In spite of their shared borders, the coffee practices and culture of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands are very different.
The Netherlands is perhaps the most progressive of the three. There the specialty coffee scene is evolving fairly rapidly. At the other end of the timeline is France, which is slowly warming to the possibility of introducing specialty coffee into their rich but thoroughly traditional café culture. Belgium has taken a middle ground, with residents adapting and evolving as retailers make them aware of coffee’s enormous variety.
France: A new coffee gastronomy
Fine wine, baguettes, and the Parisian café. It seems ironic that the country that is known for gastronomy has a reputation for serving some of the worst coffee. Strongly influenced by Italy’s espresso culture, French coffee drinkers are accustomed to darker roasts and over extracted coffee, making the shift to specialty brews a slow one.
“Coffee for us is a total tradition, it’s rooted in our culture,” said Michael McCauley, quality and product development director, Cafés Richard. London expat, Channa Galhenage, who recently opened the Loustic Café in Paris, was originally mystified by how a country known for its gastronomy and interest in terroir, continues to take their coffee like medicine. It is this rich tradition that has caused some resistance in adopting specialty coffee. Despite this resistance, there is an emerging cadre of customers who want more from their coffee and their café experience.
This can be seen by the positive reception of single serve and the growth in coffee outlets such as Starbucks, Colombus, and Costa Café. “French cafes are wonderful to sit and people watch, but unless you’re eating, it’s off you go,” said Jeffrey Young, managing director, Allegra Group. “So young people don’t feel like it’s a place to study, a place to hang out with friends. Starbucks and the other coffee outlets are filling this need,” according to Young.
Single serve paves the way for quality coffee
According to Euromonitor’s Coffee In France Report (2015), Nestlé France maintained its lead in coffee in 2014 with a 32% off-trade value share. Offering a large range of products, Nestle has responded to the needs of the French consumer.
Today, the typical French home has adopted several single serve systems including Douwe Egberts’ Senseo and Mondelez’s Tassimo system. In fact, Douwe Egberts, France was the only manufacturer that saw a sales increase in 2014. This good performance, according to Euromonitor, comes from the success of the L’Or brand which offers supermarket available pods that are compatible with Nespresso machines.
This wide acceptance of single serve demonstrates that the French clients are ready for quality coffee, according to McCauley. Part of the positive fallout from these single serve systems is that it has pushed coffee professionals to bring their beverages to a higher level.
France is approaching a new era of coffee emphasized Young, with a growing awareness that has helped cafes awaken to the possibilities in the bean. Café Richard has responded to this demand by offering Specialty Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE) level training for baristas at their Academie du Café. “We definitely see a difference in attendance with the training sessions. We are actually adding sessions instead of cancelling them,” said McCauley.
The SCAE and the world barista championships have helped nurture this curiosity in the gastronomy of coffee. Membership in the SCAE France has more than doubled in the past two years, states McCauley, growing from 70 to 180 members. Education and positive consumer experiences will continue to push this drive for a quality cup. In the last 10 years, Café Richard has seen a shift to pure arabica and single origin. Galhenge has seen a similar shift.
“Imagine the difference for those accustomed to drinking 70% robusta, 30% arabica blends, that was ground four days ago and extracted in 1 min 45 seconds,” says Galhenage. “Now these same customers are tasting the lemon notes of an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, they’re going to be shocked. The typical, standard comment, is “Is this coffee?”
One positive thing about launching speciality coffee in France for Galhenage is their customer’s appreciation for terroir and gastronomy.
“I know that certainly in England and probably in North America as well, wine and coffee culture are still seen by a great chunk of the population as pretentious. In France, never,” said Galhenage. “They respect the product. They listen to you, they may not like it, but they listen to you,” he said.
Trained waitstaff with professional certifications are gradually making the French aware of how to prepare coffee and treat it with proper respect.
McCauley emphasizes that this education is essential for the continued success of coffee in France. “It will happen, but the French are not early adopters,” said Galhenage. “I think it’s a bit like friendships here, it’s slow to happen but once it does it’s a life long relationship.”
