Coffee Query: Isa Verschraegen, Barista Guild of Europe
What got you into coffee and what’s kept you in coffee?
I spent three months in New York in 2008. That was after travelling for 9 months through South America, and I had no clue about coffee, so I went to all the producing countries there but have no memory of a coffee plant, though I probably saw loads! I met a guy from New York, followed him to New York for three months, and I just loved all the people walking with a cup there. He brought me to some neighbourhood coffee place which was fairly good.. But at the time, I was drinking white mochas! I loved my white mochas. (Oh god, this is going to be published! I haven’t told lots of people, oh no! [laughs])
Then I moved back to Belgium, and had studied business communication before and was working in events before, but it was 2008, and so the financial crisis happened - while I was in New York, actually, when Wall Street crashed. So when I came back looking for work in communication or advertising or events - the jobs were all gone or not available; those budgets were all cut. I couldn’t find a job! So, I started thinking of how the vibe had been quite nice in coffee, and I just started looking up online in terms of what was available in espresso coffee in Belgium.
I came across a blog called Antwerp Barista, which was Caffenation’s blog. I started reading and thought, “Oh my god, this is incredible, I want to learn more about coffee!” So I immediately sent my application in a very proper, neatly written way because of my background, and Rob [Berghmans, Caffenation's owner] was like, “Um, okay, we don’t really hire people like that - why don’t you come in, and we’ll talk.” So I went there, and we talked - he was very passionate, very charismatic, he brings across that passion for coffee. I was completely sold - but then, he wasn’t hiring! But he brought me into contact with a couple who were about to open a cafe in Ghent, which is another city in Belgium, and they hired me!
They were a family, old-school roaster, but they wanted to start improving their coffee, they wanted to open an espresso shop, and they hired me in December. I went back to New York for one month to discover all of the coffee shops there - I went crazy! I had my little notebook, writing down what machine, what grinders - like sitting, creeping up on everyone, talking to them three times. I wasn’t even working in coffee yet, but just wanted to know everything about it! So then I brought that knowledge back with me and started working in that cafe. I think I started in April 2009.
What’s made me stay?
I’ve definitely gone into doubt about it all. Once you start thinking, “I love this, but I’m, y’know, getting older," and you start to wonder, "What am I going to do with the rest of my life or my career, am I going to be able to make enough money once I have a family, or-," not that I’d necessarily start thinking about a family, but y’know.. And then.. coffee’s just not a smart choice!
So, after London, actually, I thought, no, I’ve kind of had it. I have to find something else, and I started to really think, "What am I good at, what do I want to do?" But I couldn’t really find another business to do! And I’d decided that before I quit coffee, like a good year ago - that was my biggest period of doubting - I thought, "Before I leave coffee, that I’ve been in for the past 5 years, and I’ve invested myself - I might as well try to find something IN coffee to utilise some of that knowledge, and first explore any option that’s available to me in the field of coffee, because there’s so much more that’s available to me, more than, say retail, or managing, or being a barista," so that’s what I did.
I’m going to explore it more and see if I can use my skills and knowledge to build a career and enjoy it, and I think that with my current job, I’ve done that pretty well. It just happened!
It also is only something I realised now - I worked hard at meeting people and meeting the community. At first it was so expensive, and I never got included to compete or sponsored to go to competitions and events, and it’s hard to imagine that as paying off - I paid for it because that’s what I wanted to do, but it’s been great in that way. The people are just so nice.. Some of them are jerks, but whenever I think, "Maybe I want to go back to events," I then think, ‘Aw, that means I have to meet bankers and people in suits and people who aren’t passionate," so I quite like our little bubble!
What have been your favourite coffees, both in filter and as espresso?
