So much has been said about the coffee of Europe and while I know Brussels should not be the sole representation of European coffee, it is a start.
I can say that coffee here takes some getting used to compared to the coffee back home. However with time, I am beginning to much prefer European coffee to the brews I typically drink in the states.
Not only are the actual drinks much different than those in the U.S., but the culture surrounding coffee consumption is so distinct as well. In the states it is typical to pop into a coffee shop and take a coffee to go, but here this is not so much the case. It is an option to ‘take-away’ your coffee, of course, however it is not as common. Much more usual here is to sit in what is a bar/restaurant at night and a cozy cafe during the day time. It is perfectly normal to sit at one of these places (which are everywhere) and to simply order a cappuccino.
You will receive waiter service and are able to rest at your table with your friends drinking coffee for as long as you’d like. In the U.S. this would likely be frowned upon as any place serving food somewhat expects you to order the food and not just take up a table drinking just coffee.
Coffee here is like going out for drinks in the way that it is often a social affair, which is the same in the U.S. but these meetings are often in bustling coffee shops where it is too loud to hear whoever you are with, where baristas are yelling out orders and other customers are brushing past you to find a seat and camp out with their laptop for the day. This will be hard to go back to.
In terms of drink specifics, let’s start with iced coffee.
The 90 degree weather that was happening for my initial few weeks in Brussels made the craving for iced coffee so real. Unfortunately straight up iced coffee as I know it back home hasn’t caught on so much at the shops that I’ve been checking out.
EXKI – Iced Coffee
My first failed attempt was when I tried ordering iced coffee black at EXKI, a healthy organic grab and go food store fairly common around Belgium. The result was the worker blending a bunch of ice cubes with some creamed coffee for a product more so resembling beer, which is ironic since we are in Belgium. Just check out the coffee foam. That’s a new one for iced coffee.
I also snapped this photo right after the drink was handed to me and before taking a sip so the half-filled cup method is another interesting thing that brings us to the size spectrum for coffee in Brussels.
Depending on which drink you get, if you order a small size you will likely laugh as they hand you a cup not much larger than two shot glasses. I made this mistake.
As a general rule in Brussels, if you want an American small, order the largest size offered.
Mundè Caffè (a.k.a the steel box)
Returning to iced coffee, there is a delicious variation served up at what we term the steel box. The café is a sort of pop-up box set in a permanent spot near the campus of the dutch-speaking Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) and its international school off-shoot that I attend, Vesalius College.
The iced coffee at Munde is prepared with either milk or water and though I can only speak for the milk version, this drink is one that you will finish with ease. It is sweet and creamy and the taste is unique, yet subtly spiced.
The first beverage I tried at the steel box though was the matcha latte. Though this drink is served hot, it is so rich with flavor and feels so nourishing alongside all the fries and waffles I’ve consumed in the past few weeks that I’m able to drink it even on hot days.
Another great choice I recently made was ordering a Belgian cappuccino, which was served with a topping of whipped cream that contributed a perfectly indulgent flavor to each sip I took through the lid of my to-go cup. The hot coffee hits your lips at the same time as the chilled whipped cream. It is the perfect contrast of sweetness and temperatures.
The menu at Munde is full with various teas and coffees and my goal by the end of the semester is to have tried them all.
Opinio – Iced Coffee
Settled on the VUB campus, Opinio is guaranteed to have a busy line of students and unfortunately it can take a while to reach the front of that line. What they lack in Starbucks-esque efficiency, they make up for with attention to detail and carefully prepared drinks.
The iced coffee is not pre-made and ready to pour into a cup to hand to you. Forget about your beloved cold brews, this coffee tastes more so like milk with a touch of coffee splashed in. This is the trend with iced coffees in Brussels. I think the solution may be to ask for iced coffee with some espresso shots if it’s the bitterness that you seek. Otherwise, asking for less of the creamy liquid somehow might make the coffee more so resemble the less caloric , black iced coffee versions back home.
Vroom Vroom – iced mocha, café latte w speculoos
This adorable little truck is settled on the sidewalk, again near the VUB and Vesalius campus and they sell coffees and teas, croissants and pain au chocolat, and even salads now.
My first visit entailed a pain au chocolat and a cafe latte with speculoos and I was certainly pleased. The drink was very creamed but not too sweet, even in spite of the speculoos flavor addition. When in Belgium, make everything speculoos if you can.
The iced mocha I tried only as a sample that a few workers were passing out to people passing by and it was prime time that they did so given how hot it was. If I hadn’t been rushing off to class I would have stopped to order the drink. It was essentially chocolate milk with a slight coffee taste and had tiny iced cubes floating around in the dixie size cup.
They exist here, though there are only a few and the prices are way jacked up. The few I have spotted are located in the Grand Place and then the metro station. Pay a visit if you’re craving familiarity in terms of coffee size and in terms of black iced coffee. If you really want a taste of Americana, they are already advertising pumpkin spice lattes here as well. Too soon, too soon.