The great thing about being a coffee judge is that it gives you power. It puts you in a position where you sometimes almost pray that brew that has been put in front of you is kak, given the obnoxious, behaviour of the waiter or the arrogance of the barista.
This is your chance to hit back, even if it's only in terms of a low rating on an extensive questionnaire. But you fill it in with glee: quality 4/10, service 3/10, ambiance 4/10. Hah! The revenge of the untrendy customer.
I was once a coffee judge, seventeen years ago in my hometown of Rotterdam, where I worked as the correspondent for a national newspaper. I had heard about the famous Rotterdam Ketelbinkie Koffietrofee (named after the tragic young seafaring hero of a 1940 song that had become the unofficial anthem of Rotterdam), and was chuffed that after one year as a correspondent I was asked to be one of the judges for said trophy, which had been running since 1982, when it was virtually impossible to find good coffee in Rotterdam.
I'd had plenty of time to check out the various coffee bars because I had decided to engage in a wicked experiment. This was August, and, as is common in summer, the newspaper is then half its normal size because everyone is on holiday and the need for copy is minimal. So instead of the usual procedure of me calling our coordinator at head office in Amsterdam and suggesting stories, I decided to wait for him to call me. I had just come back from holiday and didn't yet feel like going back to the daily grind of pitching stories and searching for news. I wanted to see how long it would take until they noticed I hadn't come up with a single idea.
Days went by. I strolled through town (our office, which I shared with the correspondent from another daily, was right in the city centre). At my leisure I checked out the music shops, the book shops, the odd clothing store, the thrift stores. And every day I had coffee at at least two different places. I phoned friends and invited them over. One by one I visited all the important coffee joints in town. After a week of no contact from head office, I decided to extend my radius, jumped on my bicycle and explored some of the suburbs to see what they had to offer.
I vividly remember having lunch at a small restaurant in the old port, near a building that had been transformed into a tech-hub. I had invited two young female web designers. We sat in the sun, ordered sandwiches, drank coffee and chatted about their plans to conquer the world with their innovative ideas. Overlooking the river, the slow ships, the seagulls, I felt bliss, pure bliss. All pay and no work. Great company. Excellent coffee. What more do you want from life?
But of course there was that nagging feeling; after two weeks I still hadn't received a single phone call from my coordinator in Amsterdam. Not a single 'do you have any story ideas for next week?' Or 'how was your holiday?' Not even a 'howzit?' So in the end I blinked first. I called him and told him about my meeting with the two young web designers, and their ambitious plans. He listened calmly, and said it sounded like a good idea for a story. 'How about 1500 words?' The story ended up on the front page of the supplement. And everybody was happy.
The moral of this story is of course that it's sometimes okay to take it easy, to avoid the pressure, to sit back, chat to interesting people, let good ideas percolate and indulge in coffee. But there was more. When you go around town at your own pace, with your own budget, you tend to go to the hip spots, the trendy places that everyone's talking about. By the time I was asked to be a judge for the coffee competition I thought I knew all the right spots. I assumed that basically I could fill out the questionnaire in my office, since I, the self-proclaimed coffee connoisseur, was familiar with all the places that mattered. I knew the quality, the waiters and waitresses, the prices.
But then I got my list with the five spots to visit. I checked them out. I knew three of them. Of the two that were new to me one was quite far, so that made sense. But the other was down the road, a mere hundred meters from my office, a place called Bilderberg Parkhotel. Of course I had seen it, but I had never visited this Parkhotel, always under the impression that it was too posh, too stiff, too expensive, not a place to pop in for a quick cappuccino.
But now I had to step into that slightly imposing modern white building and ask for a simple americano (one of the rules of the competition was that in order to level the playing field all the jury members had to order a black coffee). I can't remember much more than that I felt ill at ease, sitting among men in suits who discussed business deals, foreigners mainly. The waiter in a stiff white shirt and sharp black pants was more polite than friendly. Then came the coffee, in a sparkling white ceramic pot, next to a matching white ceramic cup and saucer, on a little silver tray, with whipped cream on the side and a neat biscuit, which tasted sweet and soft and buttery. The coffee was beyond excellent, hot, but not too hot, strong, but not bitter, with loads of fruity flavour. I finished the full pot, and quickly ordered another one, already feeling more at ease among the suits. Afterwards, I duly filled in the form: coffee quality 9/10, service 9/10, ambiance 9/10. Overall impression 9/10.
Two weeks later the winner was announced. To me it was pretty obvious: forget all the hipster stuff, the barista hysteria, the tattoos and the beards, the display of exotic, ridiculously priced coffee beans, the sparse interior, the bland electronic music. Give me a good old fashioned place with a sharp eye for quality and detail any time.
Needless to say that Bilderberg Parkzicht won the Ketelbinkie Koffietrofee that year.