Crop to Cup, a small coffee shop and importing outfit in South Gowanus, Brooklyn, is deceptive. Casting an eye over a coarsely-painted brick interior and piles of burlap bean bags, the casual observer might mistake this scene for a playful montage of modern coffee culture or a fledgling business unsteadily finding its deck-shoe-clad feet.
Neither conclusion would be correct. Crop to Cup is an established, fully-fledged importer, having moved its operations two years ago from busy Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, to quieter Gowanus. The company is also a green coffee seller, importing a variety of unroasted coffees from locations like Tanzania, Uganda, Indonesia and Mexico. You could call them a hybrid: an importer that’s also a coffee bar and roasting company.
For now, the coffee shop serves as window-dressing to its main business, but everything is about to change. At this very moment, Crop to Cup has closed its doors for a series of renovations, serving coffee at Lowlands Bar next door in the interim. Once they reopen in mid-August, the Gowanus premises will better support all things green, showcasing fresh sourced beans and educating customers about everything from home roasting to commercial blends. Though the coffee shop will remain, its owners are keen to promote the bean as the true star of the show.
I sat down over a sunny cupping in Crop to Cup’s patio garden with co-founder and president Taylor Mork to find out more.
For Sprudge readers who might be unfamiliar, could you please give us an overview of Crop to Cup?
Taylor Mork: We started as two guys—myself and Jake Elster—who studied business together. Mutual friends from time studying in Switzerland led us to an NGO project in Uganda. Initially the project was about setting up water for the community, then providing internet…which eventually led us to coffee. At that time we were new to the business. We got to know the community there and made friends with the farmers. It’s these friendships that have evolved into a business. First and foremost, we’re here for those farmers and cooperatives. We want to help them, educate them about growing the best coffee and getting the best price, which in turn leads to great coffee for consumers. We want to showcase the beans. The rest is up to the roaster.
That sounds like a long process. Talk with me about the challenges of that sort of relationship building.
Yes, it is a long process. Take Mexico for example. It’s a very competitive environment with large commercial coffee buyers purchasing washed coffee in bulk. We’ve approached farmers in areas such as Colima and Guerrero and told them their coffee has great potential from a craft perspective with natural-processed beans. But that requires more time, space and effort versus getting a guaranteed commercial sale, sometimes at a premium if commercial buyers are looking to make up for a shortfall in one area. It’s hard as a small craft organization to convince a farmer to change their business model at that point.
Even when this happens, it takes years of effort. For example it’s taken 4-5 years of effort by our friends in Uganda to finally bear fruit. Often coffee growers don’t have knowledge or expertise to produce the coffee we know they’re capable of growing. They come from cultures where coffee isn’t valued locally and people’s palates aren’t accustomed to sampling and gauging how to perfect their product. We can work with them or point them to local coffee buyers and aggregators who can do that. But even taking that initial step requires trust and a certain leap of faith on behalf of the farmer.
There is a remodel now under way. What’s the goal?
We want to showcase the green beans rather than the end product. Our strength lies in sourcing the best beans and supplying them to established roasters or home-roasters. The roasted bean space is pretty saturated; it’s harder to carve out a separate identity. However there’s still a lot to be done in terms of educating people at home and businesses about green beans, roasting methods and profiles. We want to focus on that. From August, our shop will include a custom-designed raw steel bar by Tomer Ben-Gal of FlatCut to showcase green beans. We’ll still have café facilities, but you won’t find Crop to Cup branded beans any more. Instead we’ll be focusing on the best roasters out there and showcasing their brands.
So then, what’s happening to the Crop to Cup roasted coffee brand?
Our brand was co-established in Chicago, and is now operated by Columbia Street Roastery. The Brooklyn arm will be managed by Brooklyn Roasting Co. in Dumbo. We want to source and sell the best green beans; the rest is up to the roaster. Our café space and site will sell roasting equipment and we’re thinking of running classes too. More and more people are looking to roast at home, so we want to facilitate that process rather than invest in branding.
Gowanus and the surrounding areas of Brooklyn are undergoing a lot of change at the moment. How has that impacted Crop to Cup and its customer base?
To be honest that change is really happening in small pockets. The area around here hasn’t changed that much. We’re sandwiched between a residential area on one side and commercial zone on the other. That commercial zone is a mix of warehouses, music and art studios. Our customer base reflects that eclectic mix. It’s really down to those already in the area to begin with. People don’t tend to come out of the way to visit the café.
Originally from the United Kingdom, Ruth Temianka is a Brooklyn-based journalist and founder of Dilettantisme.com. This is her first feature for Sprudge.