Remember 15 years ago when Starbucks was seen as the “good” place to get coffee? We’ve all gotten wise since to their processed, sugary drinks, plastic-y decor, and mediocre flavor profiles.
There’s a real hunger out there for the kind of coffee shop that feels like a little community, with organic, fair trade beans that are roasted right on the premises and poured in a real cup for you to enjoy slowly while you read the paper. And you might find what you’re looking for at Toby’s Estate, a café right around the corner from the L Bedford stop in Williamsburg.
Opened in January of 2012, it’s one of those places where–instead of finding harried office workers gulping down a venti, or basic bitches slurping up whatever seasonal flavored concoction Starbucks has to offer–you find people taking a single-origin coffee over to a table with a friend to talk, hang out, interview, have a date, discuss business matters, or brainstorm. The space is the very definition of light-filled: on a hot summer’s day you might even want to shift to a seat more in the shade. There’s plenty of seating and enough space for you to park yourself with a computer and get work done without pissing anyone off.
I first discovered Toby’s Estate when Rachel of Helpsy invited me there for a, “We both like sustainable fashion” chat. Toby’s Williamsburg location is an offshoot of what until now had been an exclusively Australian brand by coffee nerd Toby Smith, who started the company in his mom’s garage after a year of traveling the world working on coffee farms. I wanted to find out if Toby’s is the real deal, so I stopped in on a weekday to get a tour from the manager, Joe.
First, Joe showed me how the roaster worked, which sits right out in plain view by the coffee counter. It’s big: 25 kilos. They pour 50 pounds of green nuts into the top, which are heated up to about 450 degrees Fahrenheit, turning from green to yellow to brown during 12 or 13 minutes of roasting. Once they’re done, they drop out of the hatch into the cooling tray. Farmers come in and take the extra chaff away to use as chicken bedding.
“We serve our own roasted coffee, so we have a lot of control over the quality of the final product,” Joe told me. And here’s a good tip: “You want to start using coffee beans about a couple days after they’ve been roasted, that’s when they’re freshest and you get all the sweetness and flavor notes coming through.” They only keep coffee for two weeks after it’s been roasted for this very reason.
The coffee comes from all over the world–Ethiopian heirlooms, Columbia, Rwanda, Bolivia and Kenya. A mini roaster in the back lets them test out 100-gram samples of coffee they are thinking about buying.
Toby’s Estate works closely with the producers, visiting the farms to see how they are run, and fostering a direct, fair trade relationship . “The farmers that we work with are good reputably. We’re always in search of new farmers. There is a vetting process,” Joe told me. “You can’t always find perfect farmers, but it’s working with farmers to help them realize they can change their ways and make it more sustainable.”
He brought up one farm, the Caballeros, from Honduras. “They run a really impressive sustainability program out there,” Joe told me. One of the biggest waste and pollution sources at a coffee farm is the cherry pulp. If left to wash into the water system, the high nutrients can pollute the water and choke the fish. The Caballeros take the coffee cherry pulp and mix it with manure and use it as organic fertilizer. They also grow natural vegetative barriers to keep nutrients from the fertilizer from going into the water system and killing the fish. After the cherry comes off, the husk comes off as well. They reuse that husk to heat the dryers. And the farm donated part of their land to set up a school that they’ve been running at their own expense. At the beginning of the year, Toby’s Estate donated proceeds from the sale of coffee from that farm back to help run the school.
As for the coffee being organic? While some of the coffee coming in is organic, because Toby’s Estate stores it all together, they’re not allowed to advertise it as organic. “Many farms are functionally organic, but because the certification is so expensive and time consuming, it’s not a priority for the farmers,” Joe said. Which sounds exactly like many of the farmers at our own Union Square farmer’s market.
Check out Toby’s Estate at 125 North 6th Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or at its new Flatiron location, 160 5th Avenue at 21st street. Or order some of their single origin and blend coffees from the website.