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Reports From the Road
Portland Coffee Scene 2010
Author: Mark Prince
Posted: September 14, 2010
Article rating: 9.0
feedback: (19) comments | read | write

Many in the coffee industry think of Stumptown Coffee Roasters when they think of Portland, Oregon. It's a deserved reputation, because after all, Stumptown is one of the United States' leading specialty coffee roasters, and they've worked hard to develop a global reputation as one of the best.

It's also easy to think of Portland as a one trick pony because so many of us rarely hear about other roasters in that great city. And certainly five years ago, seven years ago, there often seemed to be only one choice for Portland if you wanted awesome coffee roasted by a top tier roaster.

Today, things are a bit different in Portland, but make no bones about it - Portland is still Stumptown's town, and there's no other roaster as big or as famous producing that level of quality coffee in this dynamic Pacific Northwest city. But there are an increasing amount of roaster / retailers and microroasters trying to make their mark. And the range and breadth of quality cafes can often be stunning to outside visitors.

When I last visited Portland about 2.5 years ago, the cafe scene was vibrant and growing, but many of the cafes served Stumptown coffee. Not so this time around. In fact, except for Lava Java (in Ridgefield, WA - not even in Portland), none of the cafes I visited for this report served Stumptown coffee exclusively, and most didn't serve Stumptown at all. So who's coffee did they serve? Intelligentsia? Counter Culture? Barefoot? 49th Parallel?

No - for the a good number of them, these cafes served coffee they roasted themselves, often right in the shop.

The Cafe and MicroRoaster Scene in Portland

I love good cafe architecture and Portland seems to have it in spades. Along with the architecture, I noticed most of the cafes I visited were huge compared to what I'm used to in Vancouver. Some are shared spaces, like Coava, and some are certainly tiny, bar own places, like the Pearl District Barista, but others are just big cavernous places with a roaster well situated (like Heart Coffee Roasters or Water Avenue Coffee) or plenty of room for circulating (like Public Domain Coffee).

I often wonder why Vancouver BC doesn't have the vibrant micro roaster, or roaster / retailer scene that Seattle has, and now Portland has. In our city, I cannot think of a single independent roaster / retailer of note (JJ Bean roasts on site at some of their locations, but they are a small chain); in Portland, I visited 3 during my 6-cafe coffee crawl. I also noted the general size of cafes was bigger on average in Portland. It may just come down to economics.

"My opinion, which  may be incorrect, is that the rents in Vancouver are much higher," said Vince Piccolo, owner of 49th Parallel Coffee Roasters and 49th Parallel Cafe in Vancouver, "which means cafes have to be smaller, and if you roasted in the cafe, you need storage space for green which is better suited for putting seats in to generate income and turnover."

Favourable rents has a lot to do with the ability to roast or have a large cafe, but a populace receptive too, and expecting of great coffee plays a huge role as well. Portland's population is surprisingly large - it has roughly the same metropolitan and area populations as Vancouver (600,000 & 2.2 million) but it doesn't have the big town feel that Vancouver has, at least downtown. And many of this population, spoiled on quality food, quality wine, and quality cocktails are equally demanding of quality coffee. It just makes sense that Stumptown wouldn't be the only breakthrough roaster game in town forever.

As for the cafes themselves, I did visit six, and found them all notable in one or more ways.

Coava Coffee Roasters
This was probably my favourite cafe space but only just barely. Run by Matt Higgins and roaster Keith Gehrke, it hasn't been open long but has already garnered a solid reputation in town and is a favourite amongst local coffee geeks. The space is incredible - huge, high ceilings, and huge spaces between sitting areas. This is a shared space, meaning they have paired up with a local bamboo carpentry specialist that also sells their service out of this location. The result is amazing architecture displays and as a Coava customer, you sit at "tables" that are actually repurposed industrial machines like press drills, bench saws, and the like.

The roaster is positioned to the left of the brew bar. They do espresso on a 2 group La Marzocco, but also feature pourover coffees brewed on scales. They only do single origin at this time. They are also into other things revolving around coffee, including developing an all metal cone filter to be used for manual pourover that is said to be available for sale soon.

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Roaster and Brew Station at Coava
Here's the main roaster and the slow brew section at Coava. Note the wood throughout and the wood panels on stands in the background - those are displays for the other business sharing this space.
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Espresso at Coava
The espresso side (with one of the owners, Matt, behind the La Marzocco) is minimalistic, keeping with the design of the space.
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Seating at Coava
Seating is very original - you're sitting at repurposed industrial equipment, like this old bench saw (blade not included)

Heart Coffee Roasters
Another recent addition to Portland, this one is a near tie with Coava for my favourite space in Portland. Run by Wille Yli-Luoma, this cafe / roastery could be the poster child for how to do nearly everything right by coffee. The roaster is centre stage, but somehow the Kees' designed La Marzocco is centre stage too. Then again, somehow the brew station is centre stage. And oh, wait, the siphon coffee area is centre stage.

