Specialty coffee is booming in the Randstad, as the Dutch call the conurbation of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, and Utrecht. But what about outside this urban quadrumvirate? Yes, beyond these metropolises, there lies a coffee universe. And in the more rural, less-tourist-traipsed country’s north, there is an undeniable Polaris: Black & Bloom. Located in the province and same-named city of Groningen, the cafe has been shining bright since summer 2012. Locals know it. The rest of the world should, too.
The individual behind it is barista, roaster, and Specialty Coffee Association technical and sensory judge Gerben Engelkes. His first name means “strong as a bear with a spear” in Frisian. It is fitting; Engelkes is unshy about sharing emotions and is given to bold statements about what he likes and what he does not like. He has competed in four Dutch Brewers Cups, the last being in 2016, when he placed fourth, proudly using coffee Black & Bloom had recently begun roasting.
That same year, Dutch trade publication Misset Horeca awarded Black & Bloom first place on its annual Koffie Top 100. This year, Engelkes is a head juror for the ranking body. He acknowledges that the list is sometimes derided by specialty coffee industry colleagues; one common criticism is that venues—or their more moneyed sponsors, often commercial roasters—must apply to be assessed and the applications carry a fee.
“Lots of people say, ‘You sold your soul.’ I say, ‘No, I just want to improve coffee quality in the Netherlands,’” says Engelkes. “It was meant to be a list to make entrepreneurs aware that coffee is their business card and they should improve in making better-quality coffee in HORECA [food service], in general.” The jury’s scope is “not specialty,” he emphasizes, but coffee-serving establishments overall, “in a bar, for instance, on the corner.”
On an old street near neighborhood of the University of Groningen, Black & Bloom seats only 25. Though neat and meticulously furnished, it feels comfy, not cramped. There is a place for everything, including a two-group Synesso MVP Hydra and four grinders: a Victoria Arduino Mythos One, an Anfim Super Caimano, a Mahlkönig EK 43, and a Mazzer Mini.
Referring to Black & Bloom’s menu, two espressos and two filters are “the magic number,” says Engelkes, “because you cannot keep [more than that] fresh.” To prepare the latter, he favors the Kalita Wave “because of the flat bed immersion.” For coffee cocktails, he uses a Kyoto-style cold-brewed elixir and fruit syrups from the 130-year-old Groningen liqueur-makers Hoog Houdt.
Tempting cakes “have the look and feel of North America and the taste of the Netherlands—so [they’re] not overly sweet,” says Engelkes, who bakes them himself, though can easily take up confectionary consultation with his wife, a pro pastry chef. She comes from the northern province of Drenthe, where her parents had an asparagus farm. In fact, for both spouses, food has been a family enterprise.
Engelkes’ parents once ran Vonk’s Automatiek, a snack bar in his hometown of Winschoten that was passed down from his grandfather. There, Engelkes witnessed an artisanal approach to quickly consumed everyday treats—the croquettes, among other deep-fried staples, were made by hand. Engelkes’ cosmopolitan outlook and signet-ringed flair for presentation seem influenced by a period in his early 20s, when he was employed as a hotel operational manager in Salzburg, Austria. Later, he returned to the Netherlands and managed a small hotel in the seaport city of Delfzijl. That was no dream job, though it awakened him to local demands.
“Especially on Sundays, we had 10 kilos of coffee going through easily on a fully automatic machine,” he recalls observing on his hotel shifts. “So I said, ‘Let’s do something different than that. I want to be the best coffee place in Delfzijl.’”
Engelkes did not open the best coffee place there, but eventually—after barista training, owning two franchises of Coffee United, and working a merch stand at World of Coffee 2012 in Vienna—did so in Groningen. Black & Bloom is set to hold the title.
This past May, the shop’s Giesen W6A moved into a new roastery, allowing for an increase in weekly output beyond the previous 45 to 60 kilos. That, in turn, will let Engelkes expand wholesale and—planned for this fall—launch a subscription service. He would do well to ship coffee to other provinces (not least adjacent Friesland, where the city of Leeuwarden was designated a 2018 European Capital of Culture) and, really, anywhere else on Earth wanting a taste of the Dutch north.
Karina Hof is a Sprudge staff writer based in Amsterdam. Read more Karina Hof on Sprudge.