European Cafe vs. Canadian Coffee

I am no expert on coffee, although I love it and drink quite a lot of it. Coming from Canada to Belgium, I knew that the coffee would be stronger, but I didn’t know just how much stronger.

My intention of the following “analysis” is based on personal experience. I do not mean to offend anyone or generalize, but just to point out something I’ve noticed and found interesting while living as a Canadian Expat in Brussels, Belgium.

Coffee in Canada

In Canada, the popular places to get coffee are Tim Hortons, Starbucks and even Second Cup. I think its safe to say that Canadians tend to get coffee to go more on average than they do to sit in the restaurant.

At Tim Horton’s you’ll hear people ordering, a LARGE DOUBLE DOULBE (fresh filtered coffee with two creams and two sugars). At Startbucks you’ll hear people ordering a Grande Extra-hot Non-fat Hazenut Latte two pumps…or something extravegant along those lines.  

Also, if you’re getting a coffee at one of these places in the morning, it is automatically assumed that you will be waiting in line for 20 minutes and that you’re getting it to go. So if you actually want to stay and drink your coffee, you’ll have to let the cashier know so that you coffee is served in a mug rather than a paper cup. At other times of the day, the cashier might ask you if you want it to stay or to go.

What’s also great, at least I know it occurs at Tim Horton’s, you can bring your own travel mug to be filled with Tim Horton’s coffee and in doing this you get a discount because you’re being environmentally friendly.

Canadian’s are drinking on to the go, so you can find hundreds of different styles of travel mugs. I like the shorter ones with a handle, but some people prefer the taller slim mugs with no handle. It also depends on the size of your cup holders in the car.

Another perk in Canada, is if you order a coffee after dinner in a restaurant, in many places you will get free refills (this also is true for pop, or soda as some say).

So as you can see Canadians generally drink rather large quantities of relatively weak coffee. Yes we have expressos and americanos as well, which are a bit stronger, but usually these are used in desperate times or by more advanced coffee drinkers.

Café in Europe (particularly Belgium)

In Belgium, its rather difficult to find a place with coffee to go. There aren’t chains known specifically for thier coffee. There are a few take-away restuarants for the lunchtime crowd who do have the option for takeaway coffee, like Exki for example.

There are also a few English Cafés in Brussels I would recommend for takeaway coffee: Karsmakers in Place du Luxembourg (near the European Parliament) and Ciabatta Mania on Coudenberg 70 (beside the Museum of Musical Instruments). And its true that you can find the odd Starbucks in the Airport and in the Central Train Station. Besides these two English-style cafés, I’ve found that the coffee, whether to stay in or take away, doesn’t get much bigger than that pictured above/below.

But generally speaking, in Belgium, people are sitting in a restuarant or on a patio to enjoy a very small, strong coffee. It probably takes me about five sips for polish off a Belgian-sized coffee. The coffee is basically brewed as a long expresso. So it is very dark in colour, high in caffinne and often quite bitter (for my taste). But something that is a nice bonus in Belgium (and France) is the small chocolate or biscuit you are given with your coffee. Its true that you really do need something sweet to kill the aftertaste.

In summary

So Canadians (and from what I’ve seen, Americans and the British) are drinking large weaker coffees on the go and Europeans (and as far as I’ve seen, French and Italians) tend to sit in to enjoy a tiny strong coffee to kick start thier nervous system.

Having lived in both places, I think my prefered way to drink coffee would be a not too small, but not as large as the standard size in Canada, americano-style coffee (basically a watered down expresso), with a bit of milk and sugar of course. This way you get the amazing pure, rich taste of European-style coffee, but it isn’t as concentrated (thus loosing the bitter taste) and its bigger so it can last long enough to travel to work.

There could be many factors leading to these coffee-consuming differences. Here are some hypotheses:

  • Its colder in North America so a longer-lasting warm drink is preferable?
  • The distances between places (ex. work and the office) are greater in N. America so we get coffee to go because we have to sit in traffic for so long, there isn’t time to sit in a restaurant?
  • Europeans tend to make things in smaller quantities (i.e. food portions are smaller) so maybe the coffee is more pure when made with the expressio machines rather than a filter coffee maker and thus its more “natural” to produce a small concentrated amount?
  • It could be that for Europeans, coffee serves a purpose, it is meant to give you a caffeine boost, while N. Americans prefer to savour and enjoy the taste of the beverage?

