NYC Roasters Speak: The Williamsburgers

Say YES! to Brooklyn
Say YES! to Brooklyn

Williamsburg has been the definition of hipster Brooklyn cool for close to a decade now, but it isn’t just a neighborhood of plaid and PBR. People get serious work done in Williamsburg too. Some of the working being done in Brooklyn today involves roasting coffee to help other people wake up and feel lively to get their own work done. Today it seems like a new café is popping up on every corner of Williamsburg, (The Bean will be moving in on Bedford soon) but it’s the original Williamsburg cafes and coffee roasters that remind us that for centuries Brooklyn has been a place where people make industrial things and where enclaves of immigrants live, not just a trendy brunch destination. Oslo Coffee is Willy B’s oldest coffee roaster, celebrating more than a decade of keeping Brooklyn caffeinated. As promised in Roasting Revival in the City that Never Sleeps, I’m merely acting as a medium to let NYC’s coffee makers speaks for themselves. In response to my questions for the Tea & Coffee Trade Journal article “Roasting Revival in the City that Never Sleeps,” Oslo’s Michele Barth shared some of the Oslo story.

Quote the Roaster: Oslo’s Communications/Wholesale manager, Michele Barth 1. Why Brooklyn? What prompted Grumpy to start roasting in Greenpoint? JD and Kathy Merget opened their first cafe in Williamsburg in 2003, on then quiet corner of Roebling and N 4th Streets. 10 years later Oslo Coffee Roasters has grown into a small craft artisan coffee roaster with 3 cafes. We remain a small family-run business, born and raised in Brooklyn. Prior to opening Oslo, JD had been involved in coffee for many years already, and Kathy at the time was an elementary school art teacher. They’d decided to put down roots in Williamsburg at a time when it just wasn’t cool yet. And try their hand at opening a coffee shop.   We set up a Probat L-12 and JD recruited a couple trusted baristas, asking if they wanted to help him learn how to roast coffee!  That began the journey. It began naturally. JD and Kathy had by that time started a family. They began seeing a natural community surrounding the shop on Roebling and just wanted it to be a local spot alongside other small family businesses. Williamsburg was quiet in the early 2000’s but there was a solid tradition of small business and this was nice to see.    Oslo has always been focused on sustaining community, sourcing from local businesses, and supporting local organizations.  We are, plainly, community-driven. And Williamsburg made it easy to do that.  Here in Brooklyn, and since the beginning of Oslo, we roast in a warehouse shared with local artisans and craftspeople.  Everyone is doing their own thing, something different, and is able to, and it is a great community to be part of.  That’s the Brooklyn we know and the Williamsburg we know, one where we’re able to live, work, raise families, and utilize resources in the neighborhood/source locally from neighbors. Hopefully it won’t change too much! 2. What are challenges and perks particular to roasting in NYC? Some challenges: Growing at a comfortable pace. A lot of people roasting coffee. Everyone competing to buy the best green beans. High rents. I believe JD will tell you that some of the challenges that exist lie in the growth we’ve seen in our neighborhood as well.  Back in 2005 it really was just us and one other, maybe two other roasters in Brooklyn. In many ways today is equally great as it is challenging. The coffee scene has gotten crazy big here so quality of coffee goes up as people learn about the crop of coffee, who grows it, direct trade, etc. New York is a great place to work in coffee because of the people and also tough because so many are doing it. But we love what we do and are lucky to get to do it! 3. What does Oslo see in its future and the future of NYC’s roasting scene? Good things, better and better coffee!  ….as these are not official replies and answers I’ll stop here (as its already quite dense!) and hope to get you hooked up with JD.   I was able to speak with JD over the phone (I was in Panama and he was in Chicago “test driving” a new 25 kilo Probat—how cool is Skype?) He echoed Michele’s sentiments in his own words. Quote the Roaster with Oslo’s JD Merget 1. Why Brooklyn? Why Williamsburg? I’m from Brooklyn; I know Brooklyn. I know my neighborhood. I needed a space to learn about coffee, but it quickly became a community center. We’re not based on “coffee tourism,” rather we’re a neighborhood haunt. 2. What do you see in Oslo’s future? In the future for NYC’s roasting scene? It’s become so competitive it’s scary. We’re always looking for better coffee and a better work environment. It keeps us on our toes. We’ll need to move to a new roasting facility because the neighborhood is not as industrial as it used to be. Now people are also looking for more single origins. We used to offer one that rotated every week; now people want to see 3 or 4 on the menu and want to know details about the farm and the roasting techniques. This dialogue adds to the community perspective. Coffee has become more like a wine shop model or a craft beer brewery. I hope the industry becomes more open minded to new ways of doing things because there are lots of ways to make great coffee!

