Irving Farm’s dedication to brewing a better cup of coffee
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JENNIFER MAY
What do the owners of a coffee roaster and a handful of well-loved neighborhood cafés do when a flood of upstarts— sporting Jazz Age garb, flashing single-origin micro-batch beans and woo-woo barista techniques up the wazoo— start flooding your business?
If you’re do-it-yourselfers like Irving Farm Coffee Roasters’ founders and owners, David Elwell and Steve Leven, you start upping your game. It’s not that the duo, who launched their company in 1996 with a cozy little café on New York City’s Irving Place, were pouring coffee from industrial restaurant-grade machines—far from it. By 2000, they had acted on a suggestion from their then coffee supplier, Dallis Bros., and had begun roasting beans and blending coffees at their Millerton farm at Coleman Station, a historic farming district dating back to the 19th century. They supplied coffee to discerning restaurants such as City Bakery and the late great Verbena, and were intent on giving their retail customers the finest all-around café, and coffee, experience in town. They weren’t yet micro-roasting, though, and they wanted to continue evolving in quality and seriousness, in keeping with the public’s growing obsession with the craft of making the best pourover, the most satisfying cappuccino, the latte whose artistic foamedmilk cap belongs on a museum wall.
In 2010, Elwell, Leven and Clyde Miller, Irving Farm’s head roaster and plant manager, began experimenting with single-origin coffees and smaller batches that would allow for more control over each coffee’s flavor profile. Miller had already been roasting and blending for the company in Millerton for eight years, but like other restaurants, cafés and retailers, they wanted to showcase single varietals in addition to the once-preferred house blends.
In 2011, Elwell and Leven hired a coffeecrazy young man named Dan Streetman from an artisanal roaster in Austin, Texas, giving him the title of “coffee director” and the opportunity to move beyond sales, to master the art of sourcing outstanding single-farm coffees and to forge relationships with individual farmers, coffee collectives and importers. A director of education, Tamara Vigil, came on board to head the company’s Flatiron training lab—a finishing school for Irving Farm café baristas, who worked in locations around Manhattan as well as at the Millerton café, which opened in 2003— and those tasked with coffee service and sales for wholesale customers, which by then included Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Blue Hill New York and Whole Foods Market. The company shed its gorgeous but oldtimey Louise Fili package design for a handsome black-and-white, streamlined modern look that telegraphed seriousness of purpose. It was a full-on play by a small business to enter the big leagues.
The first sourcing trip Streetman took was in 2011 to El Salvador, where he had a connection with a collection of family farms that had been growing for four generations. At that point, he says, “I was looking for something really approachable that we could put in our house blend but would also be great on its own.” He found what he was looking for, an elegant coffee with good body and milk chocolate and smooth leather tones that now goes by the name Guadalupe and is now sold as a single varietal and one of the individually roasted coffees in Irving Farm’s house blend.
At his next stop, in Honduras, he learned that a farmers’ cooperative, Las Capucas, had started a program to improve the quality of specific lots, offering microloans and holding yearly competitions. The top five submissions command premium prices, and to Streetman’s delight, he found that plots in Honduras are so small, averaging 9 acres compared to El Salvador’s 53, that he could buy up the top crops, bringing home “five really awesome coffees from the same community but that all taste different.”
The trip was a success, but Irving Farm’s staff wasn’t ready to sell coffees that were so different and required detailed knowledge to sell effectively. The company had declared its intentions, however. Since then, Streetman has returned to the same community in Honduras and forged strong relationships with its top growers, who have grown along with Irving Farm. The first year the top grower submitted 150 pounds; last year, Streetman bought 30 times that amount.
Personally knowing its farmers gives Irving Farm coffees a level of transparency that even Fair Trade designated coffees—which supposedly set a standard minimum price to growers and regulate certain features of coffee cooperatives’ structure and spending on community projects— don’t necessarily have, explains Streetman. He’s seen for himself the motorized mill in the backyard of one Honduras owner, Jose Francisco, and witnessed the process of pressing the freshly picked coffee cherries between two metal wheels to separate the fruit from the seed, the 12- to 15-hour fermentation that follows (which both imparts flavor to the seeds and separates them from the fruit pulp), then the washing, drying and sorting of the coffee seeds, or beans.
