Liquid Black Gold
Black Gold in Amsterdam is not your average coffee shop (and for those familiar with Amsterdam lingo yes we’re talking here about a true coffee shop, the kind that serves the dark brown caffeinated stuff). Black Gold’s founder, Siebrand van Hengel, and his crew are known not only for serving up some of the smoothest espresso in town, but also some of the freshest beats to accompany it thanks to their shop’s equal passion for playing and selling vinyls. ZOTEYE recently had a chance to sit down with Siebrand at his shop. While sipping on a perfect cup of Black Gold and soaking in the background music of a local hip hop artist’s album spinning on one of the two Technics turntables atop the barista counter, we learned about everything from his youthful love of Amsterdam to how he feels analog things are able to provide respite from our highly digital world.
Who is in front of me?
I am Siebrand van Hengel, 43 years old and father of two. When I turned 40 I felt I had to do something that would make me happy. I worked for a long time in Hilversum — the “Hollywood” of Holland — at The Dutch Media Authority. They are responsible for overseeing the distribution and regulation of audiovisual content. However I eventually realised I was not happy working there any longer, and destiny eventually led me here.
Where did you grow up and when did you move to Amsterdam?
I was born in a small town but I lived 15 years in Hilversum. I traveled to Amsterdam a lot because my father worked here, but I grew up in Hilversum (about 45 minutes away). Ten years ago my girlfriend and I moved to Amsterdam as a sort of fresh start, with a positive mindset. Then a few years ago I had the idea to startup a coffee shop, and now Black Gold has been here for two years. It began as a crowdfunding project…
(Our conversation is suddenly interrupted as a regular customer walks in and comes right up to Siebrand for his requisite fist bump. But for anyone who spends even only a few minutes here, it’s pretty clear to see that whether you’re a regular customer or a first-timer, creating community comes very naturally to the folks here at Black Gold.)
…We also live in West Amsterdam, so I searched there first for a location to start the shop. However that’s a very hip area so it was difficult to find something.
When you were living in Hilversum, what place did Amsterdam have in your life?
I’ve felt like an Amsterdammer since I was a little boy. Since my father brought me here often that established a strong connection from the beginning. I love Amsterdam’s multicultural, open-minded way of living. It has always been like that. Just around the corner, for example, there is an Armenian church that’s been there since the 17th century. And this entire neighbourhood was a strong Jewish community before the second World War. All of these cultures together in one melting pot is simply amazing.
Do you believe there is a sort of ‘natural selection’ around who chooses to live in Amsterdam? That there are some people who feel strong about the daily heartbeat of the city and will be pulled towards it, while others will prefer to experience it for only a few days?
Absolutely. I know a lot of people who come to Amsterdam every day by train or car to work here. They love being here and having a walk in the streets during their lunchbreak, but they also say they could never live here. They are really happy to leave the city every evening. I am the opposite. I never, ever want to leave. A lot of young people move to Amsterdam to study, and they enjoy the nightlife and vibrant way of living so much that they keep hanging here after they graduate. Oftentimes they end up meeting a partner and having kids. Unfortunately many of them believe the city is not good for kids, so they leave. I disagree with the idea that Amsterdam is not a good city for kids to grow up in. I believe it opens children’s minds, helps them become more social and develops their respect for people from other cultures and backgrounds. For example, my kids love to discover all of the little playing fields hidden throughout the city. It’s amazing what the city has to offer for the youngest among us…
(… As if on perfect cue with this moment in our conversation, a big smile appears on Siebrand’s face as he notices behind me his local delivery courier popping into the shop with the shop’s latest shipment of toys. In the form of vinyls of course :)
So, Black Gold, tell us more about how your idea evolved?
When I realized that I wasn’t happy anymore with my media job, I started thinking about what type of work might satisfy me every day. What would I love to wake up for every day? There were two passions in my life, coffee and music. I am a vinyl collector and it was so sad to see around the year 2000 how so many vinyl stores closed, one after the other. It felt like vinyl was going to disappear forever. Along came CDs, then streaming… but now it’s clear that vinyl is making a comeback. And coffee, yes, what can I say. Making a very good cup of coffee feels as analog to me as playing a vinyl record. Vinyl is an analog way to store music with very high quality, and when we make coffee here at Black Gold it is equally an analog way of making it with very high quality. We brew coffee with a lot of attention to detail, it all needs to be perfect. It’s not just about a machine with one button that anyone can push and, bang, coffee is produced.
That’s a beautiful way of looking at it. And subtle changes in each of those two processes can make a big difference. But Black Gold is not only about coffee and vinyl correct? What else is happening here?
