he real cool
the second in a three part series
The first time I saw him, I heard him. There was soul music playing from the raised bar. I assumed that it could only be coming from him, with a swag in his Black Sheep snapback; hair that coiled like those of us of color and skin smooth like a single origin coffee from the Yirgacheffe region of Ethiopia, fermented by the Ethiopian sun: rich.
Each time that I’ve visited the eight street location of Stumptown Coffee Roasters, it’s as if Stewy has been my regular, barista. Without him knowing it, his service from the bar exuded home. He commands the counter as if he’s just an ally between it and you. He’s tall, true but not towering. He’s an ambassador for coffee, speaking its language in a way that even a grade schooler could discern. It is this ease that I’ve come back to without him even knowing who I am. It is this ease and feeling that I’ve recommended my friends to join me at, for a cup of coffee, here at this particular location.
While a great cup of coffee has so many steps and isn’t the work of one, its final voice comes by one, the barista, whom the consumer will often meet first. Given that, Stewy is cool. Stewy is so cool that if there is a specialty coffee bubble to pop on diversity, it’s happening with him. Now in Conversation with Christopher Stewart.
c.: Where are you from?
s.: New Jersey. Hackensack.
s.: But New Jersey and New York aren’t the same. I can’t accept that honor of being a real New Yorker.
c.: What made you come to visit prior to moving here?
s.: From 2010-2015 I was coming to New York almost every week. First it was for partying. And, I use to work at a hospital. The only thing I knew about New York was Times Square. I didn’t do a lot of exploring. I was in a comfort zone
My friend was like you have to come and explore the city. He took me to the East Village and I saw a concert there at Bowery Electric.
Where I worked, he and I had the same weekends off so we’d come in every other weekend. But one weekend, I came by myself for a date and it didn’t go well. So I was walking through Williamsburg and I started taking pictures.
And I saw this guy and he was using an iPhone 4 and his pictures were awesome. I was like I need to step my game up. So I started to come in to the city, I would drive, park in the East Village and take pictures. Then I’d explore Williamsburg. I was trying to venture into new hoods like Bushwick and Park Slope.
c.: Why were you so exploratory here?
s.: The city was driving it. In Jersey, I felt like I was in a bubble. It was like me and my fifteen friends. We’d do things in like groups of ten, go to superhero movies, discuss it in the park lot and hang out. I thank my friend for pushing me to New York and beyond Times Square. I have seen him in about three years.
c.: So now you work in coffee. You’re a barista at Stumptown Coffee Roasters.
s.: Yes. You know what I love about Stumptown, our main priority is fine tuning our coffee versus opening cafes.
c.: Tell me more.
s.: I used to wok at Brooklyn Coffee Roasting before Stumptown. Around the time they opened the 23rd street store. When I started, coffee was 90 percent of the business. By the time I left, there were sandwiches and other things taking over.
When I went to Stumptown, I thought I knew what I was doing. They said ‘no you don’t know, we’re going to relearn you.”
c.: How about that? What did that do for you?
s.: My palette is better. I dial into espresso better. It would take me 20-30 minutes to dial in before. Now, its about 5-10 minutes.
c.: How do you calibrate in the morning to be ready?
s.: I’m not the person who is saying ‘I’m looking for this and that, and that and that and get all these notes. I’m looking for it not to taste like crap and for it to taste chocolatey – that’s me, balanced.
There’s a whole science to it. To coffee. Because it does take a lot of trial and error. When I came to Stumptown they were weighing espresso and I didn’t get that, I was like, what are you doing? I’m really good at knowing what I’m doing. Like I know what a good picture looks like.
c.: You’re pretty prolific with it on Instgram. What do you like about it as a platform.
s.: It’s not so much like it woke me up. If you go deep into my Instagram it’s like a party. I’m not one to delete images. I remember downloading Instagram and in those first few months, I was taking casual pics. And there were great things that I could do with my iPhone beyond a Throwback Thursday’s. I could do more with it; it helped me rediscover my creative side.
c.: What did you want to be creatively?
s.: In middle school and high school I wanted to become a cartoonist, like for Pixar. I wanted to do big things. I graduated high school and did a couple semesters and realized that I wanted to do this as a hobby versus a career choice; it was too hard. So then, I didn’t do anything creative from ages 19-27, almost eight years. But, I was in that Jersey bubble.
c.: Take me on the journey. How did you get from that to barista?
s.: I needed a job. In 2014, I started at Adorama and then got fired. In March 2015, I got a job at Brooklyn Roasting Company.
c.: But why a job at a coffee shop?
s.: It was something about the idea. I never worked in coffee and it looked easy to get into.
It was a lot deeper than I thought. I thought just coffee.
It was a lot deeper, there was a whole culture and science. I’m at this point where I am now building this career.
c.: How did you see that it was a culture. When did that happen?
Probably within a month or so. My co-worker was like ‘wanna come and get a drink at the bar?’ I was like, sure why not but I don’t usually fraternize with co-workers. We were talking, and talking about how we’re not just coffee slingers or bean climbers.
c.: What are you?
s.: We’re writers. Dancers. Painters. Photographers. Calligraphers. I thought these guys were here for the coffee. By working with all these creative people, it made me realize that I should put more effort on my photography and out it to the forefront of my life. They were bringing themselves to the bar. It was inspiring. Being a barista was becoming more than a job; it was becoming me.
c.: Oh my goodness. I feel that. I really feel that.
s.: I don’t mind telling people that I’m a barista. I’m a 31 year-old barista. I love my job and like my coworkers. I have great bosses.
My regulars are amazing. At one point it just didn’t feel like a job.
c.: What does it feel like?
s.: As corny as it sounds it’s like leaving one home to another home. My dad is Jamaican.
c.: Not corny at all. What is it like to feel so at home while being a barista of color?
s.: I do get gratification when I see persons of color.
When I see another black guy [at a coffee shop], ‘I’m like yo’ what’s up’?
The other day a guy comes in and his name is Fred – a black guy. I’m like, hey man. And, he orders a cortado. So many black people order mochas or chai. And, sometimes I’m like, I want to make you an adult coffee. I have a massive sweet tooth myself. I put so much sugar in this Americano. He has ordered an Americano from Café Integral where we are having a conversation.
c.: How do you encourage people of color to try something different, how do you negotiate that conversation.
s.: Black people have a massive sweet tooth – we grew up on sweet juicy drinks. I guess, like what your saying is that I try to inspire people, like the man with a cortado. I love things in laymens terms. I’m not crazy versed in coffee, I’m more like, tell me what you think you’re going to like. And, I like it simple, I like to dumb it down, so that you know what it is – quick and fast.
c.: You’re so interesting, your path and journey. Where do you see yourself going?
s.: Stumptown hired me to take some pics for bourbon month and I liked that. I also like Black Brick, the coffee shop in Williamsburg. I would want to do something a bit more like in a photography sense, like even be their photography person.
c.: I can see that. You’re a person who does photography. Shall we get out of there and go do some photography?
His eyes light up in a way that isn’t from his super sweet Americano and Doughnut Plant doughnut. It feels right that our conversation doesn’t end really but continues onto the streets, the lower streets of New York, a city where he once roamed looking for more of himself, to pop his own bubble.
As told to Chèrmelle D. Edwards