Rowan Tuckfield has the intensity of a well-caffeinated man. When the owner of Kitten Coffee, a wholesale coffee distributor and barista school, speaks about the endless quest for the perfect cuppa joe, he gets a mad scientist look in his eye.
“You can’t buy a book about roasting,” he says, gesturing emphatically with coffee-stained fingers. “It’s a black art. Scientists are still discovering new, volatile aromatics that can be brought out in the flavor.” I’m no chemist, but I get his point: Every cup of coffee is a bit of a mystery.
When he moved to New York from Melbourne, Australia six years ago, Tuckfield found even the most revered coffee in the city a little disappointing. “This is the best city in the world,” he says. “There’s no reason the coffee shouldn’t be the best in the world.”
The way he figured it, the problem was New York’s baristas. “In Melbourne, there are four barista schools, one of which is government-owned.” Kitten Coffee, which he started in November 2007, was the city’s first.
The business model is simple: In addition to selling single bags of coffee through their website, restaurants and cafes hire Kitten to train their staff in the fundamentals of good coffee—as Tuckfield puts it, “the 3 Ts: time, temperature, and taste.” They also roast and provide their customers with 100% Rainforest Alliance-certified beans, and supply and maintain the customers’ coffee-making equipment.
But it’s the barista training that Tuckfield credits with giving his clients’ establishments (including, in our area, Sweetwater and Moto) the kind of coffee he’s proud to call his own. “Everyone now is obsessed with machinery,” he says. “But coffee is only as good as the guy working the machine. It’s at most 25% beans, at most 25% machine, and at least 50% barista. When we supply machines to people, we cut the wires to the automatic buttons.”
And Tuckfield will be the first to tell you that New York has seen a coffee renaissance in the few years since he set up shop. “What’s great about New York is that what would take Europe ten years to change takes New York three.”
187 Skillman Street