Ooh! But actually, one of my most memorable [espresso] coffees was a cappuccino - is that allowed? [laughs] I’m not even sure whether it I’d actually started working [in coffee] by then, or if it was that in-between period where I got all into coffee, but I was in Copenhagen, in the first store of the Coffee Collective, and AnneStine Bae was working there. She’s a lovely lady, she’s in New York now. And she made me a cappuccino that was just like strawberry ice cream! I didn’t know a lot about coffee at the time, but with the knowledge that I have now it must’ve been a natural. And I don’t like natural coffees - I also wonder if I were to have that same cappuccino today whether I’d still say, “Wow, this is REALLY good,” or, “This is weird..!” But at that time it was so sweet and creamy, perfect milk, so fruity - just wonderful.
And in terms of filter? I don’t have a really good memory for these things, but I do remember the Buitrera - a coffee from Colombia, in Huila, that Square Mile had the year I competed in the Aeropress championships in London, 2 years ago.
I cupped that coffee - they pre-released it to us, as we were a new customer, and I got one of their test roasts. And I cupped it and.. We had a very strict protocol at Talkhouse. For our Aeropress menu we’d have 3-4 coffees, and I would select them by cupping samples every week or two depending on how many coffees the roasters would release, and I would just request samples from all the roasters available. I even remember living in Belgium but commuting to London before we opened, and wanting to get to know all the different roasters, I think I came home with, like, 30 samples! But you quickly learn which roasters you’re never picking. But I would cup them all blind, and I just wrote cupping notes, and the best 4, and the most diverse, I would have those on the menu. But the Buitrera was the only one that ever skipped that rigorous test for the menu, because I wanted that coffee in, but didn’t have the chance to compare it!
And we kept it on the menu for a really long time, because that was another part of the system - I would keep our existing coffees in that selection, and if there were new things, but they weren’t as good as what we had, we would just keep our selection the same. And then I would only redo the menu once a month, because with customers, too, it gives them a chance to get to know a coffee, and come back for a coffee that they like. The Buitrera ended up being on the menu for the longest - it was just really good!
What’s your home coffee setup?
I HAVE a lot of equipment, but I wouldn’t say it’s part of my setup anymore, just because I’m not using it a lot. I have a Porlex hand grinder that I use often. I also have a Vario grinder, but it needs a bit of burr replacement, and I’m just too lazy to do that right now! And I have a Bonavita electric kettle, replacing a Hario kettle.
I use the Aeropress more than anything, but if I have to make more than one coffee - like if I have family or friends over, I use the Wilfa. I got it at the Nordic Barista Cup. I have all the other stuff - a Hario ice coffee thing, a v60, a Chemex, a siphon - but I don’t use those, I just use my Aeropress! It’s the best - it’s so easy to clean, it’s forgiving as well - I have my Acaia scales from Barista Camp and Tomopol scales, too.
Where do you want Belgium/Europe’s coffee culture to develop next?
I think, in a way, Europe is similar in a lot of cities. What I thought when I moved to London was that so many places were the same - there weren’t a lot of places offering filter, there was a lot of geeking out, rather than focusing on service and the customer, so in lots of ways I thought Belgium was a bit ahead of London, because we were forced to be a little more creative - opening spaces that were more different, getting coffees from different places - we had to look further.
So where do I want to see it going? In general, I’d love us to just be more creative - using different concepts; to have a more diverse coffee offering - not in terms of menu orders. We need those shops that go for a very high standard and quality, and that are pushing it - there’s a nice metaphor for them - they’re the “point of the arrow,” really pushing things forward, inventing new techniques, and driving quality. But we also need places that bring along the people! If we only have that point driving the product, but we don’t have the following of the people, then we’re just going to create a gap between us. I feel a bit of that has happened, but that we’re trying to move away from the things that created that gap.
And I think we can improve - what I dislike about Belgium is that there are no places that do really good food, and really good coffee - it doesn’t have to have three filter options, but it just has to be made well. Also, often, if people know me, or just that I work in coffee, I’ll have to wait a lot longer because they’ll remake my coffee about 10 times, and it’s annoying! Like, I don’t come in to judge your coffee. It’s not what I’m there for. I just want to have a coffee..and in a lot of ways we overestimate that one aspect of what we do, as good as it is to push that forward.
