– Can you please introduce yourself in a few words.
Hey, I’m Isa. I’m the Guilds Director at SCA, the Specialty Coffee Association, recently formed through unification of SCAE and SCAA. My work requires a lot of travel, but Antwerp is still where my homies are. Single. Dog lover. Savoury tooth and sucker for all things sour. Natural wine drinker.
– What’s your story in the coffee industry?
Starting my career in specialty coffee in 2008, I have changed perspectives on coffee quite a bit. From a couple of years as barista and trainer, via short-term coffee shop owner and an even shorter stint as a roaster apprentice to shop manager and consultant. From Ghent over Antwerp to London and back again, to all over the place. From geeky obsession, through doubt and despair to a pretty stable relationship.
I first learned about specialty coffee in 2008, when a sabbatical year and lucky encounters lead me to spent 3 months in New York City. Back then, there were only 2 good cafes (that I knew) in the ‘burg (Oslo & El Beit), but I was equally happy with my Starbucks Mocha at the time. It was the friendly neighbourhood vibe at these other places that caught my attention, and had me research ‘barista in Belgium’ when I got home. I stumbled upon Rob’s ‘Antwerp Barista’ blog and wrote him the most formal cover letter anyone’s ever written to get a barista role. While Rob wasn’t hiring, he referred me to Katrien and Tom from Or Coffee, who where just planning the opening of their first ‘espresso bar’ in Ghent. I’m still grateful Katrien hired me, knowing I’d want to spread my wings fast and wide. I competed in the Belgian Barista Competitions 5months into my barista role, and made the judges taste a terrible signature drink with cookies 😀
In 2010, I moved to Antwerp and continued my barista development at Caffenation, and also ended up doing wholesale training (and even the tiniest bit of roasting). Here I met Roeland Lenaerts, and our crazy Sunday shifts together still count as my favourite moments as a barista. I totally geeked out about coffee, invested time and money into attending competitions and Nordic Barista Cups, volunteering at SCAE World of Coffee tradeshows, doing a summer stint at Johan&Nyström, chatting nerdtalk with fellow baristas, and reading all of the blogs of all of the (veteran) coffee heroes! It was a Kyle Glanville talk at NBC (which blamed couches in cafes for all the evil in specialty coffee), and landing a space that seemed perfect, that inspired the start of Zwart, a temporary coffee lab and pop-up I ran with Roeland for 7months in 2013. The descriptions on our coffee bags were sexy i/o boring, the furniture was hard i/o soft, the menu included coffee i/o syrups, and the classes inspired at least two lost souls to get into coffee too (sorry Tim & Sofie).
Roeland went on to study how to teach young kids about coffee, and I went on crossing the pond to see what the London coffee scene had to offer me. I helped set-up and manage a now-closed cafe in West-London called Talkhouse Coffee. London proofed too tough a nut to crack for this small-town girl though, and I moved back to Belgium with a burn-out, and disillusioned about any potential career in coffee for me… If it weren’t for my friend and mentor Cosimo Libardo, —president of SCAE at that time, and determined to launch the Barista Guild of Europe— I would not be where I am now and you wouldn’t have asked me for this interview.
– When did the Barista Guild of Europe start and what is the story behind?
In 2014! After a few failed attempts, SCAE finally launched BGE with the first European Barista Camp in Athens in 2014. We started as a group of volunteers, tapped on the shoulder by Cosimo —a geographically diverse group of people deeply rooted in the barista community, and with a care for making that community better and more professional. Leading up to the first Camp, I got hired as an event producer initially – and stayed on to make sure SCAE continued to build and engage with the community. Since that first Camp, we’ve held elections, held two other successful Camps, started our CoLab event series, launched Roaster Guild of Europe, and are now looking into combining forces with our colleagues over in the US. I can’t believe it’s barely been 3 years!
– What’s your specialty and what makes you different?