Such close grower-buyer relationships, along with efforts to improve crop quality, are good for the farmer, too. Streetman learned that “cup quality and premiums associated with that are worth more [to the farmer] than producing five times that amount” since they command at least double the current market price.
Three years later, Streetman has built his network of suppliers to the point where he says this year close to 75 percent of the coffee Irving Farm sells has been purchased directly from farmers and cooperatives he has visited and knows personally. Importers, he explains, are still a vital part of the supply chain, overseeing the logistics of shipping, customs and import and export taxes, and offer insurance against damage or the delivery of an inferior product. Streetman has also grown into his role as coffee guru; he’s the former head of the U.S. Barista Guild’s executive council and served as head judge at the 2013 U.S. Barista Competition.
By the time the coffee beans arrive at Irving Farm’s Millerton warehouse, he says, “I’ve probably tasted it four or five different times.” Upon arrival in the U.S., the importer will send a sample, and tasting it against the detailed notes and scoring system he keeps, Streetman will verify that what has come off the boat is the coffee he bought in its country of origin.
Once the beans are in the Millerton facility, says Streetman, “It’s magic time. That’s when Clyde and I get together to figure out how this coffee is going to react when we apply heat.” They experiment with different moisture levels, density of roast. A computerized “roast log,” explains head roaster Miller, is connected to the roaster with a thermocouple wire, creating a detailed profile of every batch. If Streetman does a “cupping,” or tasting, and likes a particular batch, he can look up the profile and easily replicate it, thanks to the roast log. While dark, heavily roasted coffees were once all the rage, and apparently certain Upper West Side denizens still favor the style, lighter roasts that allow the flavor of the beans to shine through are now more popular. “A lot of people say, ‘We roast coffee so as not to mask terroir,’” says Streetman, “but from my standpoint, it’s impossible not to taste the roast. That’s like saying you don’t taste the fermentation in wine.”
Irving Farm’s “know your farmer” principle was taken to an extreme in the case of two of its single-origin coffees, the Salvadoran Talnamica and Natamaya, both grown on farms owned by a family that lives down the street from Irving Farm’s West 79th Street café.
Salvadoran Herman Mendez, a pediatrician, and his wife, Nena, a psychologist, have lived in the U.S. since 1980. Nena’s family has been in the coffee business for five generations, and she and her siblings manage the farm they inherited from their father. Herman, a coffee aficionado, bought another farm not too far away, which the family calls NataMaya, after their daughters Natalia and Amalia Mayita.
They were already selling to a Seattle roaster when in August 2012 Nena happened to wander into the West 79th Street Irving Farm and saw a giant blowup of a photograph of a good friend’s coffee farm in El Salvador. Introductions ensued, then a February 2013 trip by Streetman to the Mendez’s two farms. By June 2013 Irving Farm was selling the Mendez family’s Talnamica and Natamaya coffees. The Mendezes have another tie to the company: Amalia Mayita now works part-time as a barista at the West 79th Street café. There, she attends regular cuppings, which involve grading sheets and a flavor wheel, and says she loves the neighborhood vibe of the café, the many regulars and “how curious people” are about new coffees and brewing techniques.
To beef up sales and marketing, in 2012 Elwell and Zeven hired Teresa von Fuchs to direct the wholesale side of the operation. A coffee savant like Streetman, her job includes training restaurant and café clients on how to brew a perfect cup of coffee with state-of-the-art equipment, from measuring and weighing both coffee and water and grinding the beans to keeping equipment maintained. She’ll coach clients on techniques that range from pour-overs using flat-bottomed Kalita drippers (which allow more even extraction than cone-shaped drippers) to cold brewing. Her job is important, she says, because the brewing and serving stage is “the make-or-break moment, when all the hard work of the producers, of Dan and Clyde, can be completely screwed up” if not handled with care.