Belgium: Emerging on the specialty scene
Belgium is known for its big pots of black filtered coffee, observes Moniek Smit, writer and editor of Belgium and Netherlands Guide to Coffee, with added creamer and sugar. Similar to France, the concept of the barista is still fairly new, while the gap between the speciality coffee and the traditional cafes remains large. A traditional market outside of the home, Young states that the adoption of single serve in the home, on brewers like those manufactured by Nespresso, has helped bridge this gap, increasing consumer interest in speciality coffee chains and independent artisan coffee shops.
Shifting away from the traditional view of coffee was a challenge that cofounders, Katrien Pauwels and Tom Janssen of Belgium’s Or Coffee Roasters delved into immediately. “The easiest thing would have been to take up the family business,” said Pauwels. “But you would have these old fashioned customers who are not always open to the new view of coffee,” she said. Instead Janssen and Pauwels encouraged their customers to rethink the concept of coffee.
“Sometimes we have to approach them and take them up from the level that they are. We learned and we listened, and we adapted the menu,” said Pauwels. Or Coffee Roasters found success with patience, and recently opened their fourth coffee bar. Pauwels said her goal is to continue to awaken her clients’ palettes, take care of her customers, and bring them to the next level of appreciation. “People need to be more aware of what is behind the cup of coffee, we want to bring our customers to this higher level and share the information with Belgium,” said Pauwels.
Netherlands: Advancing quickly
Here again, single serve helped spur the interest for a quality brew beginning with Jacobs Douwe Egberts introduction of the Senseo brewing system in the 1990s.
“Single serve changed consumers practices, they are not making big pots anymore, they make their favorite cup of coffee for themselves,” said Smit. “It also changed the out-of-home experience, because people wanted a better coffee than what they were drinking at home. They started to taste and compare coffee.”
Elmer Oomkens, co-founder of White Label, said that like most regions, you cannot lump Amsterdam residents into one coffee category. “You have a lot of different groups of people, a lot of people are still looking for the dark roasted coffee, which to them still equals good quality,” said Oomkens. “While there are others who are open to having a new experience with their coffee,” he said.
That first experience can be surprising, according to Oomkens which is why White Label tries to share the story behind the coffee. “If someone drinks for the first time the lighter roasted coffee, which has more acidity and is fruity and you don’t tell them the story about why it tastes this way, then the experience won’t land the coffee,” says Oomkens.
Opening two years ago, White Label offers diverse coffees and the option for their consumers to experience a tasting menu with several different cup profiles. Part of White Label’s success is their willingness to connect their consumers to the coffee story. “We really do what we believe in, people feel that it is a genuine thing. We want to share as much as we know now, keeping it open, and that it is a world that they can enter as well,” said Oomkens.
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Hopper coffee in Rotterdam
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Watching the world go by at Coffee Bru, Amsterdam.
Two years ago experienced coffee entrepreneur Adam Craig decided to leave his coffee company in Brooklyn, New York and move to Amsterdam. At the time the specialty market was relatively new with a few well-established places and coffee giant Douwe Egberts when Craig, and Paul Jenner opened Lot Sixty One Coffee Roasters, a roastery and coffee shop.
“A lot of people here drink black coffee, which excites me because I can do a lot of single origins,” said Craig: “It was a big of change from a coffee bar that I had in Brooklyn.” It takes time for the clients to adapt to the possibilities in the bean from the slow coffee and pour-overs to the newly emerging cold brew, he said.
Craig enjoys sharing the stories behind the coffee and allowing his clientele to experience the journey of the bean with their own eyes.
“When people come in they see the coffee roaster, the big bags of coffee and they can experience for themselves what we are doing here,” says Craig. “So when we get a little technical about the origins, people understand what we are doing,” he said.
The Netherlands coffee market is growing at a phenomenal rate, said Young. There are healthy coffee chain locations and artisan shops.
“The two go hand-in-hand, you want the chain markets to develop coffee drinking as a life style,” said Young. “While the artisans will add the extra sparkle to make it really interesting, and push the quality.”