The expat coffee king
He may not speak Dutch, but Kiwi expatriate Kevin Benge is just one step away from representing the Netherlands in a competition that will determine who is the best barista in the world, writes Kristine Garcia.
The lanky and charismatic Amsterdam resident beat several leading Dutch barista — those folks who noisily froth and clank espresso machines at our favourite cafés — to make it into the national finals this month in Arnhem. According to Kevin’s boss Leigh McDonald — who is also a contest judge, though not when her employee is presenting — Kevin’s mixture of skill, passion and ability to entertain while at the espresso controls made him a competition favourite. "I think he’s the best barista in Holland," declares Leigh, the American owner of three Dutch retail cafes, called Coffee Connection, and a wholesale coffee roastery. "There is a lot involved in being a barista and not everyone can do it but when you’re good at it you’re a real blessing to a business, and that’s what Kevin is." Since his arrival in the Netherlands six months ago, Kevin, 27, has been working at a Coffee Connection café in central Amsterdam. It is here that customers have gotten to know the impassioned barista with the tussled hair who is on a relentless mission to convert the Dutch to a new way of thinking about, and drinking, coffee. "Coffee in the Netherlands is notoriously crap," Kevin says in a broad Kiwi accent. "When most Dutch people think of coffee, they think of the filtered, drip stuff." As an authority on speciality coffee — the name given to Italian-inspired drinks such as cappuccinos and espressos — Kevin’s greatest hurdle has been teaching each new Dutch customer why you shouldn’t just ask for a "koffie verkeerd" (literally wrong coffee). Kevin often has to explain to Amsterdam-natives what exactly makes up a latte and how to appreciate the subtle brilliance of a perfectly squeezed out espresso shot. "In cities in Australia and New Zealand the quality of coffee you get is a lot better than in Nederland because the general public has a better idea of what they want to drink and they know more about bad coffee versus good coffee," says Kevin, who honed his barista skills at cafes in Christchurch, Wellington and Melbourne. "In a city like Amsterdam, where you have so many tourists asking for koffie verkeerd, you can just serve them burnt, milky, weak coffee and they’ll accept it, pay and leave. This has brought the quality of coffee right down." But it is not just tourists who are to blame for the lack of gourmet coffee in the Netherlands. Over the past two decades, specialty coffees have become staples in countries throughout the world but the Dutch market has proven to be a slow starter. “Compared with England where specialty coffee really came in blowing the doors off at least six or seven years ago, in Holland it has only really started rolling in the last two years,” says Leigh, who started Coffee Connection in 1998. But, she explains, the Netherlands’ slow uptake of specialty coffee has more to do with commercial difficulties and personal habits than a general Dutch aversion to coffee drinks. "There is just not a whole lot of specialty coffee players on the market due to the fact that there are a lot of large commercial roasters here that have been providing a fairly small market," says Leigh. The most significant coffee brand by far in the Netherlands is Douwe Egberts, accounting for over 50 percent of the market. The company’s Aroma Rood label is one of the biggest-selling food items in the country. The Netherlands is in fact known to be a coffee-loving nation, with annual consumption measured at 154 litres, or 1,300 cups per person. "Coffee has been generally available in Holland since coffee was invented," notes Leigh. "The Dutch are actually responsible for bringing coffee to other parts of the world where it was then planted and harvested. The Dutch seafarers of the Golden Age were the ones who brought coffee to Indonesia… That is the source of all of the coffee coming from Java." Such deep-rooted Dutch coffee traditions may prove challenging to stir up, but Leigh, along with Kevin, her star barista, is convinced that the Dutch specialty coffee market is burgeoning. One sign of this growth may even be the Dutch participation in the 2003 World Barista Championship, which after being around for about 12 years, only saw its first delegate from the Lowlands last year. The current Dutch champ, Jeroen Veldkamp, did not make it into the top-five barista of the world, but he did succeed in enduring the stringent 45-minute presentation required of all contestants. The contest judges deduct points for such barista faux pas as stray coffee grounds, milk dripping from a steamer nozzle and drinks not being above 48.8 degrees. After much practice Kevin is confident of his presentation skills, but not yet certain of his chances: he is the only foreigner bidding to represent the Dutch at the finals in Boston in April 2003. But ever upbeat, Kevin says that either way he is content pursuing his current mission of making a mark on Dutch coffee culture. “I feel a bit wanky saying it, but during my time in Holland I'd really like to do something about the quality of the coffee,” he says. “And, through my employer, I want to train people [to be barista] so I can pass on what I have learned, and pass on the excitement and passion for it.” Kevin works for Coffee Connection on Nieuwezijds Kolk 33 (at the corner of Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal) in Amsterdam. March 2003 Subject: Expat profiles