Samantha Letzer, co-owner of Cold Spring Coffee Pantry in Cold Spring, New York, says that of the five roasters she works with, Irving Farm stands out for its quality and personalized service, noting the company “was most in tune with the kind of program we wanted to curate, instead of pushing the program they wanted.” Von Fuchs helped design a program that is as handcrafted as possible given the limitations of the shop’s size, location and staff. She also showed Letzer how to brew a single coffee in different ways to cater to more or less adventurous customers (the trick: varying the coarseness of the grind) or to customers who add cream to their coffee and those who don’t. Irving Farm, Letzer adds, is the best at “helping us really make their coffee shine.”
Former Millerton mayor Michael Cawley sips coffee at Irving Farm
Coffee House in Millerton. Below, the exterior of the roasting facility.
The two founders of this plucky homegrown coffee business, Elwell and Leven, met as undergrads at Syracuse. Elwell launched a lawn irrigation business while he was still in school, and Leven partnered with him in that venture while going to film school at NYU. The business was based in Maine, where the pair took note of the success of nearby Vermont-based Green Mountain coffee. The idea for a new business began to germinate.
“All we knew was how to build things,” says Elwell. “We’ve always been interested in building some kind of business, and I feel like we’re still in the building business, we just build stores and roasters now.” The pair sold the irrigation contracting business in 1995 and opened their first Irving Street café the next year. “We started within a few years of Starbucks,” says Leven. The Seattle-based coffee behemoth in the making only had about 10 shops in New York, but Elwell and Leven saw the coming barista-driven coffee wave.
Analyzing what makes a good café a great neighborhood joint, Leven and Elwell suggest that the secret is a combination of welcoming, friendly staff personality and the physical space of the cafés. “It’s like being in someone’s house, you feel ownership of it,” Leven notes. From the beginning, Elwell and Leven’s penchant for cozy spaces, warm tones and beautiful natural woods, and their skill at construction and design proved to be a winning combination. For their first café on the garden level of a brownstone at 52 Irving Place, they broke their budget to get a bar reportedly taken from the oldest bar in Williamsburg, then spent weeks stripping and refinishing it. In 2003 they opened the equally cozy Millerton café in the center of town, their sole Hudson Valley outpost. The café was then sold in 2006 to a local businessman who retained the name as well as the signature coffee. This lasted for six years when the existing owner opted to sell. As a sort of right to first refusal, the Millerton café was offered back to Elwell and Leven in 2012 and summarily repurchased and brought back into the Irving Farm family, so to speak. Staff were retrained in the barista arts, and a full-time baker, Stephanie Caul, was brought on to stock the cases with all manner of cakes, pies, scones and doughnuts each morning. Their inviting, comfortable spaces struck a chord, and they tweaked their style for each new opening: a sleek, machine-age-looking café for the dining concourse of Grand Central Station, which opened in May 2013; their flagship, on West 79th near Broadway, a below-street-level sanctuary that feels like an arts-and-crafts haven in contrast with the nondescript neighborhood without, opened in June 2013. Their most recent opening was actually a take-over of a café at 88 Orchard Street on the Lower East Side, which had been one of Irving Farm’s early wholesale accounts. Elwell and Leven outfitted the café with beautiful pieces of handcrafted walnut, oak and maple, as well as a reclaimed walnut countertop.
The company’s growth has been steady, with sales of about 300,000 pounds of coffee a year, says Leven. Future plans include looking for a “public garage–type space” for the company’s office and training lab as well as for industry and public events. Another Manhattan café is in the works, and in late summer 2014 Elwell and Leven will unveil a new 7,200-square-foot roasting facility in Millerton that will include a cupping lab and climate-controlled storage facility—this is a project that has been in the works for many years that will utilize ecologically minded principles in the construction, including solar integration, a plan to recapture heat from the fiery roasters and the use of locally sourced and reclaimed lumber.
We’ve been here for so long,” says Leven, “longer than a lot of these new kids. I just want to keep doing what we do better and better. What I wanted was a collaborative place where employees feel that this is their career and there’s a future for everybody. And that’s happening now.”
IRVING FARM COFFEE HOUSE
44 Main Street, Millerton