About five years ago, Blair Smith’s twice-a-day coffee pitstop at NYC’s Kaffe 1668 led to him striking up a friendship with barista Justin Rodriguez behind the counter. Smith then met mobile developer Aaron Sutula in a coffee seminar held by an espresso machine company. “I took a day off of work to go,” remembers Sutula. “And Blair was the only other person who also took a day off of work to be there. We had no business being there, other than we just thought it was interesting; they were all baristas or cafe owners or industry people.” Suffice to say: all three really, really like coffee—to the level that they felt compelled to start roasting their own in Brooklyn. Luft Coffee (a side project, as the trio balance their day jobs) is serving small-batch roasts to New Yorkers, with clean, minimalist packaging to match their lighthearted spirits.
“It was something we had joked about pretty early on, like, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we just started something?'” recalls Rodriguez on Luft’s beginnings. “And then I started roasting at Blue Bottle and became frustrated over time. I felt that I had ways to make things better, and it wasn’t being met with apathy, but being met with opposition.” Luft became a path to “creative expression on Justin’s part, from a roasting perspective, and an aesthetic for me to play with,” says Smith. “Aaron came into play here, helping us with photography, the website, introducing us to a designer.”
‘Luft’ evokes a feeling of floating clouds, and the German (and Swedish, Danish) speakers will know it translates to “air” in English—but like many small businesses can empathize, finding the right name turned out to be a drawn-out marathon. “I feel like there was a four-month period of time where we would hang out and only spitball names the whole time. You’d try to change the subject and it was always there: ‘What about Jungle Gym coffee?'” says Sutula. Lightning struck in the form of a friend’s Instagram account @onthebackfoot, a feed of vintage cycling pics—including more than few shots of old-school Euro-style caps (as opposed to the tightly fitting baseball caps favored today). “‘Luft’ expresses the way that these guys wear their caps perched up on their head—a lot of air in it,” says Smith. As the perfect coffee name, “It’s an homage to the lighter style of roasting and it also plays into the roasting process: hot air used to roast the coffee.”
“I think we’re trying to work with people doing something unique, in fields that aren’t necessarily 100% related to food and beverage,” says Smith. The cafe and restaurant scene is pretty competitive in NYC, and it’s a big gamble to stock such a tiny brand (though Luft impressively debuted at South Williamsburg restaurant Marlow & Sons last May via their guest roasting program). Instead, Luft is (literally) fueling start-ups like shared workspace/incubator Brass Factory, data visualizers CartoDB and the newly opened The Lot Radio, streaming music across the globe from a reclaimed shipping container. Partying pays off: Smith met Lloyd Harris aka Lloydski through his summer series Tiki Disco, who hosts the regular Lot Radio show “Dinner with Lloyd”—and now, the cups of Luft Coffee (along with tea, donuts and pastries) sold at the radio station’s kiosk keep it financially independent. It’s probably one of the few places in New York where you don’t see 15 laptops open with a coffee purchase, but instead, a DJ or live sets. “It’s exciting to do things with other people who are growing,” says Smith.
To the coffee itself: Luft roasts at the massive old Pfizer building, a hubbub of activity. Cadence is their blend, which at the moment is 50% Guatemala and 50% Ethiopia. “Cadence is like you’re in an even motion, so we thought that was an appropriate name for a blend of South American coffee and African coffee,” says Smith. “The Guatemala is a bit more well-rounded: chocolate-y, a little complex, a little hop-py but ultimately balanced. The Ethiopian component is more like floating on the top: floral, citric, a little more stone fruit, light chocolates as well. When you put them together, it’s grounded by the Guatemala and made interesting by the Ethiopia. It works well together,” describes Rodriguez. Luft also offers two single origins (farms in Antigua, Guatemala and Santa Barbara, Honduras) complete with muted pastel packaging. “We try not to make our coffees too heavy in any respect, but trying to find the balance between all of these experiences like mouthfeel, acidity, body and sweetness,” says Rodriguez.
The Lot Radio images courtesy of Nikki Cohen; all others courtesy Aaron Sutula