A lot. We have poetry sessions, art exhibitions, and we even hosted something called the Molly School here over the summer. Very exciting project. It’s run by Ted Munter, a regular customer of Black Gold, in collaboration with Carmen da Silva Wells. They bring people from all over the world to Amsterdam and use the city as their classroom. Each student works here on his or her individual project, utilizing the support of one another, the Molly School staff and the city. Amsterdam is a fantastic source of inspiration for the students. You can find yourself here but you can also lose yourself here. Getting inspired here to move you or your ideas forward is the beauty of Amsterdam, and Black Gold is proud to be part of that. From time to time we also try to have live music here with guest DJ’s. We also sell magazines and books, and we work with a local carpenter for specific furniture pieces that can be purchased here. Durability and local. That’s the focus.
What role does social media play for Black Gold, and how do you approach selling products online?
We redesigned our website a while back and the new site enables us to start a webshop, but we don’t know yet how we’ll use it or what we’ll sell through an online channel. We love selling physical products to people who walk in, tell us their stories and connect with us face to face. We use Instagram to talk about these encounters. We call it “People at BGA”, and it’s about individual customers who purchase a record in-store and then tell us the reason they chose it. We share their photo and story. Life is not happening somewhere digital, this (gesturing around the shop) is the real life, where you can feel it, smell it and taste it all in the city next to each other. Our hope is that everyone who walks into Black Gold feels welcome, trusted and safe to openly say whatever they feel and think. There’s a trend to say the nastiest things to each other online, things we would never say to one another if we were looking into each other’s eyes.
What is a very positive or fun experience that happened here at Black Gold? Something you will always remember?
That’s a lot of moments. Conversations with people that start spontaneously, friendships that started with people just walking in to try our coffee. But of course, I am a music fan above all, and one random Sunday morning, it was a very quiet day, and suddenly The Alchemist — a very famous hip hop producer, DJ and rapper from Beverly Hills — just walked in. He came here to listen to music. He asked me what I had in the shop that I’d recommend he listen to, so I handpicked three records from different local artists that I thought he might enjoy. He purchased the albums, and so it goes that some Amsterdam artists could very well show up on a mixtape by The Alchemist in the future. Encounters like that are so fantastic. He stayed here for more than two hours and explained to me how much he loves visiting local record stores. He was doing a tour around Amsterdam that day just to find new music.
Can you capture what Amsterdam means to you or what it represents in one word?
What’s your HeadSpot, EyeSpot and MouthSpot* of Amsterdam?
I live in the Houthavens, a newly developed area of Amsterdam. They’ve built 2750 new homes there now, and it’s near to the Amsterdam harbour. A lot of people who live here and visit the city don’t realise that next to the well-known port of Rotterdam, Amsterdam also has a huge and important harbour. It’s the largest gasoline harbour of Europe. The border I live on, which divides the city from the harbour, is an area where I really enjoy walking. That is my HeadSpot. It connects to the Ij which is a great place to sit down and relax, find peace, and take in all of the things happening around you. Industry VS city.
The neighborhood around Black Gold would be my EyeSpot. No doubt. It’s a very old area with a lot of history. It’s called the Nieuwmarkt or Lastage and has always been an important part of the city. A lot of trading happened here, ships coming in to load and unload. During the second World War there was a community of Jewish people living in this area who were all killed. Yet this is a calm little paradise now — go 100m in the opposite direction and you’re in the busiest streets of Amsterdam. I just love looking out the window here, watching people walking by and wandering. One of the most beautiful canals of the city is also just around the corner.
MouthSpot, well, there are so many fantastic places to eat in Amsterdam. Very cheap, fast food, haute cuisine… name it, we’ve got it. My favourite restaurant in Amsterdam by far is Bella Storia in Westerpark, near where I live. A few Italians started the restaurant with the intention to be beautiful and simple, but most of all with a real Italian touch. You feel like you’re in Naples. It’s a fantastic spot to go eat and lose yourself in Italy, while still wandering in Amsterdam.
What is your Amsterdam song?
Not easy to find one, so many songs bring me to Amsterdam. I know a lot of artists in the city and several of them capture the Amsterdam vibe very well in their sound. If I have to pick one it would be Attila from Jungle by Night. Fantastic band from Amsterdam, playing afro beats, ethiobreaks, Turkish psych and spicy cumbia. Explosive when performing live.
X Published on October 4th 2017
X Interview and photography by Johan Bockstaele at Black Gold Amsterdam
X Images captured with a Nikon Df
X Interview conducted in Dutch and has been translated to English by the clever ZOTEYE minions
*a place in the city where the person being interviewed goes when he/she needs a place to get inspired, contemplate about life or think about what to eat that evening (HeadSpot), a place to look around and give the eyes a blast or a meditative session (EyeSpot) and a place where he/she keeps going time after time to eat and/or drink something because it is ri-di-cu-lous-ly yummie. (MouthSpot)