Is single-origin, micro-roasted, direct-trade coffee the only thing you’ll drink nowadays? Good for you. You’re only about 25 years late on the scene. Willoughby’s Coffee & Tea has been craft roasting top quality beans since the mid-1980s, back when you were still pronouncing it ex-presso. With four locations in Connecticut, it’s close enough to New York to supply coffee to some of the city’s most beloved restaurants, including Red Rooster Harlem and B Café (both East and West). We sat down with co-founder Barry Levine to get schooled on the early days of good coffee in this country.
What do you think of the term “third-wave coffee culture?” Is it accurate?
On a personal level, you almost feel insulted by it at some point. Like, “What have we been doing all these years?” We’ve been doing this thing that people feel was just discovered for 27 years. Seriously, though, I think it’s a great trend. It all goes well for coffee and quality growers. It certainly has expanded the specialty coffee market. I can say that over time, coffee keeps getting better and better because better raw product is available. And because the skills keep improving over time.
Is there anything you’ve learned from the young roasters coming up now?
We’ve always identified ourselves as coffee roasters. When people hear you’re in the coffee business, they tend to think beverage. And because we have four locations, people think of us as a coffee house. But coffee roasting is the foremost role we play and everything else trickles down from there. No pun intended. There’s things that we’re always learning. I can’t imagine anyone in any craft who works it for years without picking up new things. The light bulb goes on and you wonder how did I not know that for the past 20 years. Our supply sources learn things, too, so we get better ingredients.
Do you have a favorite coffee city?
Most coffee cultures are centered around espresso. As a matter of my own personal taste, I’m not centrally focused on espresso beverages. I prefer coffee prepared for French press or pour over or Aeropress. I much more interested in single-origin coffees and how they present themselves in the cup.
What’s the most exciting thing you’re drinking right now?
One of the coffees that came in recently is a natural process coffee from Panama called Elida Estate Natural. In natural-process coffee, the entire cherry is dried out [as opposed to the pulp being removed first]. Naturally processed coffees, generally speaking, are a little more earthy and have a fruit intensity to them. Often people will describe berry flavors – strawberries, blackberries, blueberries. Central America is really at the forefront of coffee experimentation these days, especially Costa Rica and Panama, where growers are experimenting with naturals, [among other things].
Any other trends you’re seeing in coffee nowadays?
One of the big trends has been toward micro-lot coffee. Another trend is toward micro-mills. Traditionally, if you were a grower, you would be picking cherries and taking them to a local cooperative to sell. You had no personal identity with the coffee. Your coffee was combined with everyone else’s in the area. A lot of that still goes on in the world. A micro-mill is a mini processing plant the farmer buys for about $10,000. It uses infinitesimally small amounts of water compared to big co-ops. And it allows growers to be directly rewarded for their micro-lots. It basically raises the whole level of coffee.
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