Moons ago, when he thought up his tagline—“One drug, one nation, one Caffènation”—Rob Berghmans was channeling the spirit of “rebellion” and “revolution,” he says, letting French-accented emphasis fall on the second word’s final syllable. Today, Berghmans is Antwerp’s most renowned name in specialty coffee, and those acquainted with the regional scene recognize his 14-year-old espresso bar as the first of its kind in Belgium’s largest city.
Yet, talking with Sprudge on a dank afternoon in late 2016, Berghmans is quick to put things in perspective. “Actually, the bar—I wouldn’t say it’s a side project, but it’s less important than all the rest,” he declares, referring to the business-to-business component of his company. Roasting now for seven years, Caffènation boasts more than 100 venues across Europe as official “dealers.” The drug in question: single-origin espressos and filter coffees, predominantly Africans, all roasted on the lighter, Scandinavian side of the spectrum. They come in unmistakably bright bags, imprinted with a signature Cuban-political-graffiti-inspired font, with stars dotting the i's.
Caffènation was born of a desire to create something “not like the old-school cafes and coffee corners they had in Belgium, but just in a new, relaxed way, like you see in New York for example,” says Berghmans. “It was not really by accident, because I’ve always been a big fan of a lot of American things: sports and music and culture.” Still, his own coffee program took time to develop.
“For me, ‘specialization’ [meant] having a lot of coffees on the menu. So there were, like, eight lattes and six cappuccinos, and the caramel-macchiato kind of atmosphere was still hanging around,” he says of Caffènation’s beginnings. “It was only a couple years [into the cafe’s existence] that I discovered there were barista championships and tampers and on-demand grinders and stuff like that. So I can’t say we were specialty coffee 14 years ago, but I can say 10 years ago, 11 years ago, [that's when] it really started.”
It is unsurprising that the patron-provocateur of the Low Countries’ coffee set values precision. But he wears the role much like his chambray button-up and classic Reeboks: seemingly simple and utilitarian, though actually the consummate result of much testing, tweaking, and fussing.
When, as he puts it, “the big Third Wave came over from the West Coast and from the [rest of the] States,” Berghmans felt validated. “I was like: ‘Whoa, unbelievable. This is what I have in hand, this is exactly what I’m doing, and it’s exactly the language I use, the ideas I have.’ So I was actually Third Wave avant la lettre.”
After nearly a decade on the splashy shopping street Hopland, Caffènation moved a 10-minute walk southwest into the neighborhood of Zuid. Entering its white row house, visitors first encounter an express counter. Here, customers can ring up Bravilor-brewed filter coffee from an adjacent self-serve station, as well as purchase beans by the bag and pick up morning starches (the coffee-infused granola by I Just Love Breakfast is eye-opening). Upstairs is the bar, kept humming by a three-group La Marzocco Linea PB espresso machine, two Anfim Super Caimano grinders, and Berghmans’s rotation of loyal baristas. On a nearby wall, the staff’s faces (plus that of Bert van Wassenhove, who left to open Caffènation Amsterdam in 2015) appear in high-contrast black-and-white portraits—the produced effect suggests an employee-of-the-month photo series by Anton Corbijn.
Annually, Berghmans estimates getting 150 new professional clients. Some might order only a bag of coffee, he says, though others avail themselves of Caffènation’s full-package distribution, repair, and training services. It keeps his 13-member team flexible and itinerant.
Caffènation recently moved its Giesen W30A roaster, long commanded by AeroPress Championship multiple medal-holders Jeff Verellen and Simon Boone, from a spot in the Port of Antwerp to the industrial area of Berchem. The new location is not only spacious enough for roasting, but has the luxury of a cellar to store green beans and room for a coffee bar, which is expected to open to the public in May.
Also anticipated this year is Berghmans’ book. It will share some autobiographical information “just for fun,” he promises, though it is above all meant to impart to its (Dutch-reading) audience brewing and buying dos and don’ts.
“A lot of people who are blogging, they’re afraid to talk bad about stuff,” he explains. I think sometimes you have to tell people very strictly: ‘Listen, this is not a good idea. If you want a Bialetti—don’t go there—buy an AeroPress.’”
So has Caffènation somehow made a country with longstanding political, cultural, and linguistic fissures into one nation? Not yet. But over time it has united many, inside and outside Belgium, by so masterfully handling its one drug. It is no coincidence that Berghmans’ book will include a chapter on caffeine.
“People ask: ‘Well, why are you successful in your business and your bar?’ We talk about a lot of things, but we have to admit,” says Berghmans, his voice lowering. “Most people come because they need their fix.”
Karina Hof is a Sprudge staff writer based in Amsterdam. Read more Karina Hof on Sprudge.