If this is confusing, then just visit the cafe and you'll see what I mean. Yli-Luoma has found a way to make all the elements of his cafe equally emphasised, and I quite like it. They roast and currently their focus is single origin. The siphon I had there was amazing - the current Ethiopian offering. I bought 3 lbs of coffee and have tried the Kenyan Gakuyuini Peaberry so far, and it is a beautiful example of a more body-oriented Kenyan.

Heart Roasters
Heart Roasters
The view from the roaster down towards the main cash and custom espresso machine. There used to be a Synesso where the slow brew pourover station is now.
Siphons at Heart
This is the same $$$ siphon halogen heating system that Blue Bottle (in)famously got their $20,000 story with the NY Times for. The siphon station was devoid of any siphons or action when I visited, but the owner happily pulled one down to make me a cup.

Barista - Pearl District
This is Billy Wilson's first shop, and and one of the non-roaster cafes I visited. They have a rebuilt GS/2 which unfortunately was down for maintenance issues during my visit, but also a custom La Marzocco Linea paddle group. They do guest coffees from all over the place - when I was in there, there was Stumptown, Barefoot Coffee, Ecco, Coava, 49th Parallel and many other coffee choices up on the shelf.

This was the smallest cafe during my tour - really a bar and not much more, but there was additional seating in an expanded hallway and on a sunny south facing deck. The space reminded me a bit of Yaletown businesses in Vancouver, but with a much more friendly and definitely douche-free vibe. The staff was absolutely first rate, and probably the best of the best on my visit to all these cafes. Friendly, engaging, ready to talk up the coffee, and very free of any pretense. I loved my visit there.

Unfortunately, Billy Wilson (and another barista I wanted to meet, @Lay_Luh on twitter) were at the second Barista location on N. Alberta, and I couldn't make it out there for a visit.

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Coffee selection at BARISTA
A heckuva lot of coffees to choose from on the shelf at BARISTA, including (but not limited to) 49th Parallel, Ritual Coffee, Stumptown, Intelligentsia, Coava, Ecco Caffe, Counter Culture, Barefoot Coffee, Square Mile and Water Avenue.
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Rebuilt GS/2 at BARISTA
The rebuilt La Marzocco GS/2 was down during my visit, but my understanding is when both machines are running, one does blends, one does single origins.
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The space - BARISTA
This is most definitely a coffee BAR, with limited seating, but great focus on espresso and siphon coffee. More coffees to buy (from around the world) are on the side shelf (back right of the photo).

Water Avenue Coffee Roasters
This is Bruce Milletto, Matt Milletto and Brandon Smyth's new venture (Bruce and Matt of the American Barista School and Bellisimo Consultants, Brandon is the head roaster for WAC) and one of the few new roasters doing a blend for espresso. The space is again huge, with a big focus on the bar, pourover and espresso. The roaster is around back behind a divider wall, but seating is abound and Matt Milleto intends to have the space as much as a training and educational space as it is a coffee shop and roastery.

"We wanted this space to really open up possibilities for education and coffee experiences," Milletto told me, "back here (in the roasting area) we're set up for coffee cuppings, working on blends, and holding all sorts of educational sessions from farmers to guest baristas."

The cafe / roastery is in a bit of a low-density industrial section of Portland, but a new resto-bar called Bunk Bar is directly next door, and it is set, according to Milletto, to become the next happening hot spot of Portland. If the coffee I had, both in the shop (some single origins on pourover) and at home (the Toro Blend is on our Speedster at the moment and tasting absolutely fantastic) are any indication, this place indeed will become the next IT spot in Portland for fantastic coffee and imbibing.

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Water Avenue Coffee House
There is a heap of wide open seating of various styles in Water Avenue, including this nice stand up bar near the espresso machine.
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Synesso at Water Avenue
Matt Milletto behind the machine, showing off this space to me on one of their closed days - again, the place is huge and airy, and I love the overall look.
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Roaster at Water Avenue
The roaster is behind the main cafe area, behind a partition, but also has many areas around it for seating, discussions, and cupping coffees.

Public Domain Coffee
This new cafe was only three blocks from our hotel and our morning coffee stop for two days running. It is directly across from Pioneer Courthouse Square on SW Broadway. They don't have a roaster in store, but they are owned by Coffee Bean International and showcase coffees by this well established Portland Roaster. They were the only other cafe on my visit that had a proper blend for espresso.

This shop is spacious, airy, very Scandinavian in design and has Portland's only Slayer machine, back to back against a Synesso. The shots I had were always pulled on the Synesso, but I saw baristas playing around on the Slayer; perhaps they're using that machine for single origins only. They also have a manual pourover station, so I'd visit each morning, get a shot and an americano made with their Prometheus blend (delicious!), and a cup of pourover for myself and Beata to take back to the hotel.

The staff was very friendly and obviously in love with coffee and the process of making it. It's quite fantastic to see cafes of this calibre right in the heart of a busy financial district downtown.

