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19 December 2018

A Speciality Coffee Tour of Kreuzberg and Neukölln, Berlin

I last visited Berlin on a school history trip in 1998 and I've long been wanting to return. As my company has offices there, I've held out, hoping a work trip would materialise. Of course, when that finally happened, I had to fly out the day after returning from Amsterdam and only had one free day in the city. There wasn't much speciality coffee to be found near my hotel nearish Potsdamer Platz — although it sounds as though I will have at least one very good option next time I come if I'm staying in the same area. I used my day off wisely, however, catching the U1 U-Bahn from my hotel to Kottbusser Tor in Kreuzberg for a caffeinated walk through the laid-back, artsy neighbourhood and neighbouring Neukölln.

Nano Kaffee
I start my walk at Nano Kaffee, which is the closest speciality coffee shop on my list to Kottbusser Tor. Coincidentally, it was also the first speciality roaster to open up shop in Kreuzberg, more than four years ago. The small cafe–roastery is tucked away down a quiet side street but is well worth seeking out. It's a lovely space: simple but elegant, with a beautiful wooden coffee bar and a vibrant yellow painting on the wall.

It is quiet when I arrive, early on a cold but sunny morning. I order a piccolo — if there weren't already too many words for small, espresso-based drinks, I might say 'nano' — brewed with precision using a delightfully fruity Peruvian espresso. I chat for a while with Ramin, the friendly and passionate owner, about Nano Kaffee and the Berlin speciality coffee scene more generally. It wasn't my intention to buy beans at my first stop, but I'm so impressed with Nano Kaffee that I select a bag to take home as a gift for Brian.

Nano Kaffee is located at Dresdener Str. 14, Kreuzberg. Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Bonanza Coffee Roasters
I head back onto the main drag, Adalbertstraße, and walk north a few blocks until I reach my next destination. A small 'Bonanza' sign indicates that I have arrived, but I have to walk around the back to the large yard, with its characterful red-brick buildings, before I find the entrance. Several fellow coffee-lovers, including Tom, recommended this beautiful, spacious speciality coffee spot. Inside, the décor is minimalist, with a few tall plants providing colour, and the clever use of mirrors making the high-ceilinged cafe appear even larger. The roastery is visible through the 'windows' in the wall behind the counter.

I don't notice that the menu is written high up on one of the mirrors and thus don't realise that they offer a filter coffee flight. This is unfortunate because all three of the small-batch filter coffees on offer sound delicious. Regular readers will know that I'm a sucker for lavender in flavour profiles (or cocktails, chocolate...pretty much anything, really), so I opt for the Ethiopian Israel Degfa–Uraga. Although the citrus and melon come through more strongly, I can taste the lavender too. It's a complex, delicate coffee but very well brewed. This is also a good spot for a sweet treat: the salted caramel pastries look divine. It's also a good place to shop for beans, but I have already run out of space in my bag. Next time, I must come with a bigger — or emptier — bag.

Bonanza is located at Adalbertstraße 70, Kreuzberg. WebsiteTwitterInstagram.

Populus Coffee
I retrace my steps and walk past Kottbusser Tor, crossing over the Landwehr Canal into the Neukölln neighbourhood to the south. Bearing east along the canal, I weave through the busy market on Maybachufer and stop for a vegan salted camel–pecan doughnut at Brammibal's. I notice that they serve Populus Coffee (with oat milk), but they don't offer pourovers or white espresso-based drinks smaller than a flat white so I continue on to Populus's bustling coffee shop, a short walk to the east.

At Populus, I order a cortado, which is brewed using a house-rousted Kenyan Karimikui PB coffee, which tastes great and which isn't too milky. The baristas notice me scouring their retail bags of beans and hurry over to offer advice. Next time, I must not only come with an empty bag, but also have empty hoppers and cupboards at home; I want all the coffee souvenirs!

Populus Coffee is located at Maybachufer 20, Neukölln. WebsiteInstagram.

The Barn

Just around the corner is the newest cafe — for now — of well-established Berlin roaster The Barn, which opened in October. A large portion of the small coffee shop is taken up with a huge round table. Lancelot and Arthur must have the day off but there is a copy of the Süddeutsche Zeitung for me to scan. (I studied German for a year at school but, ever the linguist, I've studied enough of the history of English and other European languages that I can get the gist.)

