In Amsterdam today, specialty coffee bars are mushrooming. Does this mean that Amsterdammers have become coffee gluttons from one day to the next? Fact is that the spread of specialty coffee bars is not confined to Amsterdam, but a phenomenon that can be observed in almost every world city, be it Vancouver, Istanbul, or Kunming. It is obvious that structural factors apply such as, firstly, the transformation of the manufacturing economy to what Alan J. Scott would label the cognitive-creative economy; secondly, the concomitant concentration in urban centres of high-skilled and on life-style and connections oriented individuals; and thirdly, the proliferation of new forms of urbanism. But how does this work in practice? Here, we examine what is actually happening in these specialty coffee bars.
The Outpost in New York’s Bedford-Stuyvesant is one of the few establishments patronised by caucasian locals in a predominantly African-American neighbourhood, suggesting that gentrification is on the way (Photo: Jan Rath)
Older readers may still recall the typical Amsterdam ‘brown cafes’, licensed premises featuring dark wood due to years of smoking patrons. These cafes cherished a warm and cozy atmosphere by offering a drink, a snack, a friendly conversation, and a game of cards or billiards. Coffee was available any time of the day. Indeed, a pot of lukewarm and often stale coffee was patiently waiting on a warming plate. Next to brown cafes, there were ‘coffee shops’ (koffiehuizen) — not to be confused with establishments for the sale of cannabis for personal consumption. Most of the time, these were non-licensed, casual eating and drinking places with Formica tables and chequered serviettes. Koffiehuizen served coffee, tea or milk, and also light lunches such as cheese rolls, omelets, and croquets. Here too, patrons enjoyed their coffee in white china cups while sitting at a table. To be sure, at both types of premises the range of coffee products was limited to either black coffee or coffee with milk.
How different are things on the urban coffee front today? Percolator coffee is no longer existent unless in very, very hip specialty bars where slow coffee is on the menu. Now, a cup of coffee is typically freshly brewed either by a high-end shiny, chrome espresso maker, preferably of Italian design, or a less fancy and less expensive coffee machine, but always on individual order. The introduction of these newfangled machines has been accompanied by real quality improvements, or at least the pretension thereof. These improvements responded to and paved the way for a further fragmentation of consumer preferences. Where once a simple black or white coffee was a dominant feature of cafes in most cities, the production and consumption of a whole array of caffeinated beverages have been following a pattern that is commonplace in the entire post-Fordist world. Continue reading