Why do you think the way Canadians and Europeans drink coffee in these ways? How do you take your coffee?


About Nicole Basaraba

Nicole Basaraba is a Canadian writer focusing on topics of travel (Mondays), writing and literature (Wednesdays), lifestyle (Fridays) and her experiences living in the capital city of Europe: Brussels, Belgium.
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10 Responses to European Cafe vs. Canadian Coffee

  1. I fell in love with Italian espresso. After that, Canadian coffee is dishwater. I love to sit and relax, think and ponder while savoring my beverage. I will do take out from home in my mug with the prefers method and blend of espresso beans. Tim Hortons is swill second only to folgers. Canadians have no coffee sense, why? I have no idea. It saddens me.

  2. Ooooh, this post makes me want to find a real coffee house where I can get a good coffee and sit with friends chatting about whatever pops into our heads. In Belgium, preferably. I can’t even drink coffee anymore, but I would risk it for a sweet place like you found. Especially if I get the little biscuit too. 😉

  3. I don’t drink coffee, or tea for that matter, but if I did I imagine I’d enjoy the French style. Drinking a demitasse of expresso with a little bisquit alfresco as I people-watch would be so romantic, don’t you think? Great post, Nicole! 🙂

  4. I am currently living the same cultural experience, but backwards. I am born in Belgium and come from an Italian family. I have lived for one year in Québec and Alberta, and now in Saskatchewan.

    In Italy, we usually drink a short and strong coffee after lunch and dinner (3 sips max) and a larger coffee with a bit of milk for breakfast. Our coffee is much stronger and bitter than in Canada and USA. But the major difference is that this is not part of our culture to drink coffee on the go. As you say in your article, it is almost impossible to find a place with coffee to go in Europe, even if Starbucks is slowly arriving.
    I remember the first time I ordered a medium cappuccino at a Second Cup in Montréal, my gosh I couldn’t drink the half of it. But now I have my own mug and I enjoy to drink my coffee on my way to work, I just choose where to buy it : Tim Horton’s is dishwater, Starbucks’ is okay but expensive, my preference goes to local coffee houses.

    Great article By the way !

    • Its so nice to hear from someone who’s lived through the reverse. I’m happy to know we have similar conclusions. It is an adjustment adapting to different coffee culture, but once you’ve gotten used to it, you wonder how you used to like your old habits/ways.

  5. Mallory says:

    I’m so happy to hear that there are a couple of places for takeaway coffee in Brussels! I’m moving there shortly (from the states) and while I love the cafe culture of Europe, I sometimes miss sipping a coffee while I walk. It’s funny that we think perhaps Europeans prefer the strength and full-bodied flavour. Before I moved to Italy, my impression was that they drank very strong, full-flavoured coffee and would never ‘ruin’ the taste with milk and sugar. Boy was I wrong! I’ve never met so many people who put the amount of sugar in their tiny espresso as the Romans do. It made me feel better about my love for sugar in my strong coffee.

    p.s. I love your blog!

    • Hi Mallory,

      Thanks so much for your comment and for stoping by! Yes, in Brussels you will find a big sugar shaker at every restaurant table and the always give you one creamer. If you like milky coffee and lattes, you might want to ask for two creams if you order just a regular “cafe” in the beginning. (the regular coffee takes some getting used to).

      Hope to see you join me over at this blogs new home: (There are probably other blog posts you might find useful as a new expat in Brussels).

  6. Gil Grat says:

    Belgium is not really a yardstick by which to measure European coffee tastes. Most coffee in Europe is not sold in small cups, that is the reserve of the espresso. Café crème is the normal coffee served as standard, not quite as large as a Canadian ‘brown water’ example and generally enjoyed sitting down in a coffee cup, cream or sugar being added by yourself to taste. Ultra weak coffee seams to be the reserve of North America, I would not go as far as to classify the British as having a weak coffee taste, less strong than continental Europe, yes, but nowhere near the North American taste.

  7. Pingback: Europe Vs America | A Students Life

  8. Rene says:

    Coffee drinker always have been caffine is the central nervous system stimulant since I’ve moved here I found that there is zero caffeine in the coffee that it be selling in the stores through all the name brands through all the franchises there is no caffeine in the coffee

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