New York has long been a food capital, from the upscale kitchens of our finest restaurants to the bagels and sausages on the street corners. But as anyone who has walked around Brooklyn has figured out, the next chapter of New York’s food history has everything to do with the local, “artisanal” food scene that is making its mark on the city. From the rise of greenmarkets and food fairs to the focus on seasonal ingredients, these products embody a DIY ethos that New York City has had from the very beginning.
The New-York Historical Society’s Museum store is introducing it’s A Taste of New-York History collection of specialty foods produced in New York City and State, including jams, savory condiments, and chocolates. One of those vendors is Brooklyn Roasting, which has been making Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, and Organic certified and sustainable coffees since 2009. We spoke with roaster Michael Pollack about what makes a great cup of coffee, and why New York was built on coffee.
What was the inspiration for starting Brooklyn Roasting Company? What did you guys want to produce that you felt was missing in the New York coffee scene?
What was missing was a local roaster focused on sustainably-sourced, extraordinary coffee, so that’s what we set out to produce.
Is this what you always wanted to do with your life? How did you find yourself being a professional coffee roaster?
I never in my life imagined that I would be roasting coffee. A series of divine experiences led me to this unbelievable opportunity I find myself in…20 years ago, I used to purchase roasted coffee beans through the mail. I started roasting out of necessity when I accidentally ordered a huge amount of green coffee beans. This led to me finding a roasting machine, teaching myself how to use it…and falling in love with the process. It was meant to be.
On our bio of your guys’ company, it says you’re “not really coffee snobs.” What, to you, is a coffee snob, and why don’t you want to be one?
A coffee snob is someone who might want to make coffee inaccessible. We taste coffee with spoons, slurping and spitting. But everyone else drinks it out of a cup, and 85 percent of them add milk and sugar. So for us, coffee is our lives, but for everyone else, coffee is a part of their lives. We just want to celebrate that someone is drinking coffee, and not tea or soda or something else. So we want to explain where it comes from and why it tastes the way it does, but not too much. At the cafe, we have a coffee of the month, of the week, and of the day, so customers can become familiar with them. Coffee can’t be fully accessible if you’re a snob at the same time.
What do you think makes a great cup of coffee?
A great cup of coffee is evocative and transportative, like music. It should take you someplace. For example, I was in a car once, taking one of our large coffee servers to an event. You could smell it. The driver asked me if it was coffee, and I said yes. He told me he grew up in Alexandria, Egypt, in a house up a hill from the local market, and he woke up every morning to the smell of coffee coming from the market. “This scent takes me back to my childhood,” he said. Then he pulled down the visor and showed me a picture—it was of the Alexandria market. “This is where you’ve taken me,” he said. How can you beat that? Coffee is restorative, comforting. It’s so much more than a cup of coffee.
Do you think New York will ever be a tea city?
There are people who like tea, but it’s never had the same presence or part in New York, or in this country, as coffee. If tea had remained more popular, we’d still be speaking with British accents. Coffee fueled the American Revolution, built the Trans-Continental Railroad, and built the city of New York. People don’t wake up and smell the tea. They wake up and smell the coffee.