“I’m Steven Sutton from Devoción Coffee Roasters. I’m the founder and the CEO. We began in Colombia in 2006.
My background is more in music. I did college for some engineering and some programming, that kind of stuff. That’s the era of Napster, so it was very hard at that time to be inside the music industry and I decided to find something else that I would like.
In the transition, they offered me a flower job. Actually, not such a good flower job. I was inside the coolers, moving around boxes and doing quality control for flowers and all that stuff. Not too fun, but it was a job in the meantime.
By luck actually, somebody mentioned a position in a new coffee distributor. The whole idea of that company was go to Colombia, buy coffee cheaply, and sell it to the US (like the Walmarts and the K-marts of the States). So, that’s how I got introduced to coffee.
Quickly, I found out that I didn’t like that niche. I didn’t really appreciate the work that we were doing for our country. I mean, it is very difficult niche and I didn’t see it…it wasn’t touching my heart.
In around late 2005, we felt (as a company) that the company wasn’t really moving forward and I decided that I was gonna pretty much quit the company and go to Colombia to do it myself. And that’s what I did.
I went to Colombia and I found out that Colombian coffee at that time was not seen like an interesting place to get coffee because people were grabbing the same coffees. What I found out is that the third wave of purchasing coffee was still not implemented there, so that’s why you would see the Stumptowns and Intelligentsias of the world traffic in Central American countries and Colombia being this old school boring country.
But what I found out is it was not boring at all. It was a raw diamond waiting to be cut, and what I did is I implemented—I believe one of the first, for sure the first—network for a coffee roaster that would go into all of these zones in Colombia. Doesn’t matter if it was a safe zone or a rough zone. At that time most of them were rough and they still are.
We would go find the Tipicas, Borbons, Caturras—those amazing coffees that were just out there waiting to be found and try and get away from traditional exporters and traditional dry mills or cooperatives where you would just find Barria Colombia and Castillo which is what, pretty much, people were bored of. I found out that that was the reason why, at that time, people were bored of Colombia.
Nowadays, things are changing even in that sense. Now we are actually—I was completely against Castillo and Colombia, and I still kind of am, because they don’t have a lot of flavor—but nowadays we’re even seeing this wild increase in…let me just go like this…wild and crazy thing that we’re just seeing some type of cross-pollinization in some lots between that boring cold type of coffee and amazing Typicas or Bourbons that’s next to each other.
So, nowadays even, Colombian is surprising even more. But at that time, people just thought of it as just Colombian and Castillo boring coffee and I was going and looking for this amazing high-end cups and I was gonna do everything in my power to do, so I did my own network and we do not use exporters, we do not use importers, we have our own dry mill and we have our own people at the ground going, 24/7 to over 500 farmers around Colombia.
Now, that’s how it started. The end result was amazing, which we actually didn’t think we were doing what we do now at that time. We were just looking for good coffees. And around 4 years ago, we realized that not only did we find amazing coffees, but the way we were roasting was completely different than the way everybody else was roasting because the people belonged to the company and it’s pretty much us going out there and the dry mill, it’s us, and we do not give it to any third party. We do not use it as business, we just turn it on once or twice a week, which is actually very unprofitable.
We are the only farm-to-table coffee roasters.
We ended up just roasting fresh beans and back around 4 years ago, we saw that we’re the only roasters roasting fresh beans. So that means that we’re only, let’s say in not even coffee terms, but in say, food terms, we are the only farm-to-table coffee roasters. So, I brought my flower industry experience, or what I saw…how they did the logistics of getting a roast from Medellín to Miami in a day using FedEx.
And I said to myself, “Colombia has the ability to have harvests pretty much year-round; if you are able to place yourself in certain places and certain regions there, you will always find a farm in harvest.” And that’s what we were doing.
And then we say, “Okay, now that means that we are the freshest coffee and that means that we are the only farm-to-table, the only thing that I have to do is talk to FedEx.” And that’s pretty much what we did.
We talked to FedEx, we opened in New York in December 2014. November, December, and we pretty much grabbed the coffees from the farm, they go through the drying process, we do non-wash and wash, so there will be a difference in timing there. We actually do wash, drying up to 21 days. When we don’t do it, the farmer does it.
The only process we do farm-level sometimes is we match real coffees where we will have a patio, that belongs to us and we’ll go get the cherries and then we’ll do the process because the farmer doesn’t know, so it’s a way to educate the farmer and have coffee in the meantime. But the rest, obviously, the farmer does it.
So after that process, we’ll get to Cúcuta. It won’t, depending on getting on the cherry, if it’s inside the cherry or in a parchment, we’ll have some type of a time just sitting inside the parchment, inside the cherry, which will actually make the coffee better. But moment we grind them, that’s the moment the green been is exposed to oxygen, the germ gets more excited and actually introduces more oxygen to the center of the bean, that’s the moment where the quality starts going down. From that moment to our roaster, it takes us sometimes less than 7 days.