Roasting at Oslo
Roasting at Oslo

I visited Oslo’s roasting space, located in a working garage. I could smell the coffee two blocks before I got there and on my way in I greeted a few coverall-ed mechanics repairing motorcycles. I felt a particular affinity for the space; this is the Brooklyn I moved to New York for: a place where sectors mesh as immigrant communities blend and getting any job done is an unapologetically gritty process that compactly juxtaposes stuff you never knew existed. JD commented, “We’re looking for a new space. Which is a shame, because even though this space is tight, if we need something painted, cut, built, or fixed, we just go to the shop out back.” He pointed to a carrot cake on the counter that one of the mechanics had just dropped off. “We’re good friends with everyone else who works around here. And we like that.” Get your fix of Oslo at their UES Yorkville and Williamsburg locations.

JD and Kathy Credit: Oslo Coffee
JD and Kathy Credit: Oslo Coffee

Just a hop, skip and a jump from Oslo (literally it took me less than 15 minutes to walk between the two) is another original Williamsburger: Café Grumpy. Café Grumpy’s roastery is located right in the part of Greenpoint that melts into north Williamsburg, where they’ve been roasting coffee to make New Yorkers ungrumpy since 2009. Quote the Roaster with Café Grumpy’s owner, Caroline Bell 1. Why Brooklyn? What prompted Grumpy to start roasting in Greenpoint? We opened our first cafe location in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in 2005 with the intention of roasting there one day (as the cafe space was quite large). We chose the Greenpoint neighborhood because that is where we (the owners) lived and there weren’t any good coffee shops to go to. 2. What are challenges and perks particular to roasting in NYC? When we first started roasting in 2009, there weren’t many precedents set and it was a struggle to get through the build out and inspection process.   The perks are that NYC is a great home base for travels to Central and South America, which is important for our coffee buyer. 3. What does Grumpy see in its future and the future of NYC’s roasting scene? We are really excited to be opening our new roasting space next door to our current roastery/cafe in Greenpoint this spring. We will have more room for green coffee storage, a bigger cupping lab and education area. As more people have been roasting in NYC and demand for green coffee has increased, it is easier to coordinate coffee importing as more containers are landing on the East Coast.

Making my up of fruity Kenyan in the Cafe
Making my delicious cup of fruity Kenyan in the Cafe

I visited the Greenpoint roastery last week to see for myself. The café and roasting space is located on a quiet residential street, and I knew I must be in the right place when I could see the line of Apples glowing on laptops through the front window. Liam, a very ungrumpy Grumpy roaster, greeted me and showed me the café’s green coffee stocks and trusty old Probat 12kg roaster. Liam entered the coffee biz via working as a barista at Ritual, a reputable café in the (also trendy) San Francisco. He learned to roast at Grumpy, seamlessly transitioning from apprentice to expert. He gave me a sneak peak at Grumpy’s new roasting space just around the corner from their current café/roasting spot. Their new 45kg Probat looks like a Transformer with all its hoppers, trays, ducts, and vents, and indeed it will transform the formerly industrial garage into an expanded roasting operation (the clean paint job and the natural light flooding from the skylights help too).

45 kg Probat coffee roaster (aka Beany the Transformer)
45 kg Probat coffee roaster (aka Beany the Transformer)

You can get your fix of Café Grumpy coffee at their locations in Greenpoint, Park Slope, Chelsea, Fashion District, and the LES. Want to see the one coffee tree growing in Brooklyn? Visit the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Tropical Room. Stay tuned for more roasters quoted in the NYC Coffee Roasters Speak series running the rest of the month!

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