Every morning, bleary-eyed New Yorkers line up to spend $2, maybe $3 on coffee at bodegas and street carts. Even if people Starbucks, or one of the city’s smaller, sophisticated shops, they’re likely to top out at about $5 for a caffeine fix.
But at the East Village Japanese café Hi-Collar, one type of coffee — the Aguadulce brew from the Colombian importer and roaster Devoción — starts at $10, and goes up to $12.60, if you’d like it brewed via siphon. (It’s part of a temporary takeover at the café that will last until mid-September.) The arrival of a $10 cup of coffee in New York is not exactly unprecedented, but still: What’s the deal? Is this, like the $2,000 omelet and a $185 sando, a marketing stunt that also manages to take advantage of people with more money than sense, or can a single cup of coffee really be worth the same amount of money as a month of Apple Music?
Turns out, there’s an inordinate amount of care given to the coffee at every step of production. Here’s how it breaks down:
All of Devoción’s coffee comes from Colombia, a country with 500,00 coffee farmers who, understandably, tend to prefer the most resilient varieties of the plant. But the caturra, the type of coffee that is used in the Aguadulce coffee, has issues.
“Caturra was popular in the ’70s and early ’80s,” says Miguel Gómez, an associate professor at Cornell’s School of Applied Economics and Management, who grew up in a Colombian coffee–growing family and has co-authored several studies about the industry. “Then we started having problems with leaf rust and other diseases. Caturra was replaced in the market with varieties that are hardier.”
Gómez estimates that only about 8 to 12 percent of the Colombian beans grown today are caturra, which requires shade, a high amount of nutrients, and regular tending to ensure disease doesn’t take hold. In order to grow the rarer varietals, Devoción’s “sustainability department” often gives beans to farmers and instructs them on how to tend the plants. Lorena Horta and her husband Farid Cuellar were already raising caturra along with other coffee strains as well as bananas and mandarins at their farm, named El Berlin, located outside of Venecia.
Altitude is also a key component of coffee farming, and El Berlin is 1,850 meters above sea level. “The higher the coffee, the sweeter it is,” explains Devoción’s Jonathan Dreszer, the company’s chief marketing officer who also oversaw the development of the Aguadulce coffee. Professor Gómez notes that, as a result of climate change, growers are climbing farther up the mountains in search of a cooler climate, and many farms at a higher elevations can only be reached by horse.
The caturra plants used for Aguadulce needed a little over six months before the fruit ripened. At harvest time, El Berlin’s workers picked beans off the plants by hand.
To turn the fruit’s seeds into usable coffee, Devoción asked Horta to take a chance on what’s known as the honey process, which involves no actual honey, but does require close attention as beans ferment and dry for days or weeks at a time. It was Horta’s first time using the process, which can be less reliable than more expedient methods. “If you mess up on the natural or honey process,” explains Devoción CEO Steven Sutton, “you’re going to say the beans are rotten, they’re bad, they’re over-fermented.” For farmers, it’s a big risk, because unsellable beans means no money. It would be inconceivable — and bad business — Sutton says, to suggest: “Go for it. Worst comes to worst you have no food.” So, Sutton says his team will usually agree in advance to buy the beans resulting from any experimental batch. After drying this particular coffee, Devoción trucked Horta’s experimental batch three and a half hours northeast to its “lab” in Bogotá to test the results.
The international price of coffee is about 0.88 cents per pound — so low that many Colombian farmers don’t earn back what it costs to produce. Why are coffee prices so low? The two largest coffee-growing countries in the world, Brazil and Vietnam, have advantages over Colombia, the third-largest producer. As professor Gómez explains, Brazil efficiently uses mechanization that farmers in the Andes mountains can’t utilize, while Vietnam has much cheaper labor.
Even well-meaning Fair Trade programs still base their premiums on the volatile prices of the commodities markets. Dreszer says Devoción pays farmers as much as three or four times as much as fair trade, which may be true. Not surprisingly, he stops short of quoting exact amounts. Try to find out the average price for a pound of Fair Trade coffee and you’ll tumble down a rabbit hole of good intentions and vague details.