Our average right now is 10 days, from dry mill to your cup. And that is unheard of. And that is what Devoción right now stands for.
All of the elements are pretty much intact. So we know that the green bean has around 400 elements that attribute directly to flavor and we know that, when we roast, we create more elements and it’s around, I think, 600 elements plus, so everything is important.
The easiest way to describe if you’re in the coffee industry—the first thing they tell you if you’re a coffee buyer is—you cannot expect the coffee you’re buying at the farm to be the same coffee you’re roasting after logistics. So, why? Because there’s a time issue. There’s oxygenization, and it’s not as bright, not as powerful, not as tasty. Things have diminished. What we do here is, we actually tell you that’s nonsense in our world; you should be able to taste coffee as you taste asparagus, as farm level.
I want my asparagus to be frozen before I cook my plate. I want my coffee to be all before I roast, so it’s a very foodie view on the coffee world. Mostly in the States, also.
I come from a regime where in the 80’s, Escobar. I’m sure a lot of people have seen the series of Narcos so they know what I’m talking about and then it was a rough time. It was a rough time and it was very hard to live there so I left very, very young.
The reason why I do it in Colombia to start with is obviously, I’m Colombian. It’s easier for me and, at that time, I felt that not only once I started in the industry, I started going down to Colombia and before I had Devoción, I felt that I owed something back to my country. So that time, I did work for that.
But again, as time passes by, you kind of understand that if you want to do something so amazing, you really have to focus on one thing, and if you go around the world that’s beautiful, I appreciate it, I think it’s a wonderful job to have, but it leaves gaps. And one of the gaps that it leave open is you cannot do fresh coffee because you run into seasonalities, unless you are willing to tell your client that you’re only gonna do Ethiopia for two months.
Some type of an example, so Colombia is the only place where you can go year-round and really have coffees that are under a month fresh, roasted on a bag or served on a cup, it’s just the only way to do it.
Whereas also, let’s say, the opportunity, little bit of luck, little bit of everything, and it just made sense. However you see it, what we do here is we don’t focus too much on origin. We focus much more on notes and on characteristics. And I will show you coffees just like Ethiopian. I actually have a Yirgacheffe variety—an Ethiopian premium that was done in Colombia—and it tastes like Ethiopia.
So Colombia right now is going through this phase that you’ll find Geshas, Mokkas, Sudan…I mean you’ll find anything you want in varieties in Colombia, and you will actually find it profiles that you find elsewhere. In Colombia, obviously there is differences, but not too much. And some I’m able to do a full roster of coffees portfolio of just ten to twenty different flavors of coffee or notes which other companies have to achieve by going through the whole world. I just go through all of Colombia which, by the way, it’s as hard or even harder because it’s very, very tough and low in logistics and it’s just over half a million farms out there that you have to try to identify. In our case, over 500, to get those type of flavors.
Now when I started, and it’s the name of the company’s Café Devotion in English, it was a brand that we created before, when we were doing the distribution, or when I was doing the distribution in Miami, so we created that brand, that company, and when that company was gonna close, and I pretty much quit, I made a deal with them to keep the brand. It was a brand made for a different thing or purpose, and I went back down to Colombia, people liked the brand, they said, “Devotion sounds beautiful,” and it’s the inverse world, there it’s an English word, it’s exotic, it’s beautiful, and so we just kept it. It was simple, and we didn’t know at that time, or I didn’t know at that time, where people tend to show that this actual had.
So we just kept it and we started growing and everybody loved it. When we decided to core Colombia, we grabbed Noë & Associates to do our rebranding, especially just to do a brand guidance and the first thing that they said to us is “We think what you do is awesome. It’s very unique, we just don’t get why in English.”
And I explained that, and they said, “Okay, perfect, but it takes away the fact that you are Colombian. The company is Colombian. And everything. Just name it Devoción, and it’s the same thing, we’ll just switch use a little bit, we’ll switch packages a little bit, just so you can shout that you are authentic, because that brand that you have now, people might not understand that you are the real deal, that you are actually authentic, and you are from Colombia, that it’s you guys doing it.”
And it makes sense. And they did Devoción, which actually, from the second I saw it, I was like, “Okay, that is the brand that I love and actually shouts and speaks to us.” So it was a no-brainer. Again, at the end of the day, what we’re doing is being extremely foodie about it. Nowadays you’re seeing foodie about it, you want the best sashimi, you want the best Japanese sushi chef grabbing the fish from Japan, into a plane, into your table, in about a day or two.
So we’re being that same idea with coffee, which we believe that, and we still do, that it’s far from that. And we’re believing, we say that we’re breaking ground in that and we think that that’s where the industry has to go. Real specialization in areas to get the best out of the actual raw material, in this case being coffee. And by doing that you will be able to have coffee surges, from standing and you’re also able to help people more, because you understand them more, you spend more time with them. So it just makes more sense to really focus on one or two areas than on the whole world because it’s just off.
Cool. Thank you.”