Among the dozen local enterprises filling Rotterdam’s Fenix Food Factory, the most nominally fitting these days is Stielman. Though the consumer-focused specialty coffee roaster has been around since May 2014, last year marked the beginning of its phoenix-like rise. Things had begun kindling when entrepreneur Marco Pfaff took over ownership, but it was Aukje van Rossum, who's been with the company from incipiency and is currently its communication and marketing manager, who brought in the fire-starter when she recruited her brother, Jelle van Rossum.
Sprudge readers may recall Jelle van Rossum as the roasting wunderkind at Rotterdam’s Man met Bril, featured in an article from 2015. Nowadays, the—still hardly hoary—24 year old is something of a Dutch coffee industry sage, largely self-taught and unflaggingly, albeit gently, communicative. At Stielman, where he has been since March 2017 and is now manager and head roaster, the plan, he says, is “to just once again get people excited about flavor in coffee and about diversity in flavor.”
It is working. Several commercial venues around Rotterdam are serving Stielman, but, more remarkably, the bulk of clients are individual subscribers (this author included).
“It’s mainly word of mouth. And with all the talks I’m having nowadays with different companies, we’re growing,” says Jelle van Rossum. “We don't need to grow any faster.”
Like its immediate Fenix neighbors—purveyors of, respectively, Moroccan tapas, farm-made cheese, and jacked stroopwafels—Stielman appears to be a gigantic market stand. Approaching it head-on, visitors encounter a Kalita Wave-kitted filter bar; the espresso bar lies perpendicular, supporting a two-group La Marzocco Linea PB, twin Mazzer Kony grinders, and a Mahlkönig Guatemala grinder. Yet, behind all that is, essentially, a factory within a factory. Weekly, a Giesen W6A roasts 200 kilos of coffee, much of it then packaged and sent to homes nationwide. A high table and stools provide a spot for sitting and sipping, but the surface seems truly intended for cupping.
The Stielman subscription’s appeal is as practical—customizable delivery frequencies and quantities; eco-friendly shipping via intra-city e-bike network Fietskoeriers; packaging that fits average Dutch mail slots—as it is sensorial. Comprehensive and consistent, the collection comprises six roasts for espresso and six for filter. Named after colors, the coffees are bagged and tagged with hue-corresponding labels. A few adjectives and the occasional noun position each on the flavor spectrum, but they omit all provenance details.
Aukje van Rossum explains: “We always had the origins listed on the packaging, but recently Jelle convinced us to start leaving that information off because it biases people. A lot of customers would think, for example, ‘Oh this is an Ethiopian, so we should buy it.’”
“And we really want people to get engaged with specialty coffee through flavor,” Jelle van Rossum emphasizes.
Origin information is given on the Stielman website and, Aukje van Rossum assures, “our baristas know everything about the coffee.” At the time of writing, six part-timers rotate bar shifts and due to soon join the team is an assistant roaster—the first and only candidate Jelle van Rossum interviewed because “she just had the right mindset.”
A new Stielman product is the Shokunin tasting box. Conceptualized by Jelle van Rossum, the series debuted with an heirloom coffee from Ethiopia’s Kochere district; to highlight the multiple flavors the single coffee could yield depending on how it was processed at the Reko Koba mill, three packages are included showcasing natural, washed, and honey-processed beans. The second Shokunin release demonstrates the effects of different fermentation times and drying surfaces on a Caturra-Castillo combo from Argote farm in Colombia’s Nariño region. Each box comes with an 18-page booklet containing background stories, photos, and roast profiles.
“That’s something that people are usually very secretive about,” Jelle van Rossum acknowledges of the roast profiles. Yet, he believes that for this project, publicizing them creates a feedback loop benefitting consumers, producers, and partners, such as Stielman’s two green bean importers, The Coffee Quest and This Side Up. The Van Rossums themselves stay in direct contact with the coffee farmers via Skype, Facebook, and occasional visits to or from them. “Making it a two-way street,” as the roaster puts it, stabilizes both supply and demand—and helps flesh out his fantasies about future experiments. Today, he also has his own premium coffee label and service (called Shokunin, too).
Although nowadays she does more front-of-the-house work, Aukje van Rossum, older by two years, was the first of the pair to discover specialty coffee. Her foray was nearly a decade ago, when alongside attending design school in Rotterdam, she worked at a nearby branch of Coffeecompany. A particular Yirgacheffe impressed her so much that she wanted her brother to try cupping and beckoned him from Leeuwarden, where he was contemplating food and wine as part of hotel management studies.
“He was blown away,” Aukje van Rossum remembers of his early experience. “He was like, ‘Oh, this is so much fun,’ and then he got into the coffee.”
In fact, back then, when gathered on weekends at their family home in Vorden, the siblings not only got their parents drinking specialty coffee, but also so profoundly diffused their enthusiasm that mom and pop eventually quit decades-long office jobs and opened a specialty cafe. Lo and behold: Van Rossum’s Koffie, established in 2014 in the small city of Zutphen, and run by Frans and Dagmar van Rossum, with support from their big-city children. That, surely, is another story, though one sharing thematic similarities to the regeneration happening at Stielman.
Later this year, the brand expects to launch a second coffee bar and a roastery in Zoeterwoude, the South Holland municipality famously hosting a Heineken brewery. Additionally on the to-do list are a third tasting box, a line of coffee capsules, and a tea collection. So continues Stielman’s spectacular rise, at Fenix Food Factory and beyond.
Karina Hof is a Sprudge staff writer based in Amsterdam. Read more Karina Hof on Sprudge.