezze platter offering a heartier approach to snacking, paired with freshly grilled hot pita. These offerings speak not only to the obsession with thoughtful food that seems well paired to an obsession to thoughtful coffee, but also further illuminates the roles that these places play in European societies.
But what about that morning cup? My conclusion is that while in The U.S. coffee is often viewed as a drug (albeit a tasty one capable of nuance and wide breadth of expression) in Europe, coffee lives firmly in the realm of food. While an espresso can certainly provide the burst of energy needed to get even the sleepiest tourist out of their stupor, I don’t believe that I saw a single person walk in, throw back a doppio and leave. Even sitting down for a pastry would last 20 minutes, enjoying the comfortable furniture, looking at the ubiquitous monstera plants or succulents and taking in a peaceful moment. While Schultz and Starbucks successfully brought this approach to The U.S.in the 80s and 90s, that change does not seem to have abated America’s addiction to caffeine and it’s favorite delivery method of the morning cup of coffee.
To brass tacks. Where possible, I used my standard evaluation trifecta: a double shot espresso, a single-origin pour over and, if available, a cold brew. I’ve settled on this approach over the years because it tests different skills on the part of the barista, as well as the breadth and approach of the roasters behind the beans. I won’t go into details of each preparation for each café, since every single one had something to offer, and was worth visiting. Instead I want to focus on the overall experience and consistency of that experience amongst the specialty cafés visited. This is not so much an evaluation of eleven cafés as it is a general set of observations on the state of specialty coffee across a sample of Northern Europe.
The espresso was consistently impeccable. The beans were freshly ground, properly pulled, and well presented. The blending in general yielded well balanced, nuanced cups with layers of flavors that rolled over your tongue in a procession of pleasant, varied and occasionally mysterious (cardamom?) flavors. While the typical café had a single blended offering on their espresso machines, at least two cafés had separate grinders for a pair of single origins.
Similarly the pour overs provided a strong showing. Tied to the seasons, Burundi and Ethiopia provided many of the offerings, alongside the Perennial Colombian coffees. The preparation method of choice was the Melita, complete with the glass carafe. The cafés offered anywhere between three and ten options and I was consistently pleased with the quality of the brew. The beans were freshly and consistently roasted, properly extracted, and made for a great cup of coffee. Definitely a safe bet, if a bit pricey. Many of the cafés sold take-away bags from a variety of local roasters, all dated and less than two weeks from roasting.
All Like It Hot
The one offering that was noticeably missing from the majority of menus was a non-dairy cold coffee. Any café was willing to make an iced latté or even an iced Americano, but the notion of making a product specifically intended to be served cold seemed uncommon. For the duration of our trip the weather was sunny and (so I was told) worryingly warm. It seems that while global warming is affecting this region, the effects haven’t been around long enough to begin to change the offerings in the coffee shops. I was able to find cold brew at only a single location. It was brewed on a toddy system and funnily enough, seems to be there only because the shop owner was Australian.
There is much to love about the coffee culture of Europe. The leisurely pace, the thoughtful roasting, and the beautiful spaces all make the experience worth while. But perhaps the New Yorker in me still wished I could grab a cold-brew to go to brace me against the heat, and head back out into the streets to see the sights.
Prinsestraat 25, 2513 CA Den Haag, Netherlands
Phone: +31 6 11776610
Papestraat 11, 2513AV Den Haag, Netherlands
Phone: +31 6 42847073
Lange Leidsedwarsstraat 93HS, 1017 NH Amsterdam, Netherlands
Phone: +31 20 370 3783
Kerkstraat 96HS, 1017 GP Amsterdam, Netherlands
Phone: +31 321 314 667
Sarphatipark 34, 1072 PB Amsterdam, Netherlands
Phone: +31 6 81600140
Vendersgade 6D, 1363 København, Denmark
Phone: +45 60 15 15 25
Refshalevej 141A, 1432 København, Denmark
Phone: +45 31 26 65 61
Refinery Specialty Coffee Roastery
Albrechtstrasse 11b, 10117 Berlin, Germany
Phone: +49 (0) 30 30 87 44 91
The Visit Coffee Store
Adalbertstraße 9, 10999 Berlin, Germany
Oranienstraße 24, 10997 Berlin, Germany
Maybachufer 20, 12045 Berlin, Germany
Phone: +49 172 9884176
By Adam Belanich, Co-Founder & President