Stumptown Ace Hotel
I'd been to three of Portland's five (or is it six) Stumptowns, but not the Ace Hotel, nor the Annex; for some reason, I thought the Annex was in the Ace, but that was wrong. Our very first coffee when arriving in Portland was at the Stumptown Ace, and I have to say, the straight shot of espresso I had was possibly the best Hairbender shot I've ever had in my life. The americano I had was excellent too, but we also had a macchiato and that one saw the Hairbender struggle a bit - but only just barely. It makes me continue to believe that well balanced, big body and chewy chocolately espressos (which I love) should always be imbibed straight or with a bit of water, nothing more - and that the bright acidic stuff is better suited for milk.

I loved the oldskool feel of the Ace Stumptown - I felt like I was in a coffee shop from the 1950s, albeit with 21rst century tools to brew spectacular coffees. The staff was friendly and engaging, but with the very familiar Stumptown (Portland) vibe I have experienced many times in the past - plenty of confidence behind the bar!

Places I should have gone to
I was absolutely gutted that I didn't get a chance to try Spella's coffee cart just on the edge of Portland's Pearl District. It wasn't for lack of trying - I walked and drove by the place four different times, but it wasn't open. I've heard so many great things about this foodie cart.

Also on the missed, damnit! list: Coffeehouse Five; Ristretto Roasters (though long time readers know how I feel about ristretto these days lol); CoffeeHouse Northwest (which some locals swear brew a better shot of Hairbender than Stumptown do themselves!!); and Sterling Coffee Roasters. I've heard great things about all these places, but by the time I hit my sixth shop on my coffee crawl, I was completely coffee'ed out.

Personal Portland Observations

Two things were very noticeable on this visit to Portland's current coffee scene. First, Stumptown isn't nearly as prevalent as they were on past visits, and second, there's a helluva lotta single origin espresso in town.

I have my own theories on single origin and why roasters do single origin (especially roasters starting out), but another theory was presented to me by a Portland barista and roaster (who asked not to be named): on blends, there's a huge elephant in the room, and that elephant is called Hairbender. Hairbender is in many ways the gold standard for an espresso blend in PDX, and it was suggested that the new breed of micro roasters starting out are wary of comparisons to this gold standard.

There may be some truth in that, but personally I think it's because roasting single origins is much easier for a roaster / retailer in many aspects. These include selection, seasonality / availability of coffee in small batches, experience (constructing an espresso blend is pretty much the hardest thing for a roaster to do well, when taste and taste profile is the only consideration). When you do a blend, people expect / demand a lot from that blend - they expect a similar taste profile six months from now (well, they will accept a better taste, but find comfort in the blend tasting similar over time). When you showcase single origins, you can highlight the seasonality of the coffee and customers come to expect the espresso shot they have a month from now might be a completely different taste experience.

That said, probably my biggest disappointment of the trip was the lack of blends. I found most of the coffees I tried to be quite good, but not remarkable or memorable. A notable exception was the Stumptown Hairbender shot I had at the Ace, and the Water Avenue espresso that I'm drinking currently - these have some amazing flavours and complexities, and in the case of the Water Ave Toro Blend, I'm noticing subtle changes shot to shot that stay within the taste profile, something that keeps me excited and exploring the cup.

I also found there was a heavy focus currently on Central American coffees, most notably El Salvadors and Guatemalas. If there were any Africans about, most were Kenyas. Now this is in big part due to the current season, but after my cafe crawl, I was seriously jonesing a nice Ethiopian or even an Indonesian coffee. One roaster, Heart, did have an Ethiopian which I had as a siphon coffee and I noticed it was a bit on the bright side too with good fruit from the dry process; the brightness probably came via the roasting profile (nb - the coffee was still great; just a bit different from most Ethiopians I've had these days)

On the espresso machines, these Centrals were generally not up my alley with their spritzy brightness and citrus acidity, but would be quite good with milk, I imagine. During the crawl, I had zero milk drinks, just straight shots and pourovers, and found the trend in acidity to be quite prevalent amongst the cafes visited.

As a side note, I had straight shots of an El Sal (I believe) at Coava during my cafe crawl, but the next day I stopped in again on our way out of Portland and had the same coffee in a cappuccino and macchiato, and with milk it was seriously to die for, it was amazing.

On the presentation front of cafes in Portland, not much has changed in dress per se (there's still a lot of grunge comfy clothing and a shitload of full sleeve tattoos and piercings) but one definite change I noticed this time around - staff at most of the shops were extremely friendly, non pretentious and very engaging. I think my last two visits to PDX really left that sour "barista with an attitude" taste in me, and I wonder if those were just isolated examples, because this time around, I honestly don't think I've ever enjoyed a formal cafe crawl more - and the staff, even more than the coffee, made all the difference.

Portland's coffee scene is maturing nicely, and in many ways, I feel jealous of what Portlanders are getting these days. If more of these new breed of micro roasters start tackling the art of the blend, it could be the last step required in making PDX literally the best coffee and espresso city in North America. It's going to be exciting to see how the next few years roll out in Stumptown's home town.

Article rating: 9.0
Author: Mark Prince
Posted: September 14, 2010
feedback: (19) comments | read | write
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