In a cafe-saturated city like New York, it takes a lot to get noticed, and a sharp focus can set a business apart. The city's already seen a smattering of niche cafes that specialize in, or exclusively serve, coffees from one particular origin, from the boutique—Café Integral (Nicaragua) to the more mainstream—Bourbon Coffee (Rwanda), Juan Valdez Café (Colombia), etc. As well, the city's also seen some elaborately presented roastery-cafes, like Blue Bottle and Toby's Estate on the north side of Williamsburg. So. What if someone ambitious with ample resources were to combine the two? What if someone opened up a 3,600-square-foot roastery cafe in a prime Williamsburg location with an array of brew methods, two lever-driven espresso machines, a spacious atrium with two-story live plant wall, and, oh—all the green coffee came FedExed direct from Colombia, ten days after harvest. Would that get your attention?
Enter Cafe Devoción, the first international outpost of Bogota-based Cafe Devotion (yes, that's what it's currently named in Colombia), where owner Steven Sutton neither beats around the bush with his cafes, or his claims. “We are the first third-wave cafe in Colombia,” he first told me when I happened to barge in off the street in late October. “Whose Probat is that in the window?” I had wondered, leaving my boyfriend outside in the drizzle on Grand Street to go find out. It turned out to be no ordinary cafe build-out.
Everything inside Devoción—from the street-facing roasting room to the pour-over bar to the “fresh tea station” is staged for theatre. The 2,000-plant living wall, besprouted with everything from philodendrons to coffee plants, is itself set up as if it were a movie screen, surrounded by stuffed leather couches and all. But more than anything else, Sutton has cast the star of the show as Colombian coffee—maybe even Colombia itself—and views the extravagant cafe as a way to showcase his nation's proudest export.
“When I started in coffee in 2006,” says Sutton, a former sound engineer, “Colombian coffee was not looked upon as one of the best coffees in the specialty world.”
“Colombian coffee that's easy to buy is not the best coffee,” continues Sutton. “When you try to specialize, its really hard to find your coffees. Colombia's infrastructure in coffee is crazy. You have over half a million farms, over 90% of the farms are micro-lots. It's really hard to get them, you end up with most of the varieties and farms mixed up, and your traceability just fades. You add that the whole country is still in a civil war, and it's very hard to get.”
To approach this problem, Cafe Devotion—Sutton says the company plans to rebrand the name back into Spanish as it continues its international growth—sought to create its own purchasing network within Colombia. The company now boasts a network of around 420 farms, with, Sutton says, a department focused on environmental and social sustainability, including initiatives to retain youth in farming communities rather than losing them to the city. Devotion often works, Sutton says, in conjunction with the Colombian government, including introducing coffee-growing expertise and best practices to farms newly converted by land reconciliation.
“When a rebel group or people from FARC decide to throw down their arms and the government gives them a piece of land they can farm, and they end up in a place where coffee is amazing, they call us,” says Sutton, who points to his company's recognition by ANSPE, the Agencia Nacional para la Superación de la Pobreza Extrema (the national agency for overcoming extreme poverty), and their work with the territorial consolidation plan in the conflict-ridden Tolima region.
“We buy 90% of our coffees in red zones,” says Sutton. “The more remote, the more extreme, the more hardcore the zone is, the better coffees. The land is super fertile, you go into the lands and they're like forests. You have a lot of clementines, and fruits, it's like a jungle. These types of farms are very environmentally rich, and at the end of the day, nature gives flavor.”
Devoción's Williamsburg cafe, of course, is a far cry from the remote, hardcore, and extreme—the most hardship you might endure is a brisk walk from the nearby L or G trains, with a little self-consciousness about if you are suitably dressed thrown in along the way. The space itself is warm and humbling all at once. Ironwork, exposed brick, atrium ceiling and array of chairs—from the cozy to the functional—are punctuated by carefully placed coffeetable books and Colombian photos and posters. Merchandise shelves are brightened with Colombian mochilas, and the overall feel is a bit more adult, a bit more staged, than your average hip coffee spot.
This is all set up in service of a massive coffee bar, of course, with multiple stations for cascara (coffee cherry) tea, espresso, and filter coffees. From left to right, you'll tour the pour-over bar's Hario V60 array, a trio of siphons used for tea infusion, a three-group Kees van der Westen Mirage espresso machine with Mazzer grinder, and a “fresh tea station”, where Colombian-style aromaticas (really, fruits infused in hot water, rather than teas) are prepared to order. Behind these you'll also see a small army of French presses and a couple more espresso machines, and a Kyoto cold-dripper or two. And we haven't even gotten to what's in the roasting lab yet.
Between the street and the bar is where all the roasting magic happens, on Devoción's 25-kilo Probat P25, which will be used only on Colombian coffees the company imports itself. “We have our own dry mill,” says Sutton, who adds the company is among a select few experimenting with natural process in Colombia.
“We were the first to legally export a non-washed coffee,” says Sutton. “At the end of the day we're going to have around eight coffees with different characteristics. We have a Geisha, we have a honey process, a sweet Yellow Bourbon natural, we have an espresso called Honey that's not a honey process, Citrus blend which is a drip, Wildforest blend which is a drip, and a decaf.”
“We don't believe in freshly roasting old coffee,” boasts Sutton of the company's unique importing arrangement. “The industry standard of roasting four months after harvest is old coffee. We roast ten days afterwards, we FedEx every single bean from Colombia to Brooklyn, and we'll roast from ten days up to a month, and then we're done with that coffee,” he says. The difference? “You'll get a lot of minerals out of the cups, you'll get a lot of flavor, a lot of notes, you'll realy notice the notes without being an expert,” claims the cafe owner. “The coffee's going to jump, because it's ultra-fresh.”
And if you're seeking a little nourishment alongside those notes, the cafe plans to offer Colombian salpicón des frutas, which lies somewhere between a fruit cup and a fruit juice, as well as pastries from Ceci-Cela, and a somewhat irreverent avocado toast served on a quinoa and brown rice arepa with olive oil, salt, and crushed peppers.
The cafe plans to throw its doors open this week, with the pilot light on the roaster hopefully to fire soon after. What's next? Expansion to California, Asia, and beyond, says Sutton. And judging by the sky-high ambitions of this place, I might not be too quick to cross Mars off the list, either.
Liz Clayton is the Associate Editor at Sprudge.com, and helms our NYC desk. Read more Liz Clayton on Sprudge.
All photos by Liz Clayton for Sprudge.com