The coffee menu is the most exciting I've seen on this trip, with signature drinks (a beetroot flat white and a Rooibos spiced flat white; interesting but not my taste) and three hand-brewed filter coffees to choose from. The Brazilian Christmas coffee sounds nice but not quite what I'm after. The barista recommends the Los Chorros coffee from Honduras — the head roaster's choice. She asks how long I'll be in town for as the head roaster is giving a talk a couple of days later, but sadly, I'll be back in London by then.

The coffee is served in a glass jug with a tactile white tumbler. It comes with a card that provides details of the coffee's farm, farmer and origin, as well as the tasting notes. I enjoy my coffee a lot, its grape and vanilla notes really singing as it cools, just as the barista advised. They take their coffee seriously at The Barn but the atmosphere remains very welcoming. I'm much too early but two blocks south is a dessert bar called CODA, which I hope to visit another time.

The Barn is located at Friedelstraße 27, Neukölln (and other locations). WebsiteTwitterInstagram.

Five Elephant
Crossing back over the Landwehr, I return to Kreuzberg where, by happy coincidence, my fifth speciality coffee stop is Five Elephant, another celebrated Berlin roaster. It's lunchtime when I arrive and the cafe, which occupies several small rooms, is packed. I manage to find a stool at which to perch and then join the queue at the counter.

There are hand-brewed filter coffees on offer, but it's very busy so I order a cortado with the Guatemalan Buena Vista espresso. It arrives promptly and I drink it underneath one of the vintage maps that hang on the walls, trying not to take too much inspiration from my close proximity to Antarctica. As for the coffee, it is excellent. I've tried Five Elephant's coffee back home in the UK before, of course, but it is always nice to sample it closer to the source.

Five Elephant is located at Reichenberger Str. 101, Kreuzberg (there's a second Mitte cafe). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

After all that coffee, I am in need of sustenance and I walk a few blocks north to Burgermeister, a burger bar inside a former public loo under the train tracks near the River Spree. It's cash-only but I manage to break the €50 note the ATM in Amsterdam unhelpfully provided. Revitalised by the cheap but tasty cheeseburger, I cross over the Spree and walk along the East Side Gallery, a mile-long remnant of the Berlin Wall now painted with (mostly political) murals. It's a colourful and thought-provoking place to visit.

I stroll back towards the city centre and take a few photos of the Brandenburg Gate, which has a menorah and a Christmas tree in front of it. Other than the museums and historical sites, I remembered little from my 1998 trip, but somehow, ambling down the Unter den Linden brings it all back.

Later, my colleague and I dine at the mainly veggie BRLO Brwhouse, which is near our hotel. You can order a BBQ meat dish if you wish, but we stick to their 'statement vegetable' formules: one veggie main with a side and an 'on top' for €18. We both get the cauliflower, which comes with a vadouvan rub, BRLO pale ale glaze, juiced and dehydrated red cabbage, fermented Granny Smith apple and nut butter crumble. It's absolutely delicious. Of course, I go for an Old Fashioned rather than sampling the beer.

After dinner, we take the free self-guided audio tour of the Reichstag Dome. We had to book in advance, but it's worth doing if you fancy a little bit of architectural and historical information while enjoying some great views of the city. Yes, it has been a short stay in Berlin but it's been fun, interesting and very caffeinated.

13 December 2018

A Weekend in Amsterdam: Bex's Guide

After a 19-year absence, 2018 was the year I finally returned to Amsterdam. I soon discovered that accommodation in the city is pretty expensive, even when booking well in advance. As such, I opted to take a morning flight from London City Airport that got me into central Amsterdam soon after 10 am on Saturday, flying back to London late on Sunday night. I saw quite a bit of the city in two full days, including six of its speciality coffee shops. Here's what else I got up to in my weekend in the Dutch capital.

Exploring the canals. Amsterdam's city centre is both compact and very photogenic, with its signature canal-side houses and bridges, which means it's a great place to explore on foot. To maximise my wandering, I stayed on Herengracht (Men's Canal), one of the three primary canals that run in concentric arcs around the heart of the city.

I also took a one-hour canal boat cruise (€16), which was a good introduction to the city and helped me to orient myself, even if the pre-recorded commentary was not especially in-depth. The weather wasn't great, which meant my photos through the rainy windows didn't come out very well.

