Yes, it is official: the Dutch drink an awful lot of coffee. However, the coffee landscape in the Netherlands brings with it unique experiences and traditions. Read on to discover more!
Coffee – one of life’s simple pleasures enjoyed by millions of people across the world. While corporate behemoths such as Starbucks have tried to monetise a common coffee experience from Seattle to Singapore, most cultures have held fast in their own cherished traditions around this ubiquitous drink. The Dutch are certainly no different and they drink an awful lot of coffee. The Netherlands ranks fifth in world for coffee consumption, with each person enjoying an average of 8.4 kilograms of beans per year on average! Let’s explore some of the little quirks around how they consume all of that coffee.
A very different coffee landscape
When I was growing up and learning to drink coffee in America, it was not a very enjoyable experience. Coffee was one of the few legal options for delivering a stimulant into your body so that you could stay awake and pull an all-nighter studying for one of Dr Thompson’s epic physics exams. Keep in mind that I’m old, so this was well before boutique coffee became fashionable in America. I started out on Maxwell House medium roast in the blue can. A large scoop was heaped into a bleached filter where moderately hot water would slowly drip through the bitter grains and down into a bubble-shaped carafe that sat so long on a hot plate in a greasy diner that a single sip would take the hair right off of your chest – but it did a great job at keeping you awake! Picture a Seinfeld diner scene, with a rude, gum-chewing waitress in a hairnet carrying around a glass carafe refilling big white mugs at each booth – yep, that’s what I’m talking about.
By the time that I moved to the Netherlands, Starbucks was all the rage in America. I never really understood the whole ‘double half-caff skinny white free-range-bean soy latte with pumpkin spice sprinkles and marshmallows’ kind of order, but at least the coffee had some proper flavour.
In my American arrogance and naivety, I was expecting a similar craze to be sweeping the lands across the Atlantic. What I found instead was an active resistance to Starbucks and a concise set of cultural standards around enjoying a cup of coffee in the Netherlands.
Dutch coffee rules
First and foremost, coffee is meant to be enjoyed in a stationary position: at home; in a cafe; or at a friend’s house. Walking around with your coffee in a take-away cup is the surest way to tag yourself as a tourist. It’s just not done. Besides, what’s your hurry? The coffee is actually very good. Relax. Enjoy it.
While you are sipping your coffee, seated in the cafe of course, be sure to also enjoy the small treat that they bring you with your order. A small cookie or nougat are the most common, but you could also get chocolate at some of the finer local institutions. This is not an optional accoutrement! I once was at a cafe with a Dutch friend and when the coffee arrived without any cookie, she looked completely crushed. And then she got angry – very angry! ‘This is not coffee! I will never be coming back here again! It has to have a cookie! This is just wrong!’ We had a good laugh, but she kept her word and never stepped foot in that establishment again. So, if you are planning on opening a cafe here in the Netherlands, be sure to add cookies into your plan, otherwise you won’t be in business very long.
The right time
Are you now scared that you might make a similar mistake if you are having guests over to your house? You should be! This is the Netherlands and regels zijn regels (rules are rules). The most hard and fast coffee rule that I’ve experienced when hosting Dutch friends is the ‘eight o’clock rule’. If you have guests for dinner (18:00 aan tafel!), then you will probably linger after your meal with a glass of wine and good conversation. But beware! At 19:50, your Dutch guests will begin fidgeting in their seats and looking at their watches. The evening was going so well! Do they really want to leave already? No! It’s just time for coffee – which must be served at 20:00 sharp! And you should also have an espresso option available. If one of your Dutch friends requests an espresso at this hour, then you are in luck! You know it’s going to be a very long and enjoyable evening.
The wrong coffee?
Speaking of espresso, now that we have the basic logistics of drinking coffee in the Netherlands outlined, let’s have a look at the types of coffee you can order here. We’re going to ignore Starbucks…well, because it’s Starbucks and that is about as far from Dutch culture as you can get. In a normal Dutch cafe, all the basics are available – black coffee (koffee zwart), espresso and cappuccino. You can also generally find some more extravagant preparations, such as latte macchiato, cortado and lungo. These are all well prepared with quality beans and would meet any but the most stringent Italian coffee aficionado’s standards.
There are also two common coffee orders in the Netherlands that highlight Dutch humour and cynicism that you will want to know about. The first is the very simple combination of coffee with warm milk. In France, the order of ‘café au lait’ rolls from your tongue with chic sophistication. When in Spain, it’s the pure and simple ‘café con leche’. And if you are joining your hipster friends in Berlin, ‘milchkaffee’ gets straight to the point with the barista. But here in the Netherlands? It’s the very direct and cynical ‘koffee verkeerd’. This literally translates to ‘coffee wrong’ which I think projects what the Dutch really think about this timeless combination. But apparently there is enough demand (or maybe it’s just enough tourists) that it is something you can order in any local cafe.
The other brew that I want to mention is ‘koffie Americano’. It also carries a subtle jab at its namesake country because when you order this in a Dutch cafe, you will be presented with an oversized mug of watered-down espresso. Yep, that’s it – a supersized mug with watered down espresso. I know that they are trying for a twist on the classic bitter and burnt brew found in dingy New York diners, but I have to say that they missed the mark. By using quality espresso, the Dutch version actually isn’t all that bad, especially if you are looking for something mild and voluminous. The size of the mug is also perfect for placing your stroopwafel on top so that the syrup gets warm and gooey to enjoy with your weak espresso.
So, there you have it! You can now order coffee in the Netherlands with confidence! Enjoy your brew…and your cookie!
I found an active resistance to Starbucks and a concise set of cultural standards around enjoying a cup of coffee in the Netherlands