Amsterdam in the summer is a joy, mild and temperate with endless light over the canals and a remarkable sense of ease. Everywhere people are cycling, or in the parks, and the ones who know best are in Amsterdam West, enjoying a cup at White Label’s beautifully unpretentious café.
White Label was started by Elmer Oomkens and Francesco Grassotti in 2014. Both had just completed degrees – Elmer in forensics, and Francesco in physics – and they had worked together at other cafés in the city before forming White Label and pursuing coffee full-time. When asked why, Elmer remarked with the assurance of someone who has found something he truly enjoys, that it was the most natural thing for them to do.
White Label refers to a carte blanche and reflects much of its founders’ sensibility; like a blank piece of paper or an empty canvas, White Label’s aim is to serve as a background for the product and the experience. In their spirit of cooperation: they share their roasting space with their sourcing partner, Lennart Clerkx of This Side Up, inside the innovative art, entrepreneurial, and community complex De School. This close relationship has enabled White Label to grow while maintaining utmost quality and transparency.
Elmer: White Label refers to an unwritten, blank sheet of paper meaning everything is still possible, everything is still open. Openness is really the core of who we are and what we do. From the cupping table to the people we work with to where we get our coffee and how we evaluate it, we try to be as open as possible.
As a barista, you’re so focused on what you’re putting into the cup, why you’re doing what you’re doing, and trying to get everything you can out of that coffee. At the same time you’re also working with the person on the other side of the counter and trying to give them a good experience, and trying to spark a little fire in them, showing them what coffee can be. It’s important for us to share these experiences and give that spark to others. It’s a delicate process, people get into specialty coffee one by one, in these little interactions. Someone has to be open to the experience, and the experience has to be presented well and the coffee has to be good. One bad experience can steer someone away.
In Dutch culture, we don’t have a refined tasting element, which is not to say that we don't have it, but it's not at our core. Amsterdam is a very international city, but coffee has always been behind. Even though curiosity about flavors and aromas is rapidly growing, these changes are happening more slowly with coffee. With my own friend group, there are still a lot of people who don’t really care. “Why put so much effort? Just drink it like it always was.” I think there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done in this regard, across the industry. The industry has grown very rapidly in the past couple years here, but it’s still very new. There’s so much to develop and to do.
This is where openness comes in again, on both sides. Snobbiness shouldn’t be an issue, ever. If someone comes in, they shouldn’t have someone telling them what to do. Instead we have to be open and gauge where they are with their coffee experiences. A lot of the time people don’t really understand what they’re going to be ordering. The flavors in our coffee will not be sharp and bitter but lighter and more elegant and we just have to do our best to engage from their perspective. In the end, it might not be for everyone, but we just do the best we can do.
White Label refers to an unwritten, blank sheet of paper meaning everything is still possible, everything is still open.
I really hope everyone does embrace specialty coffee, not only for the flavors but also for the value chain. There’s too little money to divide among too many people otherwise. But until then, we just have to be as open as possible. If you tell people what they should like or how to live their life, you will lose them very quickly.
Both Francesco and I are very into music. I was a DJ, though I don’t really have time for it these days given my work with White Label. But music is very important for both of us. It’s quite fun for us to partner with De School, one of the most well known venues in Europe, perhaps the most well known in Amsterdam. Good coffee can touch your heart just like music can. Being in touch with your sensory elements is a big part of what we do. We used to do DJ sessions here on Sundays, we called it our Sunday Sessions, and these worlds integrated very well.