Amsterdam Light Festival. I was in town for the seventh annual Light Festival, which runs from late November until 20 January 2019, and sees the installation of 29 light artworks around the city centre. You can take special after-dark canal cruises that take in the festival, plan your own route or just wait to see which installations you come across. I particularly liked A.N.N. (a representation of neural networks in the brain) and Light a Wish (featuring dandelions).

Van Gogh Museum. I've visited the Rijksmuseum and Anne Frank House before, so I went to the Van Gogh Museum (€18) this time. It gets busy at the weekend so I booked my ticket online in advance. My slot was on Sunday afternoon and it was indeed crowded. The permanent exhibits were interesting, but I most enjoyed Van Gogh Dreams, an interactive exhibition that allows you to "experience Van Gogh's emotional journey when he moved from Paris to Arles". It also tied in quite nicely to the Amsterdam Light Festival, which featured a Starry Night piece.

'I amsterdam' sign. Since 2004, at the front of the Rijksmuseum there has been a large red sign spelling out 'I amsterdam'. It's a very popular spot for tourists' photographs, which I ended up passing on the last day before the sign was removed by the council in an effort to reduce overcrowding. I could see why.

De Poezenboot. Alas, I missed it but you can visit a floating cat shelter while you're in Amsterdam. I did see a few felines in the city but I'd have loved to say hi to a few more on the 'kitty boat'.

I published my speciality coffee guide to Amsterdam earlier this week. Here are some of the other places where I ate and drank on this trip:

The Avocado Show. If you are fond of Persea americana and don't mind queuing for your brunch, The Avocado Show is the brunch spot for you. The waiting isn't too painful either as you can leave your name and they will then text you when you're near the top of the queue. Every dish on the menu features avocado; in the end, I went for the beetroot hummus on toast with and an avocado rose — one of the prettiest savoury brunches I've had, and tasted good too. I somehow found room for the waffles with chocolate, berries and avo. My second choice for brunch was Bakers & Roasters, a couple of blocks away.

The Butcher. For a really delicious, meaty burger in an industrial-chic setting, look no further than one of the branches of The Butcher. My cheeseburger was very tasty, although I wish I'd been organised enough to book a spot at their secret kitchen.

Mossel & Gin. West of the city centre, in Westerpark, Mossel & Gin serves up seafood and gin-based cocktails. I had a G&T with an infused gin, and fish and chips, which came with Mossel & Gin's special 'gin mayo', a punchy, tangy and moreish accompaniment. You even get to keep the tube of gin mayo. Early on Sunday evening, there was a bustling but relaxed vibe.

Graham's Kitchen. On Saturday night, I went to Liverpool native Graham's titular De Pijp restaurant where they serve locally sourced food with Dutch and British influences. You can choose from 3–6 courses on the set menu (three courses was a very reasonable €39). I started with a cocktail, Graham's take on 'beans on toast', a delicate crisp served with smashed beans, and Dutch potato soup, before moving on to the veal tartare, beef with pumpkin, and pear with white chocolate and star anise. The food was delicious, and Graham himself brought out many of the dishes — a lovely personal touch. Another restaurant that came highly recommended by various friends was The Duchess.

Original Stroopwafels. With so many real meals during the weekend, I didn't have much appetite for snacks, which is a shame, as the Dutch do great sweet treats. I did stop for a stroopwafel at the stall on Albert Cuyp Market (€2). Adding chocolate sauce was very decadent, if a little messy. If cookies are more your thing, head to Van Stapele, although you may have to queue.

Tales & Spirits. This bar jumped into my all-time list of favourite bars. With expertly mixed cocktails served by talented, friendly and fun bar staff, Tales & Spirits is, unsurprisingly, very popular and doesn't take bookings, so go early. The menu is creative and extensive; my plan was to have one pre-dinner drink, but I couldn't resist trying a second. The Professor, with Sipsmith gin, vermouth, Ceylon tea liqueur and bitters, was potent and smooth. Number two — Van Gogh-inspired Drop of Art — featured the bar's signature playful presentation. The cocktail (genever, St Germain, bergamot liqueur, white port and Absinthe) was perfectly balanced but could be 'customised' using the paintbrush and three 'colours' (pomegranate, citrus and caramel sauces). If you can't get in to Tales & Spirits, you could try Door 74 and Vesper, which were also on my list.

Maker Store. Inside the large tram depot turned cultural complex that is De Hallen, is a fantastic shop for buying gifts, homewares and accessories produced by local makers, from scarves and art, to tubes of gin mayo.

