Café Verward just celebrated its second anniversary in July. It seems like only yesterday that it opened, and at the same time I feel like it has always been there. It’s one of those places that is hard to describe. Sophisticated, yet friendly; elegant, but laidback. One thing that everyone I’ve spoken to can agree on: from the first time you enter, you feel right at home. They were at the top of my list for a behind-the-scenes look, so I was super excited when co-founder Ward de Zeeuw said yes to being my next interview!
A unique concept
Verward was started by Ward and his business partner Bas Fraterman. What struck me immediately about Verward – and one of the reasons why I love it – is its unique concept of serving both high quality wine and beer, which relieves you of the dilemma of choosing a place where to meet your friends who like wine instead of beer (when you yourself are a beer geek who doesn’t drink wine, like me!). This fits perfectly in their modern nonconformist vision for their bar. “Our goal was to create a place where everyone feels at home and at the same make it an adventure. We want to pull people out of their comfort zone, let them experience new things.” It took me a moment to realize the connection with the name of their bar, which is a pun on his own name, but in Dutch literally means ‘confused’. “When we had the opportunity to take over this venue, we were very excited about its location, because it’s literally a few blocks off the beaten path in the city center. People don’t just pop in looking for a drink, but seek us out specifically for what we have to offer.”
The bar is located on Hoogstraat, where Memory Lane used to be. When they decided to close up shop in 2016, a unique opportunity presented itself. “I initially thought about opening a Thornbridge bar like the one in Den Bosch, because I really love their beer. I wanted it to be a typical Dutch ‘bruin café’. But Bas – being a graphic designer – is a much more visual person and suggested another direction. He really is the creator of the look and feel of the bar. Classy without being pretentious, yet timeless. He is also the creative chef of the fantastic food dishes we serve.”
The crowdfunding campaign turned out to be a big success. I thought about investing in the campaign and now regret that I didn’t! He admits that it was one of the biggest challenges for him personally. “I’m not comfortable at all being in the spotlight. Making the crowdfunding video was really hard!”
Good enough just isn’t good enough
Ward is what I would call an ‘all-round’ sommelier. He is knowledgeable about both wine and beer. His passion for wine was sparked nearly twenty years ago after starting his first job at IJsclub Kralingen where he met viticulturist Ton Noordermeer (now owner of the Henri Bloem wine store in Rotterdam). That is also where he met his business partner Bas, an avid squash player. From that time he knew he wanted to become a wine sommelier, though it took quite a while before he took the leap and opened up his own place. He built up extensive experience working as a sommelier at well-known cafés and restaurants in Rotterdam: Stobbe, In Den Rust Wat, De Roode Leeuw, Eendracht and Dertien.
The interest in beer came later. While working at Dertien he and one of the owners would do extensive beer tastings for their beer menu. “I always felt you need a certain level of expertise before you can open up your own place. When it comes to wine and beer, you really have to know what you’re doing.” He doesn’t understand how some establishments are fine with sticking to the old classics. “The classic (Belgian) beer brands are good quality, don’t get me wrong, but you need to evolve with your time and be innovative. Customers have high standards. Don’t aim for a 7, that won’t cut it. Good enough just isn’t good enough anymore.”
Choosing the beers
Verward has about 50 to 60 beers, of which the IPA is the most popular beer style. Thornbridge Jaipur is their #1 seller. Their beer list shows a smaller selection, but if there is nothing to your taste, he is sure to have something for you stashed away in the beer cellar. How does he always know exactly what to choose? “It’s about asking the right questions. We make sure to have at least one alcoholic beverage that will suit a customer’s taste. That is also what drives the choices we make for the beer selection. Drinkability is important. People want to be able to have drinks all night. That is the reason lagers are still so popular. They’re accessible and easy going. Another thing I pay attention to: don’t sell what the supermarket sells. Availability is another factor. Do other bars serve it or are you unique?”
The varied beers on offer include several countries and styles, such as Anchor Steam, Anderson Valley Bourbon Barrel Stout (frequently on tap!), Sixpoint, Thornbridge, local brewers Drift, Kaapse Brouwers and 4 Islands Brewing, but also Belgian favorites Orval, St. Bernardus and De Struise. Of course there is also a lager on draft for those who want to play it safe – he is the only one in Rotterdam that serves Lindeboom on tap. Sometimes he’ll throw in an exotic one, like the Kaapse’s one-off brew Caipirinha, which he only put on tap after the keg had been in his cellar for a year. “It tasted even better than before! Definitely a caipirinha taste, but more balanced and well-integrated.”
My favorite question
It can’t always be smooth sailing; something is bound to go wrong. Of course I had to ask. What was the biggest fuck-up so far? Surprisingly, he says he hasn’t really had any major ones after starting Verward (lucky guy!). He can vividly recall a few he made in his first week at In Den Rust Wat though. While storing a heavy table top in the attic, it hit the back of the attic wall really hard, causing most of the expensive wine glasses that were hung on the other side of the wall to come crashing down (11 EUR a piece!). Oops! In the same week he caught his finger between the kitchen’s swinging doors and passed out for 2 minutes (not to mention the blood everywhere). Talk about making a lasting impression!
All photos were taken by Tina Rogers, unless otherwise specified.