Brooklyn: Sweetleaf and Low Down

Janani Sreenivasan is Sprudge.com’s newest contributor. She reads, writes, and directs sketch comedy in Brooklyn. Join Sweetleaf Brooklyn as they celebrate their new space Saturday, June 8th at 8PM. (135 Kent Ave. Williamsburg, NYC)

As you stroll into Sweetleaf’s new Williamsburg location, with its old metalwork, collection of antiquities, and dark, gleaming, Old World library “after-dinner cigar” wooden surfaces, forgive yourself a moment of confusion.

Sweetleaf’s prime real estate at the corner of Kent and North 6th – mere feet from the Academy Records Annex, the Music Hall of Williamsburg, the Sunday Brooklyn Flea and its associated “Smorgasburg” food market — is shared with the airy offices of Modern Spaces, arguably Brooklyn’s most whimsical realtors. (To be fair, there are a number of whimsical realtors in Brooklyn.) The majority of the café’s working and drinking surfaces are actually repurposed doors, nabbed from apartment demolitions or from Brooklyn non-profit Build it Green, with lock and knob details left intact. A southward shift of the eye reveals Modern Spaces’ “young-successful-funky” office layout, which features zero cubicles, blithely primary colors, and a bicycle and sneakers hanging from red ceiling pipes.

A motley cast of ‘Burgers are leaning, working, and resting drinks on Sweetleaf’s timber while I’m taking notes on interior schema. All are young (thirties or under), none are children, and the fashion accents come and go: a purse sewed together from belts in dull Southwestern tints (adobe red, sage, beige, cobalt); a cloth 3rd Ward bag patterned like a geometry atlas with rectangles, right triangles, hexagons, and other polygons printed in neat rows, slung above a pair of paint-spattered jeans; messenger bags, loosely scattered tattoos, blue shoelaces, belted plaid shorts, pale lime socks, and the occasionally artful blue jean rip. The folks drift to Sweetleaf’s many seating options – a circle of fat armchairs, barstools next to a foosball table, a small lamplit nook by the window – and one by one light up their Macs. White and grey, mostly, but a woman in a pink sundress has coordinated her tech, pink pastel plastic humming beneath her fingers.

Co-owner Rich Nieto (casual but action-ready in jeans and a blue T-shirt printed with a hectic cityscape) admits he didn’t know if the old-new contrast with Modern Spaces would work, but he got used to it. Each business, unable to afford the gorgeous space on its own, is now benefiting from the partnership. This duality actually underlies Sweetleaf’s entire operation, where classic décor and atmosphere meet the vanguard of coffee technology – EKK 43 grinders for drip, Robur Mazzers for espresso grinding, and the combined Holy Grail / HAL 9000 / K-10 hyperbole of espresso machines, THE La Marzocco Strada EP. Nieto personally pulls me a macchiato of each of the day’s featured coffees: Ritual Roasters’ Nine Darling Road (a blend of Salvadoran beans by Vicky Dalton, Nancy Majano de Arenevar, and Raphael Silva Hoff) and Ritual’s single-origin Sweet Tooth, harvested from the El Naranjo farm of Salvadoran sisters Amada and Maria Milla and processed by Emilio Lopez of nearby El Manzano. “I only serve coffee whose exact origin I know,” Nieto says. “No secret blends. I need to be able to know exactly where it came from – which farm, which grower.” (Nieto’s own global origins are Colombian-Peruvian, though agriculture does not run in his family – “Lots of attorneys,” he grins.) He needs to be exact about a lot of things – time, temperature, pressure – which is why Sweetleaf’s prep space is overrun by scales. Scales are EVERYWHERE – along the countertop, spares tucked in a cupboard, antique old-timers hanging out in wall niches. “I NEVER want any of my baristas to be without a scale,” he says. “We want to create a cozy and comfortable place for people to drink coffee, but we also respect the parameters. We respect time, time and measurement. We respect the science of brewing.” I mention that on the way over I passed a watchmaker’s collective, and the connection is much appreciated.

After a few minutes of NASA-esque concentration, out comes my first Mach, made with the Nine Darling Road. It tastes perfectly okay, but individually the caramel apple and starburst I was promised does not leap out. Nieto says the prominence of those flavors depends on the individual beans and pull, the concentration of milk, and other factors. “I’m putting in a little extra milk for you. The next one will be more pleasant for you. Warm and pleasant,” he muses, putting down Mach 2, the Sweet Tooth. “More peach.”

I do not taste coffee, nor roast coffee, nor make coffee for a living, but here’s what this macchiato did to my brain: Streamers! Noisemakers! Balloons bobbing against the ceiling, partying, neigh, partying ON A CLOUD; a synesthetic overload, I hear keys clanking on a piano, and the peach punches its way out! While the first macchiato tasted kind of like a messenger bag, this one tastes like…a bag made with a billion belts, or a bag with dancing triangles on it! Or like the bag on this new guy who just walked in, all in black, with long hair – the hair on the customers has been growing longer and more unkempt as the afternoon goes on – and this guy has my favorite bag of the day by far, a black leather satchel that swoops dramatically from his shoulder and looks like a shiny, folded-up bat wing. That’s what Mach 2 is like! Or like the bright orange sneakers on the guy in the far corner, wearing a farmer’s straw hat (he says he won it at a gourd festival). Yes. I have said it: Sweet Tooth tastes (metaphorically) like your most beloved pair of orange sneakers, orange sneakers that run and climb and totally want to party! And – at its tail end — sneakers that also transport you home when you’re ready for things to feel familiar and safe again.

There’s a sweet retail section here, too, featuring a simple assortment of books and beans, shelved in a steampunky structure hammered together by a friend of the shop and made of old tarnished pipes, rusty faucets, valves, vises, clamps, old elbow lamps, and a single dangling bucket. Up next for Sweetleaf: beer. “I know a lot of coffee people,” Rich tells me, “who would love to come in for a banging shot of espresso and then get a pint of beer to go.”

Or to stay.

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