In the hip De Pijp neighbourhood, a short walk south of the city centre, I found lots of great shops. Some of my favourites include: Hutspot (fashion, homewares, design and unique gifts); Sticks and Stones (accessories, handbags and gifts); O My Bag (beautiful leather handbags); All the Luck in the World (jewellery and funky homewares); Maison NL (concept store with clothes, accessories and homewares from local makers); and Property Of... (bags and other leather accessories).

The Nine Little Streets area in the city centre is also a good place to find unique, independent shops. I liked: SMAAK (leather handbags); Margareth M (bags and other leather accessories); and RIKA (fashion).

Accommodation: I stayed at The Hoxton, which is located in the heart of the Nine Streets district on a particularly pretty stretch of Herengracht and occupies five connected townhouses. I booked the smallest room, which had two single beds and, like the rest of the hotel, was beautifully designed and well thought out. My room was quiet and the bed very comfortable. In the morning a light breakfast (juice, granola and fruit from STACH) materialises outside your door.

Arriving and getting around: From Schiphol Airport, it's a 15-minute train ride into Amsterdam's central station. Trains run every 15 minutes and a single ticket costs €5.30; you can buy tickets from the machines inside the airport terminal, which take credit cards. Bikes rule the roads in Amsterdam so do watch when crossing the street. You can explore most of the city centre on foot, but when your feet start to tire, you can hop on a tram, a boat or a bike.

Money: To my surprise, my research suggested that cash was still king in Amsterdam so I took out some Euros but barely used them as almost everywhere I went — except the stroopwafel stall — took credit cards. Some businesses were even cashless.

10 December 2018

Six Speciality Coffee Shops To Try in Amsterdam

Amsterdam is a city so convenient to get to from London that it's rather embarrassing that my only previous visit was at the end of the last century. 2018 was the year I finally managed to right that wrong and top of my list of things to do was visiting some of the excellent speciality coffee shops and roasteries that the city now boasts. Of course, when friends and family ask why you're going to Amsterdam and you say, "for the coffee shops," a little clarification is required as to which type of coffee shop you mean. And of course, I meant the ones where I could drink a cup of freshly roasted, well brewed speciality-grade coffee. What were you expecting?

I only had two days in the city, arriving on Saturday morning and leaving on Sunday evening. The city centre is quite compact, however, and although I didn't have time to visit some of the further-out spots on my list, I did go to six coffee shops and was impressed with them all, both in terms of the quality of the coffee and the service. As usual, I've marked my absolute favourites in purple in the map below.

Back to Black
On a cold, grey December Saturday afternoon, seeking cosiness was the order of the day and I found it in abundance at Black to Black, a small cafe perched above the Lijnbaansgracht canal. It was packed when I arrived, but I managed to find a seat perched at the counter. The cute, if sleepy, resident ginger kitty was sadly not willing to share his seat with me.

As it was very busy, I did not order a pourover or other black coffee (as one probably should at Back to Black) but a cortado, which was well brewed by the super-friendly baristas. Back to Black has roasted its own coffee since 2015, and bags of retail coffee are available to buy. And if you're into pie, the apple pie here looked especially good.

Back to Black is located at Weteringstraat 48. Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Bocca Coffee
Located between Prinsengracht (Prince's Canal) and Keizersgracht (Emperor's Canal), two of Amsterdam's three primary canals, Bocca Coffee's Kerkstraat location is a beautiful cafe that serves excellent coffee. After admiring the water fountain near the door — the now-outgrown and repurposed Probat coffee roaster Bocca first used — I then stopped to admire the colourful retail bags of beans. In the end, I decided to buy the Myanmar Hopong natural beans, although the Ethiopian Guji Dimtu Tero were a close second.

Luckily, the Ethiopian beans were available as a pourover at the brew bar, so I ordered one of those and took a seat at one of the small tables around the edge of the spacious, airy cafe. The wooden U-shaped counter occupies most of the space, but there are also cosy nooks with comfy seating if you don't fancy perching at the bar or at one of the high tables. The art, which relates to coffee production and origins, is also available to buy. In other words, Bocca's cafe is a coffee-lover's paradise.

My coffee arrived promptly, despite the cafe being quite busy, and came with a description of the coffee, whose forest fruit and orange flavour notes came through very nicely. I almost wished I'd bought the Ethiopian beans instead — but once I tried the Myanmar coffee at home, I was happy with my choice. With its relaxed atmosphere and friendly, knowledgeable staff, this is the kind of neighbourhood coffee shop every neighbourhood should have.

