“When I talk about coffee to people, I talk in terms of it being like good bread, good cheese and good wine. If you’ve got those and then you throw in good coffee, you don’t have a lot to complain about.”
Rowan Tuckfield is making me a macchiato in the industrial work space that is Kitten Coffee and trying to answer my near impossible question: why do people like coffee? In the middle of the room, a red roaster is parked next to a motorcycle. Roasters look like train engines (think ‘The Little Engine that Could’) and its cheery presence is kept company by a small, three-wheeled vehicle reminiscent of an ice cream truck—this is the Kitten Coffee delivery lorry. Espresso machines gleam along the walls where I stand watching Rowan grind, tamp and pull multiple shots of espresso that he samples . . . and then dumps into the sink.
k“Coffee should taste as good as it smells,” he says in a lilting Australian accent. He grinds, tamps and pulls two more shots into the glass tumblers. The espresso swirls richly, like a Guinness from the tap, and forms an incredibly thick head of crema. These shots are keepers. These look as good as they smell. Rowan adds some steamed milk, a dab of milk foam and hands me the macchiato, suggesting I add a bit of sugar. When I take a sip, the flavors fill my mouth immediately and completely.
‘GOOD!’ flashes in my brain in yellow Schoolhouse Rock letters. I don’t really have vocabulary for describing coffee. It’s thick, it’s creamy, it’s a little bitter, earthy, mellow; I would maybe add a touch more milk. I take another sip. ‘GOOD!’ Rowan takes a sip of his own espresso.
“It’s alright,” he says approvingly.
“It’s good?” I ask.
“It’s never perfect.”
You first came to New York in 2003. What made you leave Australia to set up shop in Brooklyn?
New York is the most amazing city in the world, but I saw that the coffee wasn’t anywhere as near as good as it should have been. I couldn’t understand it. People take food really seriously here, but somehow coffee had just slipped through the net. I wanted to live here so, what better way than to find something missing—something so fundamental and wonderful—and do it.
What is your coffee drink of choice?
In the morning at home, it’s filter coffee. When we run out of filters, I use the Bioretti. I drink espresso every day at work, just to taste it, to keep track of it. That’s it. I’ll freely admit to keeping a pack of Bustelo in the freezer. What do they say? Cobbler’s children have the worst shoes?
Could you drink a cup of coffee from Starbucks?
Oh, I have and I would and I will. I think there is a time and a place for Starbucks. Any coffee is better than no coffee.
Why do you run multiple shots of espresso through the filter before pulling an espresso that you’ll drink?
The ideal cup of coffee is going to come from a well seasoned filter and basket that’s coated with beautiful rich coffee oils. It’s a nuance. We teach people to run at least three to four shots through a filter before you serve the customer. The best barista I know, she wouldn’t drink a coffee out of a machine until she had served the customers at least thirty, no joke. She makes nice coffee.
Have you ever had a perfect cup of coffee?
Instant coffee out of a tin mug on top of a mountain when I was thirteen years old. One of the first things I ask my students is, “Tell us about the very best coffee you’ve ever had, in your entire life.” For ninety percent of them, it had nothing to do with the coffee—it was where they were and what they were doing. That’s what makes it memorable.
So, a memorable cup of coffee has a lot to do with ambiance?
It’s really important. There’s no better way to ruin really good whiskey than to have it served to you by an ass. You can’t enjoy it. Whereas, well whiskey served to you by somebody who is really an extraordinary bartender… ‘Eh. Tastes alright.’
Is that something you emphasize in Barista Training?
We tell them, “Don’t forget you’re in the hospitality industry.” A good barista smiles and engages with the customer. Getting to know your barista is a really lovely thing. A very successful café-cum-bar-cum- restaurant owner once said to me, “You gotta remember, Rowan, people aren’t coming into the café for the coffee. They’re coming for half an hour of pleasure.” Coffee is pivotal to that but it’s only one piece of the puzzle.
Is that why you provide the free Barista Training for your customers?
Yes. You can have the best roaster in the world, the best machinery in the world, but you need someone driving it, someone who knows what a really good coffee tastes like. Our fate is in the hands of the barista.
What does ‘dialing in the sweet spot’ mean?
There’s a sweet spot in every coffee—if you run the right amount of water for the right amount of time, you can catch it. For instance, if you run more than one ounce of water through seven grams of coffee for thirty seconds, or for longer than thirty seconds, you’re going to start pulling some disgusting flavors. A good barista can calibrate the coffee’s sweet spot and follow it around during the day as the beans expand, contract. It’s called ‘dialing it in’—a good barista can dial it in.
Do you think the study and appreciation of coffee is comparable to that of wine?
If you want to become a sommelier, you can buy books, go to university and get a graduate degree in winemaking. With coffee, there are two books, no coffee roasting schools and no formalized body of knowledge. It’s probably directly comparable in many respects but, we’re just beginning to learn about it.
What suggestions would you give to the average person who wants to brew a good cup of coffee at home?
Use freshly ground fresh coffee. Store it in an opaque airtight container in a cool dark place. If you keep air, light and heat away from your coffee, you will always end up with a much better cup. If you want espresso, go see someone with a ten thousand dollar machine who’s been making five hundred really good coffees every day for the past ten years.
What’s your favorite non-coffee drink?
I’m a bourbon-with-a-beer-back man. I’m very happy to enjoy good ol’ Jack Daniels. There are only two things missing from Brooklyn now, whiskey and cigars.
Kitten Coffee uses Rainforest Alliance certified beans, is a Carbon Neutral business and offers Barista Training classes to the public.
187 Skillman Street, (btn DeKald and Willoughby)
Brooklyn, NY. 11205