Gosh – I wouldn’t know. I think I’ve always been drawn to coffee from a service perspective, and believe that understanding that that —serving someone— is the thing a barista does, first and foremost, is vitally important to the survival of specialty coffee and even the role of a barista. I lost myself in geekery for a few years, and we shouldn’t stop exploring better ways to extract, brew, tamp, and bring out the best flavours in coffee… but this is not a barista’s main role (except for when you work with a clear back/front of house distinction). As an industry we have to get better at accepting and promoting that hospitality skills and being able to read your customers is a much tougher job for robots to learn than it is to ‘craft’ a cappuccino. (And before anyone points fingers, I hope that the Guilds can play a part in this).
– What was your first coffee experience?
Don’t think I actually remember. Most likely my parents, or at some family party. Brewing a big pot of filter coffee (mostly small electric percolators) is pretty traditional here in Belgium.
– How/when have you discovered about specialty coffee?
Look above, yo!
– What was your best coffee experience?
I talked about this at length during an interview by the wonderful Rachel, one of the most inspiring baristas, who’s sadly left us way too soon.
One of my most memorable coffees was a cappuccino, served at The Coffee Collective. I believe it was right before I actually started working in coffee, and I didn’t really know a lot about it. I got served something that was just like strawberry ice cream, but hot 🙂 Klaus told me (after above interview with Rachel) it was a natural Ariche microlot from Idido (Ethiopia), and I’m not sure if I would still like it now (I don’t like naturals!), but back then it opened my eyes to the possibilities of coffee and the variety of its flavours. The cappuccino was so velvety, fruity, jammy.
– As for filter, I still remember Square Mile’s Buitrera, a coffee from Huila in Colombia that I won the UK aeropress championships with. It was the only coffee ever to skip the rigorous cupping protocol I had at Talkhouse, and stayed on the menu for very long. It was very juicy and complex, and had a tiny sparkle that made it really amazing (think of like a sparkle you can sometimes have in natural wines, even though they’re not sparkling!)
– Do you prepare coffee at home ? If yes, what method do you use?
I usually start my day with a cup of filter coffee, brewed with an aeropress. That’s always been and still my favourite brewing method. If I want to brew a little more I’ll use a Hario V60 drip decanter, and if brewing for a group I’ll use my Wilfa Svart.
– How do you like your coffee? Black, sugar and milk, iced, vietnamese style,…?
Just black please. I will usually drink black filter coffee – and will always try the batch brew wherever I go. It’s a good and quick indication of how much the shop cares about quality, taste, and service. I sometimes drink a cortado too. In summer, black iced coffee (hot over ice) is still my preference.
– How would you qualify yourself as coffee drinker (occasional, heavy, addict…)?
Regular. As in, I will miss it if I don’t drink my cup each day, but I very rarely drink more than 2 cups, and thus get caffeinated quickly if I ever go on a ‘cafe tour’ again.
– Have you always been into the coffee industry? If not, what was your previous job?
No, though most of my working life has been in coffee. I studied philosophy and business communication, and ended up working in Event Production for a while after university. I’m grateful to be able to use some of my studies and experience in that field now! It feels like the circle is round.
– Do you have another passion or a hobby besides coffee?
Nature! (plants, cacti, mountains, oceans, forests)
Natural wine drinker & eater of all tasty things.
Yoga, the occasional kayak & surf.
Trying to get into fitness (bodyweight), swimming, and maybe badminton again (though not all at once!).
– What other place would you recommend, anywhere in the world (coffee or not)?
I rarely travel ‘for coffee’ anymore – whether in my own city or elsewhere.
Copenhagen. Been in love with that city since 2005.
Only travelled to LA last year and while it challenged me – the ‘urban jungle’ is so different from any other city I’ve been – I sorely miss the sunsets, palm trees, hills, cutesy neighbourhoods, mountains & ocean nearby AND endless options for tastyness.
Lanzarote is amazing in its simplicity, waves, and octopus for days.
– What is/are your favorite website(s) to get information about coffee?
I enjoy the new jimseven newsletter as it’s not only coffee.
I am much more interested in reading about management, leadership, team functioning -and American politics- nowadays 🙂
– What would you say to people who don’t know much about coffee?
If you get an ‘eyes-rolling’ what-did-you-just-ask? look after asking for ‘a coffee’ – move on the the next cafe!