Coffee Talk With Rob Newton
The Brooklyn restaurateur is serious about brewing
When Rob Newton talks about coffee, he uses words like “notes of fruit” and “bright” to describe his ideal cup. But not in a sissy neckerchief-wearing sort of way. Dude means business. As chef-owner of Brooklyn’s southern gentleman of a restaurant Seersucker—sorry, there’s no fried chicken or sweet tea or picnic tables to be found there—he launched a popular breakfast menu leaning heavily on his interest in all things relating to roasting, grinding, and brewing. The morning service was so popular, in fact, that Newton and his partner opened a café down the street christened Smith Canteen. Seasonal pastries and sandwiches join a full espresso bar and iced coffee made to the chef’s exacting standards. As in, not cold-brewed. Wait, iced coffee that isn’t cold-brewed? Ready the torches! We found out why, as well as how he picked North Carolina’s Counter Culture Coffee to provide his beans. Wait, no Stumptown? Ready the torches!
You chose to serve Counter Culture over a number of other companies. Why?
I love the way they treat the coffee, first and foremost. I love working with them and how they are so supportive of the business that we do. They have a coffee lab in the Flatiron District, where we can send our staff to get more experience with their experts.
What about the flavor. What makes Counter Culture the best?
The coffee beans are treated really well—they don’t roast my beans until I order them. And I like the way that they roast. They don’t over-roast and the beans remain fruity. It’s a fresh as it can be and I like knowing that my coffee is going to be fresh.
Did you debate between other companies? Let me throw out some names. Stumptown, Intelligentsia. Do you have opinions on those?
Not that I can talk about (laughing).
OK, what can you say? I want to know what was in your head when you were making this decision. It’s a BIG decision!
Stumptown was a really solid option, especially given that they would be roasting in Red Hook. I just found the vibe with Counter Culture was more fitting with who I am. I went down to Durham, North Carolina and toured the facility and found out a lot about them. The fit was just right.
What was the trip like?
We went down there before we opened Seersucker to look at their coffee — how they store it, where they roast it. They were coincidently putting together a roaster while we were there, so we really got to know how coffee was roasted. But the proof is in the coffee. They have to treat it right, and then we have to return that when we serve it.
What kind of training does your staff go through?
We use pretty standard coffee machines called La Marzocco, which are handmade in Florence. They are simple, though sometimes very complicated. Anybody who is going to work it at the restaurant is not allowed to until they take a day-long course.
What is taught there?
How to grind coffee — specifically how to adjust the grinder — and how to stamp the grinds into the handle of the machine. You also get to taste a lot of espresso. Espresso goes through various phases, which changes within seconds. And if you go too far, the hot water essentially burns the coffee and you get nasty tasting espresso.
Where is Counter Culture growing their beans?
They have people buying the beans all over the world. It’s like they’re beyond fair trade. They have relationships with the farmers. They take care of the people who grow the coffee beans. It’s paramount for them, and for me. I tend to lean towards coffee that come from Central and South America. That’s my flavor profile. We’ve been doing a lot of Peruvian, which has wound down, and now we’re doing some Guatemalan. I’ve tried Indonesian [blends], which a lot of people love. But I tend to find myself leaning towards Central America.
Describe the Indonesian flavor profile...
It’s a little darker and mustier. I don’t want to use the word dirty, but it’s just not as clean. There’s an acidity that comes with Central American coffees that I like. It’s brighter.
You’ve made the decision to not cold-brew your coffee. Doesn’t everybody do that now?
It’s not my first choice. Our ice machine has filtered water, so we have ice cubes that we put into a pot with a double-strength pour of drip coffee. We have iced coffee that is immediately ready. I find that it’s fresher. Cold-brewed sits in your refrigerator all night. Who knows what flavors it’s going to pick up in there? I just like the way we are doing it.