BRUSSELS, Aug 21 — For years, Belgian coffee — café belge — has not had the most sterling of reputations. An over-extracted espresso that is harsh on the palate, a diluted café au lait, a syrup-drenched coffee smoothie — these are hardly the most inspiring of cuppas. Even in the capital, Brusselaars didn’t seem to catch on to the Third Wave of coffee the rest of the world was riding... till now.
As new speciality coffee bars started popping up all over the country, there’s no better time to go café-hopping, particularly in the three major cities of Brussels, Bruges and Ghent, to hunt down the best brews in Belgium.
Begin in Brussels, of course. Here, the historical route offers some pleasant surprises. The bright and cheerful Le Café du Sablon along rue de la Régence has an enviable view of Eglise Notre-Dame du Sablon, a 15th-century Catholic church dedicated to Our Blessed Lady of Sablon. The café that bears its name is far less ornate — no Baroque-style chapels, for one thing — but is still a haven of sorts, albeit for coffee aficionados.
Le Café du Sablon is run by François Lafontaine, owner of Café de la Presse, one of the earliest hipster cafés in Brussels. Here the focus is on slow-brewed coffee rather than the espresso-based coffee of Café de la Presse. Lafontaine’s dedication to quality beans is evident with the inclusion of a small indoor roaster, something not every Belgian coffee shop has.
While you may enjoy a stellar cappuccino or caffè latte here, do as the regulars do and order a filter coffee instead. Options for extraction include Chemex, V60, siphon and Aeropress. Ask your barista for the latest seasonal single origin beans on offer.
After brewing, the barista will deliver your coffee — both the brewing equipment and cup — to your table so you can pour your own cuppa. Sit back and sip slowly while enjoying some of the best views in town; Eglise Notre-Dame du Sablon is an architectural wonder, after all.
On Chaussée de Charleroi, not far from the Place Stéphanie roundabout in the capital’s Sint-Gillis neighbourhood, you may come across a large blackboard scribbled with quotes such as “Coffee is the most important meal of the day.” Welcome to Bocca Moka, a café run by Karina Salieva, originally from Kurkistan but a Belgian resident for almost two decades now.
The coffee lover quit her job in the hospitality industry and attended barista training in Italy in order to pursue her dream of opening a café of her own in Brussels. Little wonder that one of the star attractions here is strong, Italian-style coffee — sans milk or sugar — brewed using a moka pot, no doubt delighting regulars from the Italian embassy nearby.
However, other types of coffees are also available — from filter brews made with a Japanese siphon to barraquito, a Tenerife speciality that contains sweet condensed milk, frothed milk and cinnamon. Up next, apparently, is “molecular coffee” where the coffee will be “inhaled” via a hookah pipe.
Décor-wise, Bocca Moka has a relaxing ambience with windowsill seating that allows customers to ogle an impressive array of coffee brewing equipment and a garden terrace in the rear, perfect for those rare sunny afternoons in Brussels. During lunch, Salieva’s New York-style bagels go fast so drop by early if you would like some.
Over in Bruges, the city of canals, serious coffee bars are a bit of a rarity. But if you spot a cheeky red lips logo (not unlike The Rolling Stones’ infamous emblem, created by English designer John Pasch and fashioned after Mick Jagger’s mouth) staring at you from across the street, you know you’ve just hit the jackpot.
Here, the lips spell out the name and the philosophy of the café — quite simply: I Love Coffee. And, yes, that is a roasted coffee bean those pearly whites are chomping on. It’s confirmed: they’re serious about coffee here.
EspressoBar I Love Coffee serves authentic flat whites and single-origin espressos instead of the usual watered-down cappuccinos with a dollop of froth on top found elsewhere in this tourist destination. With the tagline “Open When Not Closed, Closed When Not Open”, it’s a joy to discover the café is open daily. They roast their own coffee beans here and the bar is frequented by locals in the know.
The place has a decidedly rock ‘n’ roll bohemian chic vibe, complete with a wicked sense of humour. (The urinals in the gents manages to “mirror” their irreverent logo, shall we say.) It’s the perfect place to rest your feet after wandering around the canals and bridges of Bruges, as even our furry, four-legged friends agree.
Not far from Bruges is Ghent, a beautiful university town that is not as crowded as Brussels or Bruges. Your first stop for coffee here should be Café Labath, a corner coffee bar run by friendly barista and roaster Brett Broothaers. Expect great coffee, a retro design, warm colours, hanging plants, a Mondrian-inspired wall and... very good breakfast.
Yes, start with some substantial breakfast while waiting for your coffee, especially if you’ve ordered a slow-brewed filter coffee. A basket of breads, pain au chocolat, a croissant and cheeses, accompanied by a soft-boiled egg and a glass of orange juice will get anyone perked up.
Naturally the highlight is still the coffee, whether it’s one of the best cappuccinos in the country or an Aeropress brew that promises to be bright rather than bold. Café Labath also sells coffee beans in to-go bags, so make sure you buy one or two for home brewing.
One café that seemed to be more people than coffee — which is a lovely thing, really — is OR Espresso Bar. Located across the street from the celebrated Minard Theatre, OR Espresso Bar appears to be the meeting point for all coffee lovers in Ghent. Be it a slowly hand-crafted filter brew or a lusty ristretto, everyone is deep in coffee and conversation.
The people factor seems to be a happy by-product as the original intention was simply to create a “live” coffee lab where founders Tom Janssen and Katrien Pauwels could learn from the coffee they served and further refine their roasts.
When the duo first met, they were both working in IT. Neither had any experience in coffee other than Janssen’s grandfather having been a roaster. So what spurred these two entrepreneurs on was only a passion for the bean. Today OR Espresso Bar also has a micro roastery and a coffee training centre.
For those who aren’t quite as serious and geeky about their coffee, the café is a cosy place to curl up with a cuppa and indulge in people-watching at the long bar running alongside the window. If this is how the Belgians enjoy their coffee these days, the only thing to do is to do as the Belgians do!
Le Café du Sablon
26 rue de la Régence, Brussels, Belgium
Open daily 7:30am-8pm
Chaussée de Charleroi 41, Brussels, Belgium
Open Mon-Fri 8:30am-6pm, Sat 10am-6:30pm, Sun closed
EspressoBar I Love Coffee
Sint-Jakobsstraat 10, Bruges, Belgium
Open daily 8:30am-5:30pm
Oude Houtlei 1, Ghent, Belgium
Open Mon-Fri 8am-7pm, Sat 9am-7pm & Sun 10am-6pm
OR Espresso Bar
Walpoortstraat 26, Ghent, Belgium
Open Mon-Fri 7:30am-6pm, Sat 9am-6pm & Sun 10am-6pm