“Pungent, berry-toned, elegant, intense, exuberantly complex, lushly sweet, rich, long, impressive balance and structure”—these words have all been used to describe Willoughby’s coffee in various Coffee Review ratings over the years.
The language, variables in coffee growing, variations in finished styles and the importance of aroma all draw parallels to winemaking and microbrewing, each an artisan craft with purists and devotees in search of the perfect cup (or glass).
Willoughby’s co-owners (and co-founders) Barry Levine and Bob Williams believe in knowing where their coffee comes from, and that often means traveling straight to the source. Last February, for example, they headed to Costa Rica, to “cup” (taste) nearly 100 coffees, many of them exotic, premium varieties sought after by top U.S. roasters. They chose just six to sell in their stores here in Connecticut.
The coffee beans come from the pits of coffee cherries that grow on evergreen shrubs in countries located between the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer; Central America is their most frequent destination. Generally, the prime coffee-growing, tropic/sub-tropic nations of the world each produce just one main harvest every year, always an exciting time for the Willoughby’s co-owners. “Quality is the driving force behind our sourcing,” says Levine.
After nearly 30 years of traveling and coffee-brewing, Levine and Williams have become connoisseurs of the coffee world. They frequently judge “Cup of Excellence” coffee auctions in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama and Brazil, to name a few. “We’re not always looking for the same characteristics,” Levine says of their tasting approach. “For example, the Gachatha is extremely floral, whereas the Arabica is more traditional. Each has its own flavor at its peak.”
In addition to the various types of coffee fruits, a major flavor factor is that there are different ways to get from the raw coffee fruit to the dried coffee bean. With “washed” coffee, the fruity flesh is literally washed away until all that remains is the bean. Alternatively, the “natural process” lets the coffee fruit dry around the bean, which then absorbs more of the fruit’s flavor. Altitude and microclimate also play a role in the final character of the coffee bean.
With all these variables, Levine and Williams still find opportunities to taste up to 20 types of coffee with similar constants such as the varietal type and the cultivation process. To distinguish the standouts, they have a guiding philosophy: “We are always trying to find things that are exceptional,” Levine says. “We are always looking for the one with the finest intrinsic flavors…the best example among the bunch.”
Those beans than make their way to Willoughby’s four locations: two in New Haven, one in Branford, and one in Madison. The first store opened in 1985 next to Claire’s Corner Copia on Chapel Street (where Basta now stands), a coffee roaster front-and-center, freshly ground beans transported just a few steps to be brewed for a superbly fresh cup of coffee, which was a novel idea at the time. In 1991, Levine and Williams opened the Church Street location and soon outgrew their capacity to roast in-store, centralizing the process at a roasting plant in Branford—“but we never changed our freshness standards,” says Levine.
Properly roasting a coffee is a skill that can take years to perfect. Levine says their lead roaster has been with them almost 20 years, and he and Williams often help roast some of the “fussier coffees, to coax flavor nuances out of the beans by judicious application of heat and airflow.” They have two roasting machines and roast nearly every day. Personally, the owners prefer the lighter roasts, because it allows them to taste more delicate flavors, but those seeking a darker roast can certainly find what they’re looking for.
At the Church Street location on a busy Saturday afternoon in December, customers warm their hands around cups of the holiday coffee blend and specials like egg nog lattes with espresso shots, steamed apple cider, Mexican cocoa (with hints of vanilla, almond and spice) or Willoughby’s House blended teas, such as English Breakfast, Irish Breakfast and Russian Caravan, among many others.
Behind the counter, staff members Cameron, Chanelle and Isiah pack bags of fresh ground beans for customers, try to achieve the ideal froth on a cappuccino and dust and rearrange holiday displays, a seemingly seamless team eager to flash smiles and offer recommendations.
They’ve got a lot of practice at it. “We probably serve a couple thousand people a day,” Levine says of the store traffic. “We also have customers all over the world. Right now we are sending coffee to Afghanistan. We had a guy who worked for us in the 1990s and is now a Naval officer. He got his whole unit hooked on Willoughby’s. We talked the other day and we told him we were sending him a care package. No joke, he said when he told the crew, a cheer went up.”
Another glowing review.
Willoughby’s Coffee & Tea
258 Church Street, New Haven (map) – (203) 777-7400
194 York Street, New Haven (map) – (203) 789-8400
550 E. Main Street, Branford (map) – (203) 481-1700
752 Boston Post Road, Madison (map) – (203) 245-1600
Written and photographed by Jane Rushmore.