Key-shaped gelatin candies, in the same translucent summer hues as classic gummy worms, might be an unusual sight by the cash register at a specialty-coffee bar. But the choice is not so unusual at Caffènation Amsterdam. This is Bert van Wassenhove’s place.
The name may ring a bell if you’ve recently been served a delectably subtle Belgian-roasted blend in Amsterdam’s residential Hoofddorppleinbuurt area. Or you may’ve encountered van Wassenhove on a past visit to Caffènation in Antwerp, the aforementioned Belgian coffee’s source; van Wassenhove was a roaster and a barista there for a dozen years. Or, it’s possible you saw the invariably hirsute Belgian at a coffee competition some time during the last half-decade, winning the 2010 Belgian Cup Tasters Championship perhaps, or competing in the 2015 Dutch AeroPress Championship, or cheering on fellow members of the proudly self-branded Team Sausage. If you’ve seen him, you’d remember him.
The year-old Caffènation Amsterdam shares name and menu with its Antwerp mothership. But van Wassenhove is this cafe’s sole owner, and on the six days a week that it is open, he can be found running the place, usually singlehandedly. Having a business, a home, and a girlfriend in the Dutch capital means the Belgian is now rooted in the Netherlands. But what Saint Peter is to heaven, van Wassenhove is to Flemish culture. He holds the keys to a kingdom built around a more pleasure-taking mode of existence. Asked how his Belgianness might set him apart from local baristas, the 35-year-old refers to the way he grew up as “another lifestyle.”
“We’re much more Burgundian, I think,” he says. “We’re into food and drink. We don’t need an excuse to go out for dinner. You sleep a lot, like almost half of your life—so you need a good bed. Your body is your temple, so enjoy the foods and the drinks you have. Do not get fed the same old crap every time.”
Still, van Wassenhove possesses a distinct, border-transcending ideology. It might be described as surrealism-flecked punk with an underbelly of haute couture and a heart fueled by an eagerness to delight others. Van Wassenhove’s focus on what’s magical in the mundane is visible in much of what he does. His signature look is an assemblage of both thrift-store ephemera and spendy wardrobe-forever habiliments by Belgian designers (it’s fitting that the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, from which the Antwerp Six designers graduated, is a 10-minute walk from Caffènation there). When reminded of his 2010 World Barista Championship Fashion Champion “title,” he laughs sportingly.
“Dolly Parton once said: ‘It costs a lot of money to look as cheap as this,’ ” he offers, with little trace of sardonicism. “It’s always funny when people think you’re dressed really bad, but you’re wearing high-end Antwerp fashion designers.”
He may be particular in his tastes, but possessive of them he is not. An iPad used for shop admin also instantaneously pulls up the contact details of shared tips, sometimes transcribed to Post-it notes for curious customers. For Antwerp’s best deals on clothes, go to Houben and Rosier 41. The swirl-effect porcelain cups in the cafe are made by Alissa + Nienke. Then there is natural wine, something van Wassenhove cannot recommend enough. The label of his favorite bottle, Chérubin, a vin jaune from Arbois, France, inspired the latest of his 34 tattoos, a winged gnome—the tiny fingers on his rendition, though, are upturned to flip off any inspectors of his inner forearm.
With such a bon vivant at the helm, it’s no surprise Caffènation Amsterdam is one of the Netherlands’ most hospitable cafes. The bar and the main-level floor are done in a warm wood, not too varnished, not too raw. The lighting is incandescent rather than clinical-white LED. The décor is stylish, but does not feel stylized. Chairs and tables, new and old, are anchored by throw rugs, artwork, and flotsam and jetsam amassed in and around the Benelux area. Watchers of late-’80s Saturday morning American TV might, for a moment, think of Pee-wee’s Playhouse: colorful with touches of the absurd, each furnishing emitting a zany life of its own. And running counter to recent “no kids” trends, a whole section downstairs beckons children with its miniature swivel chairs, a chalkboard, and well-pawed-through large-print books; nearby is a wall-mounted rack brimming with magazines in multiple languages.
The equipment, however, is decidedly grown-up. There is a three-group Kees van der Westen Spirit. Grinders include a Mahlkönig EK 43, a Nuova Simonelli Mythos One, and an Anfim Super Camaino. A BUNN and a Marco do batch brewing. The BUNN in particular gets praise for its efficiency.
“People are out in 15 seconds, it’s so fast,” says van Wassenhove of customers who order filter coffees. “Instead of making a few pour-overs, now I make a batch of 2.2 liters. If you’ve got to make six pour-overs, there’s six times the chance to mess up.”
Van Wassenhove grew up in Brasschaat, a green town outside Antwerp. He moved to Antwerp to attend hotel and cooking school, but after graduating and working for a stint, he realized “I don’t want to be 60 [and] working in a kitchen.” What he had been learning in between classes at Caffènation Antwerp, while drinking coffee there “almost daily,” was more engaging anyway.
“Rob said: ‘Instead of playing chicks in my bar, come stand behind the bar and play chicks like that,’ ” he recalls, referring to Rob Berghmans, Caffènation Antwerp’s owner. What ensued was a career in coffee and, apparently, some industrialized flirting.
Van Wassenhove misses the roasting he did at Caffènation in Antwerp. He describes the job as an all-day affair that kept him and his colleagues contentedly isolated, with lots of loud music. He also waxes nostalgic about collective how-to viewings on VHS.
“We were learning about latte art from videotapes by David Schomer,” he laughs and then mimics their obsessive rewinding. “Backward, forward, backward, forward.”
Back to today, it’s the start of a new calendar year, and a time to mark Caffènation Amsterdam’s first anniversary. Commenting on how the year has gone, Van Wassenhove is succinct.
“I had a minimum and a maximum goal, and I hit that [range], so I’m really happy,” he says. As to whether those benchmarks were measured in coffee or money, “both” is the reply. “And I made a lot of people very happy in the neighborhood,” he declares. “They are happy to have me here.”
As proof, when van Wassenhove steps outside for a smoke, the garbage collectors heading by drive their truck right up to the sidewalk corner and howl: “Coffeeee, coffeeee!” It was one-fourth playful chiding and three-fourths affectionate. Maybe the burly, young sanitation guys also wanted in on the warmth and whimsy of hanging with the neighborhood’s popular barista. He smiles at them, while above his head, Antwerp’s flag waves its checkered red, white, yellow, and blue in the winter wind.
Karina Hof is a Sprudge staff writer based in Amsterdam. Read more Karina Hof on Sprudge.