Stephen Rogers got his start in coffee in Cincinnati and roasted with Intelligentsia and Stumptown before leaving to help industry leader Marty Curtis refurbish roasters. In 2010, Variety Cafe in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, lured him back behind the bar. We recently discussed coffee while he pulled shots of single-origin Stumptown espresso for customers.
So you were saying that your approach is to show a range of flavor profiles?
Yeah, I mean, to me coffee is so much more than what people allow it to be. Being isolated at Intelligentsia and Stumptown, with quality coffee, behind the scenes for so long, it’s nice to be here sharing the knowledge that I’ve gained over the years with the consumer to make sure that they understand what coffee can be, instead of just caffeine, or just a darker roasted, sugar taste.
Is that why you decided to step out from behind the roaster?
It’s why I’m doing what I’m doing now, so I can get perspective. I plan on roasting coffee again one day. For now, it’s nice to take a few steps back from where you’ve been and then go back to that point with a new perspective. 12 years ago, when I started as a barista, I wasn’t thinking about what I’m thinking about today when I make espresso.
12 years is a good stretch to work with coffee. What continues to inspire you about coffee?
The never ending, changing flavors. Every day, the espresso might taste different, so it’s my goal to make it taste good every time. You might come in tomorrow and get a different tasting shot of the same espresso, but it’s my job to make sure that I’m giving you what I think is the best this coffee can be today. One day when it’s hot, coffee acts a little different. The next day when it’s cold, the coffee acts a little different. That goes for baristas having to make adjustments, roasters having to make adjustments. Weather effects every part of the chain, more so on the farmer side, but you have to focus on the task at hand all day long. It’s not like, okay, I found a good tasting espresso, and it’s going to be like this the rest of the day. I need to taste it now and then throughout the day to make sure I’m continuing to make a great tasting shot of espresso. With slight variation, it could be a very dry finish espresso, and I don’t want that, I want it to finish sweet, where you ask for another one.
What other brew methods do you offer?
We offer French press, cold brewed coffee and espresso based drinks.
If it isn’t already, what will it take to make New York City a great coffee scene?
I think it is already. San Francisco and New York are the hottest spots in the U.S. for coffee, currently, and there’s a lot of movement, a lot of people coming into New York. As long as people order what they enjoy drinking, coffee will benefit, and you will separate lower quality coffee from higher quality coffee by choosing what tastes good. As long as people support things that taste good, then the coffee scene in New York is doing a good job for coffee. If people go to a place because of the name, because of branding, because they serve this, or they serve that, and the drinks don’t taste good, what are you telling the shop that’s making a poor quality drink? If you focus on shops that make high quality drinks, then you’ll see what people like, what people are into, and then be able to go from there. I deal with a lot of people wanting dark roasted coffee, and we don’t have dark roasted coffee, so I’m trying to figure out what it is. The extra caramelization of sugars? The lack of nuance? What is it about a straightforward cup of coffee they want, because what we’re telling the farmers is that people want a highly nuanced coffee, and like the acidity and want the florals and the rare varietals, things like that. But if we’re not really selling it, or people only want dark roasted coffee, they don’t want these boutique coffees, then why should we encourage the farmer to continue? Or if we want to blend all our coffee away, to where it’s obscured in a blend, and lost in homogenization of coffee, then we should tell the farmer that, and they can do less work.
You don’t carry any blends?
Due to the fact of Stumptown branding Hairbender, they have too many requests for Hairbender, but I offer other espressos. Every person that buys Hairbender, I tell them the coffee is great, but to get the same roast level that they enjoy out of some single-origin coffees, or what the specialty market is striving for after telling your farmers to separate all your coffees, why the hell would you blend it back together?
How much value do you see in grading coffee on a 100-point scale?
The 100-point scale for coffee, for green coffee in communicating an international level with farmers and roasters and getting true feedback, back and forth, I think it’s valid and has its place. Once somebody buys a coffee from a farmer and once there’s a premium price set, and it’s rewarded for its quality, and then a roaster has it, I don’t think it has a place. I don’t need to know that the coffee I served scored a 97. I need to know that if it scored an 84 or 97, it’s going to taste the best that it can that day. If I serve a coffee that scored a 96 and brew it wrong, and it tastes like shit, people are like, “Okay, this is a 96 coffee?” So when they take that first sip, “This is 96. This is some of the best coffee out there.” If you happen to brew it wrong, or say there’s a bad bean in the small amount you weigh out to brew, now you’re telling them this is quality is quality coffee. It becomes confusing, even if you have four different coffees to offer. This one’s a 96, I don’t mention the score on these others, and I like this other one better, maybe I don’t like high grade coffee. It does start to confuse people. It’s more important to do the best you can with the coffee you have, then if everyone’s doing that, we will have better coffee everywhere. I don’t strive for a perfect roast. I don’t strive for a perfect shot. I want really good coffee. It might not be perfect. I might get a better shot tomorrow. I don’t want to say that yesterday’s espresso is the best I’ve ever had, because I’m not counting out tomorrow.
What do you think makes the New York coffee scene unique?
Everybody’s coming. You’ve got shops with Intelligentsia, Stumptown, Counter Culture; George Howell’s around with Terroir Coffee. He does an exquisite job with his coffee, so you get to see different views of similar coffees. What we need is for some of the people on the New York coffee scene, and some of the people who roast coffee, made a buy-in group in the Cup of Excellence or something like that, and have the same coffee at every coffee roaster in New York, all doing it how they think it tastes best. However many people are in that buy-in group, you would have that many different tasting coffees, because they all have a different view of what’s good. So if Café Grumpy’s making their coffee where they think it’s delicious, Stumptown’s doing the same, Ecco, Intelligentsia, whoever it is, if they’re doing the best they think, that’s one product right there. If you take the same coffee, and you can make it taste completely different, via your focus. I want to focus on a nice chocolate body. I want to focus on the floral. I want to capture the acidity. What is your main focus? And then you can start seeing the excitement for the coffee, the excitement for the ever-changing nature of coffee, because you can start the same and get 20 different tasting cups. The way you brew it, I can take one roast of coffee and brew five shots that would taste a little different.
Speaking of brewing methods, do you have a preferred brewing method at home?
French press. I’ve French pressed for so long, I evaluate coffee through one method. Whatever coffee I’m tasting, I know the way I way it out and take the temperature of the water and try to do the same routine, the same ritual, every morning. That way, the same approach, I can see the difference in the coffee.
Do you feel like you have any mentors?
I’d like to learn more from George Howell. For coffee roasting, I think he is focused on bringout out the essence of the coffee. A lot of people are, but he’s been there for 30 + years.
Have you worked with him before?
I haven’t. I haven’t even met the man, but I know what he’s been doing with the Cup of Excellence. I’ve worked with the coffees that come from that program, and heard what he does, and the scientific approach that he’s taken to it, it’s really nice. He’s into freezing green coffee and things like that so you can really see how coffee changes in different environments.
Do you feel like there’s a moment when you knew you’d work with coffee your whole life?
It would have to be when I started roasting for Intelligentsia. There was so much to learn, how coffee reacts to heat, and it’s the same as cooking. You’re creating flavor, always trying to capture the story that the coffee’s trying to tell. Rwandan coffee’s beautiful. Sure you’ve got different things fighting against you: potato defects, coffee bore, coffee bean being held at the port too long so you don’t see the coffee for six months.