In the last decade, Devoción has developed relationships with about 1,000 farmers. The agreements vary with each and Devoción team members occasionally encounter guerrillas in Colombian “red zones,” who want to know about the outsiders in their towns. Proving that they’re supporting the local community by buying coffee is usually enough for the local muscle to let them through.
When Dreszer first joined Devoción, about seven years ago, he was tasked with learning about the coffee cultivation firsthand and had an unnerving run-in during lunch with a farmer. “I sat down with five guys in a little garage,” he recalls. “I had no idea who they were. During the conversation, one of the guys calls me ‘gringo,’ slaps me and says: ‘Listen, why don’t you stay here with us?’” He soon realized they were guerillas, told a couple of jokes, did a shot with them and got out of there.
“Afterward, I’m in the car with our buyer at the time and I asked him if he knew they were guerrillas,” Dreszer continues. “He said, ‘Of course. But if I told you they were guerrillas you would have been shitting in your pants and we would have been in trouble.’”
Sutton says he doesn’t haggle with farmers because it can devolve into a disrespectful conversation. Farmers suggest a price, and his team either pays it or doesn’t: “Sometimes we’re able to buy at $50 a pound. Sometimes we’re able to buy at $5 a pound.” Asked if Horta’s honey-dried caturra beans cost more than average, Dreszer responds, “Not so much — a little more because of the process.”
After Lorena Horta’s first batch of honey-dried caturra arrived at Devoción’s Bogotá lab from the El Berlin farm, the beans were machine-milled to remove the parts of the fruit that remained on the bean. Then the team performed a series of small-batch roasting tests, trying to suss out the optimal heat combination to highlight the flavors. (The company roasts beans for the New York market at their Williamsburg café, but early tests are done in Bogotá.) For Aguadulce, the lab’s technicians settled on a medium light roast that takes 12 minutes per 25 kilos (roughly 55 pounds).
Around the same time, the lab also brewed the grounds with various techniques — pour-over, automatic drip, siphon, and espresso — to figure out which preparations worked best. Hi-Collar will prepare the Aguadulce with a siphon and Aeropress, but Dreszer recommends pour-over to fully taste the intended flavors.
Sutton makes a point to sell coffee that is no older than 30 days from the farm. He partners with FedEx to transport beans from Bogotá’s El Dorado Airport to FedEx’s hub at Memphis International Airport and then to New York City via overnight shipping, a budget item that most coffee roasters don’t have. From there, the beans are motored over to Devoción’s headquarters at 69 Grand Street in Williamsburg.
The first thing anyone sees at Devoción’s café on Grand Street is a Probat roaster, with an iron drum that toasts 25 kilos of beans per batch. Computer-connected sensors record the temperature of the roasting process, so it can be duplicated or corrected in future batches.
Devoción’s process if fairly straightforward when compared to other local roasters. In Astoria, Mighty Oak is one of the only local roasters that uses wood to heat the beans. Roasting Plant on the Lower East Side has a roast-to-order Javabot. Parlor Coffee, located down the street from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, has a 50-year-old Probat roaster that was purchased online from a shady salesman in Germany.
Hi-Collar’s café is not really a place you drop in with your laptop to kill an hour. The 13 stools are lined up along the bar, which resembles a Japanese kissaten, and if you tell the barista you’re waiting to meet someone, she’ll ask how long they’ll be.
Your $10.20 cup of Aguadulce coffee, brewed via a manual pour-over, won’t arrive on a gold plate with streamers. You’ll also want to avoid adding milk and sugar, because the coffee’s flavor is smooth enough to not require them. (Devoción’s tasting notes indicate you should pick up hints of cacao, stone fruit, and peanut brittle.)
Is it worth a full $10 (plus tip)? That depends on how much you value the obvious care that goes into every step of the coffee-making process, of course. Even if you are a fan, it’s probably not an every day kind of coffee experience, but look at it this way: A Devoción coffee at Eleven Madison Park costs a whopping $24, so $10 could even be viewed as something of a discount — and you don’t need to make a reservation three months out to try it.