Bocca Coffee is located at Kerkstraat 96. Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Frederix Roastery X Coffee Bar
After avoiding the rain for most of the day, the heavens finally opened when I was in the De Pijp neighbourhood, and on my way back to my hotel, I sought shelter at Frederix Roastery X Coffee Bar, a refined but unpretentious cafe on Frederiksplein, just south of the eastern end of Prinsengracht. As the name suggests, Frederix roasts its own coffee as well as serving coffee and other drinks, breakfast and lunch.

From the outside, it looks as though there are just a few seats near the counter, but following the counter towards the back reveals a surprisingly light-filled area with marble tables, bistro chairs and comfortable leather sofas. I ordered an Aeropress brew, which featured Frederix's current filter roast, which blends Indonesian, South American and Africa coffees. Although a slightly darker roast than I usually go for, the coffee was well made and a good match for the wintry day outside.

Frederix is located at Frederiksplein 29. Website. Instagram.

Amsterdam West
Friedhats FUKU Cafe
Given that I knew Friedhats was a Dutch roaster, which I first came across in a Colombian–Dutch cafe in Crouch End, I had assumed its name meant something in Dutch. But when I put the question to co-owner Dylan, who I met at Friedhats' FUKU Cafe, he smiled and told me that it was in fact an anagram of Headfirst, the first cafe he worked in. FUKU is about two miles west of central Amsterdam — an easy tram or bike ride, or, in my case, a 40-minute power walk. However you journey there, it's well worth the trip.

After selecting some beans to take home as a gift, I perused the menu. Unfortunately, I didn't have time for a hand-brewed filter coffee — the 'super-special' Colombian and Ethiopian options (€7.50) sounded particularly good — but I did have time for an espresso, which I drank at the bar. I opted for the Kenyan Karimikui, which was very fruity with blackberry and currant notes. With its signature pops of vibrant yellow, the coffee bar is nicely designed too and it was busy even on a Sunday evening. Unfortunately, I didn't have any guilders to spend at the coffee-bean vending machine; one for next time, perhaps, although I so rarely have any hand money on me that even getting Euros out is enough of a faff.

Friedhats FUKU Cafe is located at Bos en Lommerweg 136. Website. Instagram.

Lot Sixty One
Lot Sixty One is another Amsterdam coffee roaster I first discovered at the excellent Velasquez and Van Wezel in Crouch End. Their cafe–roastery is a short walk from the city centre and I decided to head straight there for breakfast on Sunday morning. The coffee bar is on the ground floor, and there are a few seats by the windows. It was busy when I arrived, however, so I headed down into the basement where there some more seats next to the roaster and training lab.

There weren't any hand-brewed filter coffee options on the menu so I ordered a cortado with the new Nosegrind espresso — a blend of two natural coffees, one Nicaraguan and one Ethiopian, which promises flavour notes of blueberries, chocolate and 'funk'. The latter isn't necessarily something I look for in a coffee, but the Nosegrind blend tasted great with a little milk — fruit, chocolate and a jazzy twist. Once again, Acme's lovely new dark blue cups made an appearance (I didn't realise that their colours are chosen to reflect New Zealand wildlife).

Bags of retail beans, with classy royal blue and white packaging, are on sale by the coffee bar, but sadly, I didn't have any room in my bag for any more coffee on this occasion.

Lot Sixty One is located at Kinkerstraat 112. Website. TwitterInstagram.

Monks Coffee Roasters
Last, but most certainly not least, is Monks Coffee Roasters, not too far from Lot Sixty One on Bilderdijkstraat. Beyond the charcoal grey shopfront is a lovely, lively cafe that was bustling at the brunching hour on Sunday. I had already made other brunch plans, which was a pity as I was getting some serious food envy while I waited for my coffee.

My disappointment soon faded when the coffee arrived. I chose an Ethiopian Guji from Boot Koffie in Baarn, which had subtle lemon and jasmine flavours. The staff were also very welcoming even though it was very busy. Laptops and tablets are verboten but if you need further entertainment, you can choose from the excellent selection of magazines. Finally, I came across the second unique tap-water provision of the trip: a tap connected directly to a pipe that runs along the wall, with a plant underneath ready to catch any drips.

Monks is located at Bilderdijkstraat 46. Website. TwitterInstagram.