Although its name would suggest otherwise, this new Antwerp cafe is not run by folks who make a business of primal cutting and sausage linking. Nor does it serve animal fat-infused caffeinated beverages for the paleo set. Butchers Coffee, which opened in September to much local acclaim, simply inhabits an old butcher shop.
The cafe is on a major thoroughfare in the city’s Zuid neighborhood, though visitors might momentarily forget they are in Flanders. Spreading over two rooms, with enough room for about 40, the place is simultaneously imbued with Antipodean espresso-making expediency, Latin warmth, and a hint of Canadian chillaxedness. It's not a coincidence that the owners of Butchers Coffee have lived overseas. Paolo Guffens spent his first decade in Uruguay, attended school in Belgium, and then left to circumnavigate the world, working coffee jobs in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, across South America, in Vancouver, and in London. During the same five years, Antwerp native Dave Haesen found himself in Australia, working as a barista in Melbourne.
When finally repatriated, both Flemings felt out of touch with how their hometown took its coffee. As Haesen puts it: “I knew that if I just copied a Melbourne coffee shop straight to Belgium, it wouldn’t really work, so I had to feel the vibe, feel what Antwerp needed.”
There was no better place to look for societal reintegration than Caffènation, the trailblazer in Belgium’s New Wave coffee evolution. Guffens and Haesen first met at the now-14-year-old cafe, where they worked together for nearly a year. And when they left there, it was with the blessing and startup support of Caffènation’s founder, Rob Berghmans. Speaking to Sprudge in late 2016, he called Butchers Coffee nothing less than “a blueprint of how you should open an espresso bar” and “the hippest espresso bar in the whole country.”
Despite losing two of his valued staff, Berghmans gained a new roasting client. For all its private-label single-origin espressos, Butchers Coffee relies on Caffènation’s roasting services, and also serves Caffènation’s blends in-house. A two-group La Marzocco Linea PB handles the espresso, while a Kalita Wave is the go-to filter device. Grinders on duty are a Nuova Simonelli Mythos One Clima-Pro and a Mahlkönig EK 43.
S-shaped hooks and bovine-themed accents in the cafe recall its past life, though the most telling remaining artifact is a walled-in nook with metal rails along the ceiling. Once the frosty site of hanging carcasses, the old butcher’s cold room is now a mini gallery. It appeals especially, says Haesen, to the private-space-seeking children of some regulars.
Throughout the shop is custom-made furniture by interior architects Wood-Lab, the mahogany finishing offering a warm contrast to the white walls and tiles. Of particular importance to Guffens and Haesen is the design of the bar, which, low in height and fitted with stools, encourages intimate exchange with clients.
“We have a bar where people sit and they’re very close to the barista,” Haesen says, comparing his past and present workspaces. “In Melbourne, as a barista, you’d be in your own little zone and you’d be surrounded by your machines.
“In Melbourne,” he continues, “if you’re a barista, you’re a barista, and the only thing you have to think about is: make coffee, make your recipe. Here in Antwerp, you have to be a bartender as well. You have to really talk to people and engage with them, and it’s a lot more personal.”
It is a source of, rather than a drain on, energy when, as Haesen says, “we have to explain the menu at least 15 times a day, just go through and really explain to people what we have and explain what we do, explain the light roasting.” This is the same cross-cultural coffee advocacy that compels him and Guffens to hold monthly cuppings for the public, equip their foreign-city-bound customers with lists of recommended cafes, and joyously experiment with the souvenir beans said customers bring back.
This is also why Butchers Coffee’s steady expat clientele includes a reputably discerning group.
“There’s an entire hockey community [of people] from New Zealand and Australia that comes [into the cafe],” shares Haesen, seeming pleasantly stunned by such quick approval. “It’s a big compliment to what we do.”
Karina Hof is a Sprudge staff writer based in Amsterdam. Read more Karina Hof on Sprudge.