Man Met Bril, which means “guy in glasses” in Dutch, is as descriptive a brand name as it is metaphorical. The Rotterdam specialty coffee roaster’s founder, Paul Sharo, does wear lenses to correct his farsightedness. The dark—no, espresso-colored—plastic frames symbolize the clairvoyance that brought the pioneering company its repute in the Netherlands’ second largest city.
Nowadays, their 250-kilo weekly output of meticulously, multi-sensorily scrutinized micro-roasts is shared among a range of Rotterdam restaurants and bars. Yet, most newsworthy is Man Met Bril’s own coffee bar, which opened in January at the newly situated Hoofdkantoor, Dutch for “headquarters.”
The epithet Man Met Bril dates back nine years to when Sharo worked in a restaurant and made it a habit after dinner service to take out his Hottop, place it on the bar, and roast his own beans—the yield of which some kitchen staff came to call “the-guy-in-glasses coffee.” Sharo eventually realized, with horror, that the small electric roaster was “baking everything,” though he failed to find a quality local coffee to serve at Wijn of Water, the restaurant he by then had come to own.
In 2012, he decided to leave the restaurant to go rogue—to go roast.
Ever since, Man Met Bril has delivered exclusively within Rotterdam. “We could’ve been about, I think, two times as big as we are right now if we sold outside [the city]. But for us, it’s really thinking about what we want to do and who we want to be,” says Sharo. Summed up, the ambition is to get the best roasts possible out of a 15-kilo Giesen and to share those discoveries (for the record, roasted in 12-kilo batches) with Rotterdam and its guests.
This season’s menu includes two Guatemala Santa Felisa Geishas and two coffees from Finca Las Mercedes in El Salvador, all sourced by Sharo. With the aid of Artisan software, Jelle van Rossum mans the Giesen and its 1-kilo sidekick, used mostly for samples. “He’s roasting better than I’ve ever roasted, at this point,” says Sharo of the 21-year-old, who found his calling 10 months ago on the very floor he now commands.
On a recent afternoon during one of Man Met Bril’s thrice-weekly cuppings, Van Rossum serenely explained how he had “made some small adjustments” to highlight the passionfruit and downplay the pecan notes in his first filter roast of a Colombian coffee—from a farm he himself recently visited and arranged import from.
Another point on Man Met Bril’s agenda is “to redefine what it is that we like about the city,” says Sharo. “When I started, I said: ‘Alright, I’m going to start doing something that is only for Rotterdam because Rotterdam deserves more than we’re getting right now.’”
Despite spending some of his childhood in New Jersey, where his American father lives, Sharo considers himself a Rotterdammer. His hometown, when not reduced to being Amsterdam’s rival—in terms of sports and ports—is often singled out as the country’s least quaint metropolis, bombed in World War II, subsequently scarred by skyscrapers and marred by socioeconomic, race-related strife.
The Hoofdkantoor’s menu regularly offers six espressos and six filter coffees. Each roast is listed on a plastic tab that points down to a row of beans, premeasured per cup, and stored in easy-to-clean pharmaceutical cylinders.
Efficiency is something Man Met Bril takes seriously. The espresso machine is a two-group Slayer. Sharo sums up its purchase as “the best idea I had and the worst idea I ever had in one.” The pros: “no shot timers, there’s nothing to preset your settings, it’s just all by hand, and I really love that.” Plus, it’s “the most pretty machine in the world.” The cons: “it’s a shitload of money” and requires in-house maintenance since the Netherlands lacks technicians acquainted with the Seattle manufacturer’s products.
The system for order-taking and espresso-making is self-invented. “The thing we’re calling ‘the cockpit’,” says Sharo, comprises two Acaia scales integrated into the Slayer, an iPad (that receives orders from another iPad), and two iPods, all connected via Bluetooth. A third Acaia is reserved for filter.
Nearby is another New World phenomenon: a BUNN batch brewer. “That’s because I’m American, and I wanted to go for something a little different,” Sharo smiles, praising its utility for automatic filter at festivals.
At present, 90 percent of revenue is business-to-business. Vendors are welcome at all times for training on the La Marzocco Linea PB Sharo reserves for that purpose.
Man Met Bril is built into an arch under an old train viaduct. The property is part of the Hofbogen urban restoration project, meant to make more room for entrepreneurs, less for youth gangs. In warm weather, the cafe’s 22-head capacity spills over from the herringbone wood counter and communal table onto the sidewalk. Developers are discussing plans to transform the land above into a High Line-inspired park, which Sharo favors. An elevated coffee bar is part of his future vision.
So what happens if one day the guy stops wearing glasses? “I’ve been thinking about it a lot, about getting my eyes lasered,” Sharo replies. The company story might be better if one day his imperfect vision were purely historical trivia, he muses. “But I don’t know, we’ll see.”
Karina Hof is a Sprudge.com staff writer based in Amsterdam. Read more Karina Hof on Sprudge.