One could argue the U.S. is on the cusp of a Golden Age for coffee. Starbucks lifted Americans out of their impoverished cups of Folgers Instant, paving the path for dogged specialty-coffee devotees to make inroads after the Green Mermaid jumped the shark to pumpkin spice lattes. Brands like James Freeman’s Blue Bottle fomented enthusiasm for sourcing better-quality beans, roasting to enhance the character of single-origin lots, and optimizing flavors through fine-tuned preparation methods.
Investors took note of America’s thirst for “gourmet coffee beverages,” consumption of which Joe DeRupo, spokesman for the trade group National Coffee Association U.S.A., was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying “increased about three-fold to about one-third of U.S. coffee drinkers” over the last fifteen years. For example, private-equity groups bought controlling interests in Blue Bottle and Stumptown (although the WSJ recently reported that TSG Consumer Partners LLC is actively discussing the sale of its 90 percent Stumptown stake) to help them scale from regional players to national influencers.
And Blue Bottle has gone global, opening a heavily patronized shop in Tokyo, with discussions to launch in coffee-obsessed Seoul currently under way, according to sources in the city’s coffee industry. Now a new generation of micro-roasters, many founded by alumni of the first crop of innovators, are expanding upon the efforts of their predecessors, using newfound access to a growing list of the world’s best, most exotic coffees. There has never been a better time for coffee lovers than now, and it’s only going to improve. (Barring global warming wiping out arabica coffee crops, of course.)
Brooklyn-based Lofted Coffee Roasters is one such micro-roaster. Founders Tobin Polk and Lance Schnorenberg bring a decade’s worth of coffee experience to a fourth-floor, sub-1,000-square-foot industrial loft space in Bushwick. Each got his start in Seattle: Schnorenberg’s caffeinated career ambition began in college at Espresso Vivace, while Tobin worked at Zoka Coffee Roasters. “We both gravitated to coffee and coffee shops for the culture they promote — space for progressive, forward thinking, as well as serving as centers for artistic movement,” said Schnorenberg. Both moved to New York five years ago to train at Stumptown, with the end goal of opening a café. That plan evolved into a roasting business, however, leading them to sign a lease for their Bushwick space and to purchase their first piece of equipment, a one pound San Franciscan sample roaster.
The two-man team spent the last four years cementing their style, taking cues from the Nordic inclination toward lighter roasts. Finally comfortable with their product, Schnorenberg and Polk began selling their efforts a year and a half ago. The philosophy of accentuating coffee’s natural aromatics and distinct flavor profiles, rather than masking them with “big and bold roasts,” guides their hand on their vintage Probat L-12. The Probat is a twelve-kilogram roaster, only good for handling small batches. “We use only the freshest crop coffees available and keep our rotations as tight as possible, something larger coffee roasters have a very difficult time doing,” explained Polk.
Schnorenberg and Polk split duties but refrain from formal titles, finding the practice unnecessary in their current phase. Schnorenberg manages the roasting, green buying, and quality control. Polk handles the operational management, wholesale management, and development of coffee brewing specs they use for espresso, Fetco, and the manual brewing processes they promote.
While their preferred coffee brewing method is cupping (a systematic, easily replicable process that begins with assessing the aromatics of both the dry and wet grounds, followed by the tasting of the coffee), their second, more practical choice is a manual pour-over using the Kalita Wave. “It functions much like any other pour-over; however, given its design, it gives a much more constant extraction,” said Polk, adding that “it consistently produces the cleanest, most articulate cup.” They also expressed a preference for filtered coffee over espresso, if forced to choose. “As much as coffee culture and café business revolves around espresso and espresso-based drinks, filtered coffee is by far a better way of preparing and drinking coffee if the coffee itself is what you’re trying to appreciate,” said Polk.
Lofted currently sources from Central and South America and East Africa. “As much as we enjoy the other coffee-producing countries, we do not think, as of now, they produce coffee of the quality we are looking for,” explained Schnorenberg. “Growing conditions as well as processing practices are extremely important for high-quality coffee.”
They currently work with coffees from two regions in Guatemala, two regions in Colombia, Ethiopia, and Kenya. “This is only our second year buying coffee, so we have only just begun developing relationships with growers and importers. We’re planning our first trip to Colombia this fall,” Schnorenberg said. He and Polk acknowledge they are lucky to be roasting in the current era of accessibility. “There are a growing number of importers importing coffee specifically for small-batch specialty roasters. We are now able to work with unbelievable coffees that would not have been available to us just a few years ago,” said Schnorenberg.
For now, the duo have modest expansion plans; they hope to move into a roastery/café space at some point, but emphasized that their dedication to quality over quantity will always come first. Said Polk, “we have been witness to companies that have made quality compromises in order to expand. We will avoid this at all costs.”