“A rising tide lifts all boats” is a loaded quip to throw around in Red Hook. But when Steve Mierisch signed a lease on a cavernous, beautiful warehouse on Red Hook’s Pier 41 three weeks before Hurricane Sandy, he never imagined his dreams for New York City’s coffee community would be quite so dampened.
Luckily, the water that soon soaked the space he’d selected to start Pulley Collective—a daring, first-of-its-kind shared coffee roastery and incubator—didn’t wash his idea out to sea.
Sandy claimed 30 bags of unroasted coffee and one small coffee roaster, but a year later Mierisch’s dream is in full swing: A half-dozen coffee businesses, like Joe Coffee and Ninth Street Espresso, now hold time shares that grant them half-day shifts on the space’s roasting machines. The city’s newest emerging roasters are hard at work here beyond the stacked sacks of unroasted green coffee beans—mostly from Mierisch’s own family farms, Fincas Mierisch, back in Nicaragua—that occupy much of the room, which itself seems to glow in an odd mixture of vintage incandescents, ocean light and the warmth of a fireplace. It’s rustic and nautical and modern all at once in here, from the coils of rope to the repurposed medical supply cabinetry to the environmentally sensitive hot water boiler, with vibrations of excitement running throughout.
The magic happens in the two large coffee roasting machines—one state-of-the-art, energy-efficient, hot-air-based Loring roaster and another, smaller, classic Diedrich roaster salvaged from the revered Ecco Caffè in Santa Rosa, California. Miniature versions of these sit up front for roasting sample test batches before settling on final roast parameters, alongside a wealth of coffee-lab accoutrements: drip brewers of all kinds, a La Marzocco GB5 handcrafted Italian espresso machine—whatever you need, really.
On a recent Friday afternoon, a roaster from Ninth Street Espresso across the river takes her shift on the cooperatively shared machines, roasting about 1,000 pounds of coffee for the well-known café to serve in its four Manhattan espresso bars. The marriage of shared resources and artisanship is a particularly poignant match for coffee, where global culinary trends toward the hands-on, truly in-house can struggle against the incredibly high entry-level cost for those who wish to roast their own. Making your own pickles or mayonnaise is one thing; delicately applying extreme heat to thousands of pounds of coffee beans per week is quite another.
Time-share roasting quickly becomes an attractive idea—particularly when a café is just starting out roasting their own beans and phasing out those that they purchase from others, as well as in a city like New York, where regulations can make an already-big project gigantic. Typically, though, the arrangement is more slanted: Company X has some spare time on their machine and sells some after-hours time to company Y while they get off the ground. A space that belongs to no one—and yet everyone—and that features all the amenities of a good roastery like Pulley, is totally new.
Of course, roasting coffee in Brooklyn isn’t new at all. But in emerging, artisan-friendly climes, a modern roasting boom has been very real: Café Grumpy, Abraço and Oslo Coffee have been roasting in Greenpoint for more than four years, while transplants from other coasts like Portland’s Stumptown roast in Red Hook and Blue Bottle roasts in Williamsburg (just around the corner from the roasting operations at Toby’s Estate, an Australian company).
Brooklyn Roasting Co. staked their industrial-café claim in both DUMBO and just outside the Navy Yard. But not everyone can be bankrolled by national or international investors, or afford to fit out their own dream roasting space on Berry Street or Flushing Avenue. And that’s where a first step with maybe a little hand-holding, like Pulley Collective, comes into the picture.
Mierisch, a casual Texan-turned-New-Yorker, grew up around coffee on visits to his family’s century-old farms in Nicaragua, eventually growing to learn the green coffee side of the business (farming, milling, tasting and exporting) in his teenage years. He began working in New York’s emerging specialty coffee scene in 2006 in sales for Intelligentsia, whose NYC operations were then barely a twinkle in the Midwestern company’s eye. Through this work, Mierisch saw an opening to do something different. Though New York had already puffed up with a sense of pride in its coffee culture, most of the best cafés were still buying beans from faraway Intelligentsia or Counter Culture Coffee.
“I saw a trend in the industry where a lot of young talent was moving to roasting their own coffee and taking the first steps in that direction. … Historically, that has been a very hard thing to do,” says Mierisch.
“You need lots of money and time to be able to accomplish it. So I got the idea of jump-starting that process by creating a space where people would have access to what they needed right away.”
And has it ever been needed.
Since shifting into high gear this summer, the incubator is already at near-capacity. Pulley Collective’s cooperatively divided time slots are occupied by both well-known and emerging clients, including growing mini-chain Joe, Ninth Street Espresso, Brooklyn boutique pop-up Parlor Coffee, Kaffe 1668 and Gotham Roasters, as well as a new start-up company based in Brazil. Still more are on a waiting list.
Member-roasters are allocated their time in shifts: A half-day a week, which costs $850, is enough time to roast about 1,000 pounds of coffee on the Loring. Cleverly in line with the industrial aesthetic, Mierisch has also provided shipping containers within the spacious room: each member gets one, like a giant, super-hip school locker in which to keep their packaging goods and other needs. (Their green coffee, typically stored in climate-controlled shipping terminals in exotic places like Kearny or Jersey City, is delivered by local freight just prior to roasting.)
