Amsterdam certainly doesn’t lack specialty coffee bars or brunch places that serve your standard avocado on toast fare. Yet, there are few places indeed that offer the finest coffees, creative dishes and that have a really satisfying aesthetic. One such place is Uncommon, a coffee and foodie Mecca in Amsterdam Oud West that is run by Josh Cotton, Claye Tobin and his girlfriend Nina Tromp.
Josh, who is from England, started his barista career at Costa Coffee before eventually going travelling in Australia and moving from second wave to third wave. A smooth surf, you might say.
“I started out as a waiter really,” Josh explained. “And then I slowly worked my way up. In Australia, they’re really protective of the espresso machine and don’t just let anyone have a go. At the same time, I was reading tons of articles and getting really into it. So, when I finally reached Sydney, I found a job at a roastery where I learned some of the basics.”
After his Australian visa expired, Josh went backpacking around South East Asia where he met a Dutch girl who he would eventually follow to Amsterdam but not before spending some quality time in South America vistinig and working on a coffee farm in Salento, Colombia, amongst other things.
“The farmer told me I could go ahead and pick two kilos of cherries and then ferment and dry them just to see this whole process for myself. I first floated the cherries in water, depulped them by hand and then fermented the beans in water bottles for two days before sun-drying them. After I got home to England, I roasted the beans in a pan and completely scorched the them. The coffee tasted horrible and I was devastated,” Josh recalled while cracking up.
Once he’d arrived in Amsterdam, Josh found work at local coffee heroes Lot Sixty One where his understanding of specialty coffee expanded. Yet, it also became clear to him that his personal preferences were not always aligned with Lot Sixty One’s approach and this eventually led him to set up Common Greens, a small roasting business with his friend Claye.
In the early beginning, Common Greens was a small side hustle that involved Josh travelling to Utrecht with empty suitcases so he could fill them up with the coffees he roasted at Ohoj, a small local roaster there. He was inspired by the likes of Coffee Collective whose coffees he regularly drank at Scandinavian Embassy and that had more delicate floral notes than the coffees he found in Amsterdam at the time.
“No one knew what was happening and no one knew what was allowed and what wasn’t so I just grabbed a table, put it by the door and started offering take away coffee.”
When their own needs started to exceed the capacity at Ohoj, Josh and Claye needed to find a local roasting space in Amsterdam where they could roast and deliver their coffees to clients more easily from and this perfectly coincided with the opening of Amsterdam Coffee Roasters, a collective space that is also home to our friends from DAK.
Working there, however, came with its unique set of challenges, mainly having to roast on an ancient Probat that was in very poor condition and extremely tempramental. These days, ACR’s facilities are a world apart from what they were back then, Josh said.
One day, he ended up visiting Olaf Tromp of Spot On coffee roasters to use his sealer and took a gamble by asking if he could roast his coffees there instead. Not wanting to step on ACR’s toes, Olaf initially hesitated but eventually gave in. Funnily enough, Spot On now has its operations practically opposite our Coffeevine warehouse and I already told Josh that I would personally pick up the coffee he’ll be roasting for our March 2022 box this week.
More on this shortly. I do want to touch upon the beautiful café that is Uncommon’s flagship store today first. Before the pandemic let rip, Josh and Claye found themselves working for the previous owner of the same café who was not particularly interested in the space and didn’t have much ambition to make it a success. Seeing its true potential and an opportunity to have their own coffee bar, the two business partners eventually approached the owner with a proposal to take the café off his hands.
After a short renovation, Uncommon opened its doors on the day the Dutch government announced the first lockdown. “The timing literally couldn’t have been worse,” Josh remembered with a shudder. “No one knew what was happening and no one knew what was allowed and what wasn’t so I just grabbed a table, put it by the door and started offering take away coffee.”
If the pandemic had any good side to it then it helped Uncommon to quickly establish itself as THE go-to place for specialty coffee in that particular corner of Oud West and allowed Josh and Claye to build a rocksolid fan base of local residents. Eventually, they also decided to rebrand their roasting arm from Common Greens to Uncommon, a logical step that was just a matter of time.
The timing for a fresh Coffeevine feature could, therefore, not have been better. In particular, because the coffee that Uncommon will roast for the upcoming March 2022 box is a delicious honey-processed Ethiopian coffee from Suke Quto, a station that we hold in high regard.
The owner of this processing station, Ato Tesfaye Bekele, is a leader in sustainibility and transparency and is largely credited with putting Guji on the coffee map. When he initially proposed to local smallholder farmers that they should grow specialty coffee, no-one believed it would be viable. Yet, he proved them all wrong by turning Suke Quto into a big success and ultimately convincing them to sign up to his quest.
At his own farm, he keeps his soil in great shape by recycling through litterfall, root residue from coffee and shade trees. What’s more, this coffee is completely blockchain based, which means that you can see exactly how much every small-holder farmer got paid for their contribution. This is great work we can get behind!
And if that’s not all, Uncommon has, for a long time, been an active supporter of coffee growing communities in Hopong, Myanmar who are looking for ways to produce high quality natural-processed coffees and stop their involvement in the opium trade. Demand for high quality coffees from this relatively new origin is high but supply was low. That is why Uncommon set up an initiative to provide a coffee seedling for every bag of Myanmar coffee sold.
If you happen to be in Amsterdam any time soon, do make sure you swing by their wonderful coffee bar and I hope you’ll love the exquisite and juicy honey-processed Ethiopian coffee that they will be roasting for us this month.