Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Book Review: The Belgium & Netherlands Coffee Guide

Weeks ago, I found out about a recent publication: The Belgium & Netherlands Coffee Guide.

I spent about 30 seconds trying to decide whether it was worth the investment, than threw the decision-making out the window, went with my gut, and ordered it.

It took forever to get here, though, and by the time it arrived I had forgotten about it. When I found a package on the dining room table, I said to myself, in the presence of my housemate Ben, "What the... OH. MY. GOD! I am not going to get any work done today!" and ripped the paper away with more excitement than most kids with their birthday presents.

The book, I found, was not at all what I expected - definitely a guide, but really, very little more than that. As Hanna Neuschwander's book, Left Coast Roast: A guide to the best coffee and roasters from San Francisco to Seattle, was just released to much hoopla here in Portland coffee circles, I suppose I was expecting something more along the lines of that book. I haven't read it yet, just skimmed through it. But I know that it pays much more attention to the taste of the coffee and the way that different shops roast their coffee.

Then again, Neuschwander's book is a book about roasters. The Guide, however, is about cafes, and not so much about the coffee itself - however misleading the title is.

When I ordered this book, I did not even imagine that my old favorite Dutch cafe, Ko D'oooooooor, could be listed. When I left the Netherlands two years ago, I had still never had coffee anywhere in that country that was as good as what I had had at Ko D'oooooooor.

Obviously I wasn't impartial. As a Portlander, when a nice, pleasant space opened after my first year of college and started serving Italian-style coffee (which was much more familiar to my Portland palate than the Dutchified coffee I had been drinking for a year), I was ecstatic. It became personal when the owner offered to help my friend Eva and I with our Dutch, as the class didn't fit in with our schedules. And eventually, as I became friends with the owners, and improved my Dutch, and as I already had coffee experience, I occasionally covered shifts at the bar.

Which was always a lot of fun, because it meant speaking Dutch and English and French and sometimes German and Italian. And making coffee. And working alone. (But that's another story.)

When I got the book, I discovered that it is divided into sections by city - Amsterdam, Groningen, Utrecht, Amersfoort, Arnhem, Nijmegen, Maastricht, Rotterdam, the Hague, and Haarlem. And I have spent plenty of time in some of these cities, even at some of the cafes that they mention.

For example, the Amsterdam chain Coffee Company, which has been around since 1996, where I often met friends while I was hanging around Amsterdam in August 2010. And I can tell you that the Coffee Company is most assuredly no way near as good as Ko D'oooooooor, or a couple of the other coffee places that I frequented while living in Middelburg (Coffeeshop St. John, Honeypie).

Right off the bat, therefore, I was taking this book with a grain of salt or two. Imagine if they wrote a similar book on coffee in the US and went to NYC, LA, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Seattle, San Antonio, Orlando, and New Orleans?

(Meanwhile, Neuschwander includes coffeeshops in smaller, out-of-the-way cities like Fort Bragg and Hood River.)

Next issue: the coffee. Not one coffeeshop listed in this book received less than four "beans" out of five (like stars) for the coffee itself, but it includes places like Coffee Company and Starbucks. I know that that coffee is not very good. I also know it is mostly roasted in huge batches and packaged, and when you drink it you have know way of knowing how far out it is from the roast date.

Furthermore, while the roaster is listed for every coffeeshop, there is no way of looking up these roasters. I can easily find out more by going online, but what I want is an index, where I can look up "Phoenix Coffee" and "Cafenation" and see how many cafes serve their coffee. It would be nice if there was a way to look up the places that roast their own coffee - although the cafes are fairly carefully divided into different categories, there is no category for "Coffeeshop and roastery". The shops that roast are merely thrown in under "artisanal independent", whatever that means, with several other small shops who sometimes serve the same, mass-produced coffee as an unrelated cafe that is classified as a "lunchroom".

In general, this Guide provides a great starting-off point for certain people, say, for tourists in the Netherlands who really like coffee. But it won't get you very far with great coffee in the Netherlands. Moreover, it does not give a very good background to the history of Dutch and Belgian coffee - just a short timeline at the front of the book.

Considering that the subtitle of this book is, "The definitive guide to the 100 best coffee venues in Belgium and the Netherlands", this book is just a severe disappointment. I've been to several of the listings and still had better coffee at places that were overlooked, so it does not seem to be at all "definitive", or even very thorough.

That said, there definitely are some good recommendations. In fact, my father happened to be in Amsterdam on business when I received the book, and I suggested a couple of places for him to try.

He ended up going to Two for Joy. From the book:

"The owners of Two for Joy freshly roast their coffee in-store. Fitting with the unique Two for Joy style, all products are from local suppliers. Surrounded by specialty shops and boutiques, Two For Joy Haarlemmerdijk is a beacon for locals. The different, cozy rooms have a modern finish and coffee lovers can find the brew bar next to the espresso machine. Baristas happily advise what coffee to choose and freshly roasted coffee beans can be purchased for customers to enjoy at home."

My father said that the space was very pleasant, the cake he had was good (very important!), and his cappuccino was too, comparing it to Torrefazione Italia in 2002. Which bodes very well for the future of coffee in the Netherlands! However, no latte art on any drink he saw.

Oh well, you can't have everything. (I can't remember caring about the lack of latte art in the Netherlands. I just cared about the taste! You have to prioritize.)

Maybe one of these days I'll make it back, and get to try some of these places out. In the meantime, friends abroad, please report back!

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