At Sweetleaf, Coffee Geeks Provide Precision in a Mug

Every day is Sabbath for these baristas — and they recommend it black.

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From the crowded sidewalk outside, Sweetleaf might look at first like a regular coffee shop. A coffee shop with nice enough equipment, as you squint through the windows. Fancy beans lining the shelves.

But what you’re not seeing — or hearing, amid the clatter of coffee being ground, or the guttural whir of milk being steamed to a tight, sweet-smooth foam — are the quiet machinations of delicious, geeky science, measured out to the gram.

Step inside and, from the equipment — the Strada, the fully programmable Fetco batch drip coffee brewer, the Hario V60 manual pour-over drippers displayed prominently on the front bar on top of brewing scales — to the space itself — a mixed-use café and open-concept office collaboration with realtors Modern Spaces — you’ll know with the first sweep of your eye that this shop is up to something different.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more detail-oriented café in the borough than Sweetleaf. While it’s delightfully easy nowadays to find a high-quality coffee shop almost anywhere in Brooklyn, not one of them takes its preparation to quite the measured extremes.

And we do mean measured: Does your barista weigh each and every shot of espresso, both in dry grounds and as it extracts into the cup? Does the person making your pour-over have a three-phase water-pouring technique, with unique patterns for different phases? Can they make you a coffee while still carrying on a conversation politely but have to pause awkwardly from time to time to watch a timer or scale?

At Sweetleaf, the answer to all of these is yes.

Photographs: Vicky Wasik

Sweetleaf began as a microscopically small coffee bar with big ambitions across the creek in Long Island City in 2008. First, there are the roasters they feature beans from — Brooklyn’s own Stumptown staple offerings are complemented by a rotating cast of progressive West Coast roasteries like Portland’s Heart and San Francisco’s Ritual, which took specialty coffee roasts, already lighter than what most American consumers were used to, several shades lighter.

And then there’s the gear. When Sweetleaf ’s North 6th Street café opened in 2012, they introduced a brand new La Marzocco Strada EP machine that allows for digitally programmable, meticulously profiled espresso shots, all in a sleek shiny package that looks more like a motorcycle or rocket ship than something you’d brew coffee on.

It’s an ambitious store built out of love and inspiration for the coffee craft. Rich Nieto, who opened the original Sweetleaf with a partner no longer in the picture, fell in love with coffee from the barista side — and has never looked back. With a background in international wholesale, he entered the business thinking he’d trade in coffee. Then he got his hands on the controls of an espresso machine. “I fell head over heels in love with it and thought, ‘I don’t give a shit about trading coffee, I want to MAKE coffee.’”

But does being über-nerdy and measuring everything just short of each breath the barista takes truly add up to something superior in the cup? Does being more technical make you more truly innovative, or does it take away from the human element of the craft?

To barista Christian Mbassa, who’s worked there since 2011, it’s imperative that both craft and precision work together. “Measurement is not for the fun of it; it’s [for] consistency, quality,” says Mbassa slowly, hot water kettle in hand, eyes fixed on a bed of Burundian single-origin coffee grounds to make sure he poured evenly, and at the right pace, into the Japanese filter cone through which it was brewing while he spoke.

“I think that in the past two, three years we’ve done so well because we let coffee speak to us,” continues Mbassa, explaining the staff meetings — he calls them workshops — to determine myriad factors in how each new coffee they bring on will be prepared. The grind setting and temperature at which each coffee is extracted can greatly affect the flavor coming out — and as a team, Mbassa, Nieto and the Sweetleaf staff decide which flavors they’ll want best to express, and how, and create brewing specs unique to each offering.

This isn’t unheard-of terrain for a high-end café at all, but few will go so far as to suggest which offerings shouldn’t even be served with milk, or which should only be, based on the profiles they think are best.

“Obviously we have our methods,” Mbassa says, instinctively wrapping his hands around the gram scale onto which he’s just brewed my coffee, “but we can literally change from one method to the other based on what comes to us. People ask me what are our specs for this or that brewing method, and I say, ‘I’ll let the coffee talk to me.’ Every single coffee that’s put out here, it has to taste like nothing else out there.”

The strict adherence to measurement and keeping parameters in line — like water quality, time, temperature, grind and dose of coffee — and constantly benchmarking their carefully extracted coffees and espresso shots to make sure they’re performing with consistency are part of a slow-blooming trend that Sweetleaf adopted early.

