Owner Rich Nieto outside his newest cafe on Freeman Street

You know those times when you don’t set out to do something, but somehow it just happens anyway? Well, this is pretty much how Sweetleaf, Greenpoint’s newest coffee shop, came about.

“I wasn’t looking to set up another cafe”, says owner Rich Nieto, “I was just looking to find a space to roast.”

Rich established Sweetleaf Coffee with a friend in 2008, in a tiny shop just over the Pulaski bridge.  Seven years later and there is now an additional coffee shop in LIC, one in Williamsburg and, as of last week, a new one in Greenpoint. Rich bought out his partner about a year ago and now runs the entire operation.  He recently  started roasting his own beans out of a friend’s loft in Bushwick, but as he started to step up production it made sense to find a roasting space of his own.

“I was looking for a warehouse of around 1000 sq ft, but it was almost impossible to find something this small, everything is huge”, he tells us as we sit sipping coffee in the brand new Greenpoint outpost of Sweetleaf on Freeman Street. “I discovered this space because I used to drive past every day on my way between LIC and Williamsburg, and although it turned out to be the smallest warehouse space I could find, it was still way more space than I needed. The building is in a great location, just off  Manhattan Avenue, so we decided to use the extra space by creating a cafe at the front and having our roastery at the back.”


Housed in a warehouse dating from the 1920s, the cafe is large and airy, with beautiful exposed brick walls, original wooden beams and a big pull-down shutter which is wide open during the day, allowing the sun to come streaming in. An imposing bar sits in the center and, around the edge, a selection of of wrought iron garden furniture gives the cafe an outdoorsy vibe.

“We were looking to do something a little different”, says Rich.  “A lot of the coffee shops nearby are quaint and charming, whereas this space feels more like you can stretch out your legs and enjoy a big open space and some fresh air. We wanted to give it a very outdoors/indoors kind of feel, as though you don’t know where the space ends or begins. We’re excited to see the roastery take off and love having people sitting here drinking an espresso and seeing us roast beans in the background.”

Rich is Colombian, and although he grew up in NYC, his heritage is one of the many reasons that he favors using Colombian beans. “I really love the coffee from there and the country’s unique in that it has more than one harvest a year so it’s easy to get fresh coffee pretty much the whole year round”.

He sources his beans via Red Fox Coffee Merchants, having been friends with the owner for so many years that they are now exactly in tune with each others’ palates.

“I’m going to to Colombia with him in a couple of months so we can solidify some relationships with our farmers, ” Rich tells us.  “Establishing direct trade relationships helps ensure the farmers are paid a fair price for their beans.  We pay more for a better product, so this gives farmers an incentive to maintain a high standard of their crop. They can rely on us as regular buyers and in turn we come to rely on them as suppliers. Also, a lot of farmers have never even tasted their own product, so it’ll be great to take them some roasted beans so they can actually try the coffee.”

Rich really really cares about coffee, and when he shows me the gleaming new roasting room he gets very serious. “Every batch that we roast is a precise blend of art and science: The science is in meticulously recording the data of each and every roast. The art is in being able to choose which roast makes the better coffee. For example, we might do five different roasts of one bean, then we go through and do a blind tasting, where one particular roast will always emerge as the obvious winner.

At the moment Rich and his team are roasting about 800lbs of coffee a week to supply their cafes. However, they soon plan to start selling the beans online and supplying wholesale to local restaurants, at which point production will be ramped up even further.

The coffee, needless to say, is excellent. As well as top-drawer hot coffee, they also make two special cold brews. ‘Rocket Fuel’ is a New Orleans style coffee, made using dark roasted beans and chicory. It’s cold brewed for 18 hours, then sweetened with Vermont maple and mixed with milk to give a smooth chocolatey flavor. The other, ‘Voodoo Child’, is a Vietnamese style coffee, made with finely ground dark roast beans. Their bakers make a special a condensed milk-like sweet cream for the drink, making it the perfect option for those who like their coffee as a dessert substitute

To accompany the coffee there’s a selection of alluring pastries, all baked in-house each morning.  Arrive when they open at 7am to get pastries fresh out of the oven, then bask in the half-inside-half-outside sunshine as you contemplate your day.

Sweetleaf Coffee is at 159 Freeman Street. After last week’s soft opening,  it’s now open daily 7am-6pm.

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