While an arrangement like Pulley’s may seem at first like a purely technical transaction—roasters trade money for ready access to infrastructure and tools—its implications go much further. For new or emerging roasters, the convenience of a cooperative, fitted-out location frees them in the art of their craft. There’s no crazy investment overhead as with opening a whole roastery on one’s own, which can often force a business to compromise on the quality of green coffee they can purchase, or increase pressure on the roaster to produce more coffee, rather than experiment and hone their signature roast profiles to the spot they really want to hit.
“You’re not forced to grow if you don’t want to,” says Mierisch of his model. “Your cost is fixed, compared to a traditional venture where you’re investing in a facility and you’re forced to put in all this effort to get your money back.”
And of course there’s the community aspect. While members have the facility reserved to themselves during their time slot, knowledge sharing and camaraderie from roaster to roaster—even when it’s exchanged in passing as shifts change—are part and parcel of the Pulley experience.
“Most members have helped each other out, giving advice on cupping or certain roast profiles, but they all respect each other’s space as well,” says Mierisch.
Dillon Edwards, whose Parlor Coffee pop-up inside Williamsburg barbershop Persons of Interest transitioned to roasting exclusively at Pulley this summer, agrees.
“It’s not like we’re all in the same space at the same time, but there is interaction on a passing-by basis, and it’s good. There will be importers in the house when we’re roasting, and we can participate in cupping coffees that we’ve never been able to taste before, alongside Joe, or alongside Ninth Street,” says Edwards. “Having multiple roasters in one space draws the importers to us, which is helpful.”
Parlor is one of the collective’s best examples of a growing roaster using the space to truly define its style. Head roaster David Stallings, formerly a roaster at Blue Bottle, oversees their time slot on the Loring, roasting 10-minute batches of 35 to 55 pounds of coffee to be sold in their Brooklyn bar-behind-the-barbershop as well as at local retailers like the Brooklyn Kitchen or Greenpoint’s Propeller Coffee.
And while some Pulley Collective members like Parlor are just beginning to expand their reach by selling their beans beyond the barbershop, others are in the process of building their own roasting facilities, having gotten off the ground here in Red Hook.
John Moore, a New York City coffee veteran with years of tenure at both Counter Culture Coffee and Dallis Bros., is using Pulley Collective’s space to grow his newest project, a Brazilian-based coffee farm just putting down roots in the boroughs. Before they open their own roasting and retail space next year, his team has been using Pulley’s facilities to sample roast coffee from their farm in Minas Gerais, without buying a plane ticket to Brazil.
“We can start to sample roasting coffees as they come in right off the farm,” says Moore excitedly. “And that really gives us a sense of what our farm is producing, what each cultivar is producing, what each experiment is yielding in terms of quality and profile. And that starts us thinking about who might be an appropriate client for each different coffee type, and what we might do with each different coffee type.”
“It’s meant to nurture people,” says Mierisch, who doesn’t think the roaster boom (see also: Portland, Oregon) will dry up and leave the facility in obsolescence as some businesses leave the Pulley incubator and build whole roasteries elsewhere. “There is enough interest that there will always be someone to take the spot of someone that’s starting up elsewhere.”
Of course, as a member of a farming family, Mierisch has ulterior motives beyond getting peoples’ hands onto the roasting machines themselves. As a parallel, rather high-concept endeavor, Mierisch held a coffee auction last year that he called the 5 Manzana Initiative, gathering 10 small farmers from Honduras and Nicaragua to make their coffee more accessible to small, specialty roasters. Local roasters like Irving Farm and Café Grumpy were among the winning bidders of small lots of coffee from award-winning farms that they might otherwise not have been able to purchase.
Mierisch sees this as just part of making the farm-to-cup process more accessible to coffee people at all levels of developing the roasting side of their business. While Pulley Collective members currently buy their own coffee, events like 5 Manzana will allow Mierisch to use his farming connections to highlight microregions worldwide that smaller-volume roasters, the size of folks like Parlor, might not otherwise have access to.
And though everyone currently signed up to Pulley already knows how to roast, and in broader terms, how they’d like to roast, the business will soon open up to people with larger need of knowledge, and smaller need of volume. Mierisch has plans to introduce hourly memberships, which will include guidance through the roasting process. And beyond the obvious perfect fit of the space for events (it looks like it’s ready for a dance party, and Mierisch plans to host visiting coffee producers here as they strive to connect directly with the local community), Mierisch sees it as a perfect place for education.
“I’d like to create a venue where coffee professionals from anywhere in the world can give a class here and invite the local community to come. It’ll be more of a venue than a school,” says Mierisch, perched with his characteristic informality at the fireside, a fresh-brewed Chemex in hand, under the light of a vintage chandelier, the methodical sounds of fresh roasted coffee being packed and sealed a few yards away.
Yes. We can see the future of coffee, here, too.
See more from behind the scenes at Pulley Collective here.