“A lot of people have started to do some of the things that we’ve been doing for the last five years,” says Nieto, looking out onto pedestrian-crowded North 6th. (During the summer, when flocks of Williamsburg residents and tourists alike trek back and forth past the shop en route to the East River Ferry, state park or Smorgasburg, the sidewalk is even more clogged with coffee-craving people.)

“Things like weighing espresso grounds — basically I find espresso to be the most difficult way of brewing coffee,” continues Nieto. What makes it so difficult is that it is basically coffee magnified 10 times. When you’re serving, you basically have no room for error, and when I first was a barista back in 2008 I had a lot of frustration,” says the café owner, citing repeatability and consistency — wanting the cup to come out the right way every time — as his most elusive goals.

It wasn’t until Nieto began talking to true coffee engineers and experimenters, like author and measurement-obsessed coffee consultant Scott Rao, or Rochester-based engineer Andy Schecter, that he began to understand the potential for, well, science, to provide the freedom and beauty for coffee’s craft to flourish.

And where Nieto and his impassioned staff like Mbassa place the bottom line is easy: the customer. It’s the dedication to delicious, reproducible results that keep the focus on providing each customer his or her money’s worth, and his or her memorable — and hopefully enlightening — coffee experience.

“We put ourselves in the customers’ shoes,” says Mbassa. “I don’t care how much money you’re giving me as far as tips, you’ll make my day when you walk out happy.”

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And while their mission might seem meticulous, it isn’t about training customers to enjoy hardcore, geek-palate-calibrated shots and filter coffees taken plainly on their own (without the sugar and milk that may obscure those nuanced flavor “notes”—unless, of course, they prefer them that way). Nieto and crew offer signature drinks with their own twists on classics: the Voodoo Child New Orleans–style cold brew, or their Vietnamese-inspired iced coffee. Nieto also promises another cold drink for the warmer seasons this year: a “very caffeinated” chocolate–cold brew concoction he’ll call “The Beast.”

But doesn’t it contravene coffee-snob logic to measure the finest coffees to exacting perfection and then sully them with chocolate or chicory or cream? Nieto doesn’t think so — and if you like those things, why wouldn’t you want them built upon the best possible base, like an absolutely perfectly extracted coffee? Isn’t it possible that certain delicious other ingredients might actually (gasp) sometimes make a coffee taste even better?

“Imagine if you ordered a hamburger and you said, ‘Where is the bun?’ And they said ‘No, it’s great like that. It’s just perfect on its own.’” He pauses. “It’s ridiculous.”

For its next act, Sweetleaf will embark on the adventure of craft roasting, having already begun trial roasting at an undisclosed location. Plans for 2014 include moving into their own roasting facility, fitted out with a Joper roaster — a state-of-the-art machine built in Portugal that will allow Nieto all the precision and tight-ship specification he desires.

Nieto will have full control over the final flavor of each batch of coffee Sweetleaf roasts. Through careful tasting and experimentation, he can program the Joper to attenuate each roast to an exact outcome. That’s that repeatability of deliciousness Nieto’s been talking about all along.

“What I liked about this machine, too, was the programming software, which is the same reason why I buy Stradas, because the EP model is programmable, and all the profiles on the machines are profiles I’ve recorded onto the machine, and that’s what the baristas use to pull shots,” he explains enthusiastically.

In the end, Nieto’s vision is to come as close as he can to controlling as many variables as he can — other than those at the farm level — to ensure a coffee he brings in is given exactly the stable, nurturing environment it needs to live up to its fullest expression of flavor. And it’s in this meeting of precision and passion that Sweetleaf imparts its own mark of craftsmanship.

“Being able to choose the green coffees, roast them on a profile that I’ve put there for each different coffee, and then being able to then have control over the machines that we brew drip coffee on and the espresso machine that we pull shots on,” Nieto pauses, and smiles — “it really puts everything in our hands.”

Find out more: For an interview with the author about the intersection of craft and tech in New York’s fourth-wave brew boom, click here.

Photo Credit:  Vicky Wasik

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Liz Clayton is a writer and photographer living in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. She is co-author of a world guide to the best coffee places to be published by Phaidon in July, 2017.