I studied abroad in The Netherlands this past year, and I am proud to say I learned more about coffee culture in Europe than I did about the subjects I was actually studying (apologies to my professors).
It started on the first morning of class. I didn’t know much about Dutch culture, but I assumed that falling asleep in the first lecture was generally frowned upon, so I stopped at a café to grab a quick cup of “koffie.”
When I asked the server for coffee to go, he full out laughed in my face and told me to “try McDonald’s” if I wanted coffee like that. Ouch.
Ordering coffee to-go is not a thing there. Or at least not a common thing like it is in North America. And I noticed it more as I traveled around.
The “café-culture” is their thing. They sit outside on patios, relax, chat with friends, people watch, and slowly sip their cappuccinos (often surrounded by a cloud of cigarette smoke).
The portions are insanely small as well. When I ordered a cappuccino in a café in Paris I legitimately thought the baristas were playing the rip-off-the-dumb-North-American-tourist game on me when I saw the microscopic cup it came in. I’m used to drinking my coffee in exam-sized cups by the gallon.
The flavour is so concentrated though, they don’t need to be larger. I’m no expert in coffee tasting, but when I took the first sip of my cappuccino I swear I had some sort of trippy-mind-altering-coffee-infused-epiphany and suddenly realized what good coffee was.
Europeans know good coffee. And they know how to enjoy it. Small portions, packed with flavor, sitting down at a café.
This is obviously not to say that all countries in Europe only drink coffee this way. It’s just the most common from what I’ve noticed.
Coffee in North America tends to be served in larger portions, to go, with less flavor. No, pumpkin spice is not the kind of flavor I’m talking about (but I will always have a special place in my heart for the PSL, and you’d be lying to yourself if you said you didn’t as well).
Drinking coffee is less of an event here and more of a way to quickly get that caffeine buzz. We’ll chug down three cups of it in the morning just to wake up. Appreciating the actual flavor isn’t always the main concern.
Starbucks is no exception. The coffee itself isn’t very flavorful, and a lot of the time it has so many crazy add-ons that the actual coffee isn’t the focal point. You can even order a Cotton Candy Frappuccino. I dare you to walk into a café in Italy and ask for a Cotton Candy Frappuccino.
Many Europeans (especially Italians) view Starbucks as a corporation that’s taken coffee culture and turned it into something overly commercialized that sells weak, super-sized, tacky coffee drinks. Even the Dutch students I talked to all had negative things to say about our beloved Starbs.
I’m not claiming that we never sit down and enjoy genuinely good coffee – of course we do. I’m just referring to the mainstream North American coffee culture as a whole.
But we’re university students, and a lot of us barely have time to make a meal that doesn’t consist of instant noodles — let alone sit down at a café for hours on end.
And winter is coming. I don’t know about you, but I’ve grown to depend on my large take-out coffee to last me the freezing walk of death to class every morning — it’s basically a survival mechanism.
Travelling to Europe has by no means made me some stuck up, self-proclaimed coffee connoisseur who turns my nose up at the mention of Toasted Graham Lattes (but I will judge you hard if you Instagram yours).
I still happily order my Mocha-Coconut Frappuccino with extra whip. I still down my large Tim Horton’s coffee on the way to class.
But ever since returning from Europe, I remind myself every now and then to take some time to sit down at a local café, order a small cappuccino, and truly enjoy it for what it is.