If we really want to make a difference in the quality and life of the people behind it, we really need to think about all the other aspects as well, so that we can bring along more people, who can just enjoy their drinks. And that will go back up the chain to the farmer, and as well as pushing the arrow point.
Who’s someone you admire in coffee?
Oh god.. [laughs] That’s a really tough one! Well, I think as much of a cliche answer as it probably is, James Hoffmann - not initially through his blog, but then I got to know him, and learning that he’s just a kid - who’s smart and a sponge for knowledge, but also being able to converse with him on a personal level - he’s great to draw from, so he’s definitely influenced me.
But then I hate that answer, because a lot of what we talk about, and because so many other people follow him as well - he’s no longer forced to write really well about what he thinks anymore! He can just post a picture of a cup of coffee and there’s billions of people going “Oh my god, that’s so amazing!”
Actually, ditch the question - because one of the things I dislike in coffee is that we have those coffee heroes, where everyone just thinks everything they say is on a pedestal, and is just "right" and.. James - he puts out things, and I like it, but people aren’t using it anymore to challenge it and to create dialogue, or to make it better, and you need that dialogue there. And part of the reason he’s not writing so much anymore is because people aren’t writing back - they’re just saying “Wow, amazing!” - and you don’t learn from that. And it’s kind of sad when it gets like that.
But maybe, another person, who doesn’t work in coffee anymore - Roeland Lenaerts. He’s my ex-colleague, and we had a short 7-month pop-up together. A lot of my ideas were formed because we were discussing things together, working together, learning together - and then we opened the shop because we had very similar ideas about quality and how to push things forward, and just how to be nice to people.
I was very sad when he decided to quit coffee to teach little kids, but I also admired his decision. He went through a very similar decision making process in coffee, and decided to change his career, go back to school, and start again. It’s a valid decision, and it’s sad for our industry because it doesn’t offer a lot of support, and I look up to him for that.
What advice would you give to somebody just starting out in your field?
Start something else! Don’t do it! [laughs] Be REALLY sure you want to go through this!
Honestly, I really think that a lot of people shouldn’t start in coffee - because we kind of aren’t able to sustain that many people.. London was very eye opening for me - so many people working for not even minimum wage, and I don’t know how they survive! It’s mental. You can say that you can work your way up to a better place, but I know a lot of really good baristas who are still working for a really shitty wage and still living in a shitty house. At the same time, if I want to make that better, then we need more people to spread the word and bring in those customers.
We need more people who are smart on a business level as well as about coffee - so that’s where I would challenge everyone who wants to start in coffee - “Do you have a plan? How much money do you want to earn in 5 years?” And I’m not a person who can answer those questions myself! But you’ll have people going into coffee because of the atmosphere, and then they’ll drop out, and it’s such a shame because we invest so much in training, and we have a product that requires that amount of training, and that level of turnover is still so high.
Like, lots of people get started in coffee by just rolling into it. But if you think about chefs for example - I’m sure some still roll into it, but there’s more of a dedication to it - you have to go to school, and there’s so much that happens before you’re allowed to do anything! It’s not the same with coffee. And your options are limited in terms of growth - there are very few places that have higher positions, and a lot of people who want to fill them!
If some type of certification were a more standard requirement for coffee jobs, like CDS, and if more cafe owners saw it as a valid way of replacing their own education programme, that’d help things improve.
I would really advise anyone getting into coffee to really question why they’re doing it - destroy your romantic views! - do you really want to mop floors 6 days a week? For years? But also, often, I feel I’ve become this too-critical, grumpy little person, and I don’t want to destroy that passion that’s like what I started with!
What are you drinking now?
For the last month or so I haven’t been having really good coffee at home! I keep meaning to order from Heart, because I hear so many good things about them, but I’ve never tried their coffees! It’s hard - I live by myself, and I travel so much, so I end up not using a bag fast enough. Though, recently I did have a Good Life Coffee, a Kenyan, that was really good!