After nearly a year in business, Steve Sutton, owner of the sprawling (by New York standards), 3,600-square-foot Devoción café and roastery (69 Grand Street, Brooklyn; 718-285-6180) on Grand and Wythe in Williamsburg, has proven that dedicating a coffee business to sourcing beans from a single country can be successful.
Focusing solely on Colombia — at the expense of offering sought-after lots from Kenya or Ethiopia, for example — might seem like a bold, even risky, business decision. To Sutton, a Medellín-born Colombian, the leading South American country in arabica production boasts a wealth of diverse growing regions that cover enough territory to keep his customers steeped in caffeine for years.
“By focusing only on Colombian coffee, I can concentrate all of my energy in one place and do an outstanding job. I can actually guarantee things that no one has been able to do until now, like source fresh green beans year-round,” Sutton explained to the Voice.
What makes his concept viable, what allows him to deliver a range of cup profiles to suit the varied taste preferences of his clientele, is Colombia’s aforementioned diversity. According to Sutton, he can find coffees that offer similar flavor notes to others in the world, all inside one border with one passport stamp.
While I could take Sutton’s word for it, I don’t have to. This July, I visited four of the twenty-two coffee regions in Colombia to write about the burgeoning coffee tourism industry. I tasted beans from the Caribbean tip of the north to the snow-capped peaks of the south.
To assume Colombian coffee all tastes the same is sort of like saying all wine from California does, too. A digestible oversimplification of the country divides cup profiles into those originating from the north, central, and south. Generally speaking, coffees from the north, near the Caribbean, are lower in acid, bigger in body, and have nut and chocolate notes. The central region has more acidity, a medium body, and more fruit with hints of herbal notes, especially around the historic, UNESCO-designated Coffee Triangle. The southern, less developed mountain slopes produce higher-altitude coffees with greater acidity, delicacy, and floral and citrus notes. But these are broad generalizations. For example, both brawny and lithe wines exist within the boundaries of Santa Barbara, California, because variety, microclimate, processing, and producer all matter.
The Andes bisect Colombia, splitting it into three parallel cordilleras, or ranges, all home to coffee growers. Across the approximately 563,000 individual farms grow a range of cultivars (think of these as the coffee equivalent to grape varieties, e.g., pinot noir and syrah), and myriad soil compositions and climatic conditions exist, each shaping cup profiles to yield an exponential number of options for Sutton to deliver to customers in New York City.
Sutton’s dedication to 100 percent Colombia didn’t start in Williamsburg, however — he opened a café in Bogotá first. In fact, he founded the business there with the idea of bringing better-quality domestic coffee to the domestic market. Despite its long history of output, Colombians rarely drank good coffee, choosing — needing, really — to export it to more lucrative destinations like North America. But a local turnaround in perspective is afoot, and upstart growers (the youthful founders of innovative farm La Palma y El Tucan planted exotic cultivars and play with fermentation techniques), roasters, and cafés are sprouting to take advantage of the country’s abundance of unique coffees; Sutton helped ignite that nascent change.
Though Sutton was born in Colombia, he spent his formative years in the States to escape the FARC-fueled unrest that defined recent generations. Formerly in the music industry, he decided to make a career change with the advent of Napster in the 2000s. “Coffee was a nice surprise and lucky move in my life,” he said. “I was offered a job in Miami in a coffee distribution company where I learned the basics. I also learned that Colombian coffee was very good but not the best in many cases. This made me wonder why.”
Sutton began researching Colombia’s coffee industry and found “huge gaps” in how beans were sourced. “So I went home to explore the Colombian campo [countryside] in search of something different. It was then when I finally tried some of the best coffees in the world.” Sutton spent the following years dedicated to creating a purchasing network so he could secure “coffees no one else was grabbing” before they were mixed into anonymous piles, their traceability lost. “We even went to the extreme of learning which lots had which varieties from each coffee farm. This allowed us to really cherry-pick our beans and make a difference in the market.”
Nine years later, Sutton arrived in New York, bringing his traceable, hand-vetted coffees, sourced directly from 400 farms, many still in dangerous “red” zones. He adheres strictly to a rule of freshness that few others, if any, can or are willing to. “Today, we are the only coffee company in the world that only roasts fresh green beans, having a policy of not roasting any bean over 30 days old after completing the dry-milling process.”
Excellent coffees deserve a fine showroom, another contribution Sutton has made to New York’s retail scene. The former factory that now houses his roastery and café fulfills a freelancer’s fantasies of an afternoon of Wi-Fi-enabled work outside the home. Double-height exposed-brick walls converge in a sun-spilling skylight roof; a vertical garden cascades down the rear of the room, a nod to the many cafés in Bogota that bring the outdoors inside with similar design features. Distressed-leather couches and a smattering of tables allow patrons to enjoy sandwiches, pastries, and the range of seasonally rotated coffees brewed by various methods. If you can’t make it to the lush Colombian countryside, her caffeinated fruits await just an L, G, J, or Z ride away at Devoción.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 15, 2015