By Brian P.J. Cronin
Walk into Coffee Labs Roasters in Tarrytown for the first time and you may find yourself wondering where all the popcorn is. But despite the heavy aroma of Jiffy Pop over a summer campfire, there’s no popcorn at the coffee shop, and as you wait in line for your latte the smell segues into chocolate, then oak, then a gentle breeze of cherries.
That sequence of smells is the telltale sign that green coffee beans are being freshly roasted nearby. If you’re curious about how the process works, pull up a chair. The store’s roaster isn’t in a back room or behind the counter, it’s right in the seating area, roasting up an average of 1,400 pounds of coffee a week in 20-pound batches that then get cooled, dried for a day, and then within another 24 hours are ground for immediate use in-house or packaged and shipped out the door to bakeries, restaurants and other coffee shops throughout the Hudson Valley. At Coffee Labs Roasters, the only things that sit around all day are the customers.
Despite the frantic pace of the business and the fact that it involves routinely ingesting large amounts of caffeine, head roaster and Coffee Labs co-owner Mike Love is remarkably laid back, giving off an aura that’s more mellow surfer than jittery barista. “It’s the vibe that comes with doing something for yourself, and being really satisfied,” he says.
That’s a different vibe than the one he had while working as a chef. No matter how much care he put into his food, there was always one part of the dining experience that was out of his hands. “For the most part, coffee in restaurants is really horrible,” he says. “Pre-ground, under-dosed, and not prepared correctly. And it’s the last thing you have at the meal, the last thing you’re going to remember! Diners would say to me, ‘Every- thing was great! Dessert was great! The coffee sucked.’”
One good thing did come out of his years in the restaurant business: that’s where he met his now wife and business partner, Alicia. Like Mike, Alicia was frustrated with working in restaurants and the lackluster quality of their coffee. While getting her master’s degree in guidance and counseling, she worked to build a community center in Costa Rica and learned firsthand how integral coffee farming is to the economies of so many villages throughout Central and South Americas. The Loves founded Coffee Labs Roasters as a way of not only giving themselves some control over their livelihoods, but as a way of supporting small rural economies, educating consumers and giving restaurants the opportunity to put the same care into their coffee that they put into the rest of their service. “Most people just brew a pot of coffee and they’re done,” says Mike. “We’re the last line of defense for those farmers. All their hard work ends up in our hands, and it’s our job to serve it correctly to you.”
The Loves currently buy the majority of their coffee from nine farms throughout the Americas, and Mike spends about three months out of the year traveling to and from those farms. “It’s a good feeling to have that ongoing, shared experience with those farmers,” he says. “The core of our business is being able to interact with them and making sure they have a guaranteed income for five years. Within the Hudson Valley, there’s only a handful of roasters that actually go down and source the coffee themselves. And when I say ‘handful,’ I mean, like, three of us.”
Having those close relationships means that Mike can work with the farmers to try different things during the growing and fermenting process, and the farmers don’t have to worry what happens if the experiments fail. “I commit to buying those experimental bags in advance,” he says. “If it turns out like crap and it’s not even worth ship- ping, then I’ll eat it. But it’s a way for all of us to keep pushing the envelope.”
That spirit of experimentation carries on the Loves’ collaborations that take place closer to home. They’ve worked with local brewers such as Sloop Brewery in Elizaville, Mill House Brewing Company in Poughkeepsie and Peekskill Brewery to create hearty stouts and hoppy I.P.A.s made with their beans. They created an exclusive “Mount Beacon Roast” for Bank Square Coffeehouse in Beacon to help power hikers up the blend’s namesake peak. And they’re currently collaborating with Taconic Distillery in Stanfordville to create…well, Mike’s not exactly sure yet. But the distillery dropped off a rum and rye barrel, which still had some rum in it, for the Loves to fill with green coffee beans. The barrel is currently sitting next to the roaster, absorbing the aromatics. Mike continu￼￼￼ously opens a small hole in the barrel to analyze the batch’s moisture content; when he does, the room is filled with the scents of warm vanilla and cool grass in the evening. “When it’s ready we’re going to roast it, cold brew it, serve some of the cold brew here and give the rest back to Taconic so that they can blend it with whiskey and put it back in this barrel to age.”
Mike says he’s never heard of coffee and whiskey being mixed like this. Which leads to the question: If this has never been done before, how will he know when the beans are ready to come out of the barrel?
“That’s a good question,” he says with a mischievous grin. He has no idea. And he couldn’t be more excited.
For more information about Coffee Labs Roasters, visit their website at www.coffeelabs.com.