A New York original is set to enter the city’s coffee scene. Helmed by a true New Yorker (OK, by way of New Jersey), Nobletree will introduce a new business model, advance the Red Hook revival, and upset the balance of the city’s specialty coffee scene.
Nobletree has assembled a small, experienced team, many of whom — including founding partner and CEO John Moore — worked at Dallis Bros. Coffee of Queens, to deliver a unique coffee model: Bring the “estate” concept, so cherished in the wine world, into the coffee realm. The allusion to the wine world is apt, for the company’s goal is to do for its coffee what many small, quality-driven winemakers have been doing with their grapes all along: tending their vineyards, picking their own fruit, pressing and fermenting the wine, and bottling on-site to reflect the singular terroir of the land, climate and vintage.
Estate winemakers have understood for a long time that what happens on the farm dictates the quality potential of the final product. This may be the first coffee company in the nation that can live up to the “seed to cup” ideal. In fact, Nobletree’s vision, from “soil to sip,” literally (and figuratively) extends the imagery further.
Nobletree started emulating estate wine, like any hopeful winemaker, by analyzing and selecting the right land. Just as you wouldn’t plant Pinot Noir in sand but might seek mid-slope, south-facing, limestone-heavy land (at least prospective Pinot growers wish they could find that), Nobletree selected appropriate cultivars (coffee’s term for variety) for its site, then waited years for each precious tree to bear quality fruit (coffee plants, like grapevines, take three to five years to fruit). This is an expensive undertaking; Nobletree is backed by the FAL Group, a holding company spanning 75 businesses in 17 countries.
Like any quality wine producer, Nobletree hand-harvests its fruit. Careful handling of the crop continues along the rest of its journey — from washing to drying to sorting, preparing for transit, and roasting. In short (roll out business buzzwords), Nobletree seeks to achieve vertical integration by controlling quality through the entire value chain to the retail point of sale.
Nobletree will open a roastery in Red Hook and a café in lower Manhattan by the end of the year.
There has been a tendency in the past half-decade to lionize roasters like Stumptown, Intelligentsia, La Colombe, Counter Culture, and Blue Bottle as auteurs who work the seeds of exotic countries into their brand. In some ways, the analog to cult producers in the wine world, these brands are well known to those with even a passing interest in coffee. However, they don’t own their fruit and must vie for access to some of world’s greatest coffees through a web of cooperatives and regulatory bodies. Estate winemakers, by contrast, can control and trace their sustainability practices and product.
Nobletree runs two farms in Brazil that cover over 1900 acres in the country’s coffee-rich Sul de Minas region. Half of Brazil’s coffee production is located in this region, as are 75 percent of its best coffees as rated in the Cup of Excellence competition. This year Nobletree has planted some 250,000 trees, some terraced (a practice rarely if at all employed in Brazil), so that from afar, the hills resemble vineyards. The company has taken a contrarian approach to the Brazilian way of producing coffee; besides hand picking, an experimental lot of coffee is wet milled; a practice producers in Brazil generally don’t undertake.
In addition to its own farmed coffee, Nobletree will fill out its portfolio by roasting beans from other regions — Panama, Honduras, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Rwanda, as things now stand.
The company name alludes to a single coffee plant that survived a perilous voyage across the Atlantic, braving pirates and tempests before landing in the Caribbean some 50 years before the American Revolution. The company recognizes these long odds in other ways.
It’s a little-known fact that the secret to great coffee begins at its origin — starting at the farming and shepherding of this fragile fruit from planting to the barista or home brewer’s hands. A mistake at any point could ruin an entire year’s harvest, and unfortunately, there are many points in the process susceptible to casual, devastating errors. For example, trained workers must sort out underripe green berries from the tens of thousands collected, rake the drying beans every six hours so mildew doesn’t set yet not allow beans to dry too much and become brittle and break when their outer parchment cover is removed. A perfectly ripened, picked, and processed bag could make it to a shipping dock, ready for export, only to have an inattentive handler leave a few sacks in a diesel spill. As CEO John Moore marvels, “The perfect cup of coffee is a miracle.”
Ultimately, no matter how retro her eyewear, or fine the thatch of his beard, baristas have only a small fraction of control over how great a cup can be. This isn’t to denigrate baristas — they’re more, not less important as specialty coffee spreads around the globe — but rather to point out that they must have a great product to make a great drink.
There are numerous notable stories behind the arrival of Nobletree, but perhaps the most resonant for New Yorkers is its contribution to the revitalization of Red Hook. Once maligned as one of the worst neighborhoods in the U.S. (even labeled the “crack capital of America” some 25 years ago), Red Hook remains unbowed through crime scourges and Hurricane Sandy.
Today several prominent specialty coffee brands roast in Red Hook (e.g., Ninth Street Espresso, Joe, Parlor) at the Pulley Collective, a kind of coffee incubator that Nobletree temporarily uses. Fittingly, Red Hook Container Terminal in Brooklyn once received the vast majority of green coffee shipped into the U.S. and served as the world’s busiest port. Now Red Hook is inching back to former glory with specialty coffee as a part of the story.
Until the company opens its cafés, you can find Nobletree’s beans in Williamsburg at El Beit (158 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-302-1810) or served at the Elm (160 North 12th Street, Brooklyn; 718-218-1088).
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 8, 2014