Living on the Left Coast for so many years, it’s almost shameful that the closest I came to Portland, Oregon before 2011 was an SF Slim’s show by The Dharma Bums while on their Bliss album tour. (Yes, I was a fan.) Sure, I’d been to Crater Lake and Coos Bay even, but never Portland. By 2011, a couple of day-job-related day trips to Portland afforded the brief coffee walk through town. But it wasn’t until last month that I did a serious deep dive.
This lapse had nothing to do with the sun-spoiled Californian stereotype: wishing to avoid Portland’s damp cold, clouds, and legendary rainfall. Although I must say that arriving from the land of drought shaming that has turned neighbors into water narcs, watching local Portlanders casually hose down their sidewalks was a little like watching them blow their noses in gold leaf.
The Portlander in their Native Habitat
Today merely the name “Portland” carries its own serious baggage and presumptions — some accurate, but many not. This post will attempt to sift through both of them from my own limited perspective with particular attention paid to the town’s much-celebrated coffee culture.
Portland — aka “Stumptown” (from the many felled trees of its development), aka “Rose City” — may have over 90% of the population of Seattle, but it feels nearly twice as sleepy. Portlanders love their runs and parades, and I arrived in time for the Starlight Parade of their annual Rose Festival — complete with marching bands and floats from many of the area’s high schools. A city like San Francisco is too cool and cynical for this kind of small town sentimentality. But the Portland locals line the downtown streets many hours before the event, parking their lawn chairs with great anticipation, social camaraderie, and a packed picnic basket.
Speaking of public gatherings, not unlike Oakland’s First Fridays, Portland has its own First Thursday in the gentrified Pearl District — with its many cobblestone streets, cookie-cutter modern lofts, public storage units, and chain stores. In contrast is the artier Last Thursdays in the NE Alberta District — which is something of a front line for the town’s current gentrification battles, adjacent to one of the town’s very few hotbeds for gang violence.
From Rose City to White City
The story of gentrification is not uncommon among American cities. Some of what makes Portland a little different is how overwhelmingly, well, white the city is. So white, it’s almost blue. The last U.S. census figures may count the city’s racial breakdown as 76% white (for comparison San Francisco is 54%). But observationally throughout the city, those figures seem like an understatement.
In the eyes of a skinhead, Portland, Oregon looks like the city of the future.
–“Skinhead Against Skinhead“, TIME Magazine
On the TriMet streetcars that run all across town — the closest thing the locals have to the Bay Area’s BART — station stops and instructions are announced in Spanish as well as English, but there’s hardly a Latino to be found on the system. (And yet BART audio is English-only.) Thus in true stereotyped Portland politeness fashion, it eerily seems like the system goes out of its way to culturally accommodate people who aren’t even there.
Even Portland’s Chinatown seems so in name only, save for a couple of old gates spread among a district of what one local called “douchey nightclubs”.
Portland’s lack of racial diversity may stick out like a sore thumb to someone from the Bay Area, but that’s not to say there’s anything inherently wrong with it — although some rightfully point out that it’s partly a product of historically racist state and local policies. But given that coffee ranks #1 on the list of Stuff White People Like, all that whiteness can’t be all bad, right? Except this theme of diversity — and Portland’s general lack thereof — comes up again when we talk about Portland’s coffee culture (more below).
Why is Portland, of all places, the capital of American coffee culture? … This city is still very white. Why does that matter? According to the National Coffee Association, Caucasians drink a half cup a day more coffee than blacks or Hispanics.
— “Drip City“, Willamette Week
The Portlandia Stereotypes
Of course, we have to address the Portlandia stereotypes — a term that even the locals have amusingly embraced. Enough of them are true enough to support parody: the beards, the many yoga instructors, the dog walkers sporting discount tattoos, the animal freaks, drivers who are extremely (and charmingly) courteous, etc.
Yet there’s a distinctly higher hipster quotient in SF’s Mission District. What you don’t hear about Portland is at the roots of the city: the historically dark, weathered, slightly dirty Pacific Northwestern Gothic about the place. (Note that these are some of my favorite and most unique characteristics of the town.)
In fact, “thriving” is a word I definitely would not use to describe Portland and its anything-but-vibrant downtown. Like Porto, Portugal, I found it hard to tell if it’s on its way up or way down. Downtown there are derelict vacant lots, sometimes filled with food carts and lined with sidewalks coated in layers of mystery stickiness. Homelessness and mental illness are on prominent display along with too many strip clubs to count (and yes, there is even a vegan one).
And despite many fantastic wilderness options nearby, the bicycling stereotypes, and a trendy Pearl District that hosts a retail outlet for every outdoor enthusiast store imaginable, obesity is a noticeable problem here as in much of America. Portland does not size up to the outdoorsy fit-city-in-spandex stereotype you get in places like Boulder, CO or Austin, TX.
A good part of Portland’s allure includes a local food scene high on the local, organic, and artisanal, an abundant beer microbrewing culture, and a location with a much cheaper cost of living than most. Although you can get the hipster/foodie/microbrew/slacker/cheap-living mix in almost equal measure in a place like Austin, TX, Portland seems to draw much of its appeal along the coast.
Most Portlandia stereotypes seem defined by the expectations of recent residents who aren’t from the area, just as the “fruits & nuts” stereotypes about Californians in the 1970s were primarily driven by refugees from the Midwest rather than the California natives themselves. It’s a little like how residents of Las Vegas lead rather normal and mundane lives, whereas its tourists feel obligated to destroy their livers and lose their minds because of preconceived expectations of behavior once they arrive.
In other words, from what I’ve observed, it’s the more recent immigrants trying to self-fulfill false stereotypes who are among the most exaggerated Portlandia examples — a lot of California and Seattle expats who came for what they thought was in the marketing brochure. (Just don’t ask me what Florida’s problem is.)
Portland the Coffee City
Many publications have made out Portland to be some magical, mythical place inhabited by barista leprechauns, where rivers of microlot espresso run down streets adorned with portafilter handles and Mahlkönig EK 43 grinders. Although we’ve seriously questioned what a “coffee city” actually means in today’s environment, Travel + Leisure has regularly ranked Portland at the top among “America’s Best Coffee Cities,” and The Daily Meal recently ranked Portland #1 in the same category.
A few years ago there was a lot of professional chatter about how Portland unseated Seattle as America’s coffee capital. Then add over 60 microroasters in the city, regional champion baristas (back when that was a thing), three national coffee magazines (Fresh Cup, Barista Magazine, Roast Magazine) — plus many quality coffee shops, equipment makers (though Able since moved to CA), and specialty retailers — and you can justify the hype. However, there are several factors that dim the shine here.
First is the question of size. Much about the greatness of Portland’s coffee culture gets weighted relative to the town’s seemingly small size — scaled as if by an “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear” disclaimer. Instead of using purely direct yardsticks such as nationally renowned quality, reputation, variety, or industry awards, Portland’s relatively low population density is often applied as that fun-house-mirror-like lens through which many gauge the local coffee scene.
Which brings us to the second factor: quality. There are some really good coffee shops and roasters here, no question. But are they standouts among the best in the country? For the most part, not exactly. Kansas City has some great roasters and cafés as well, and I wouldn’t necessarily crown Portland’s best as superior to KC’s finest.
A lot of what’s good about coffee in Portland naturally traces its influences back to Stumptown Coffee Roasters. And as much as Stumptown is one of the nation’s elite roasters and coffee chains, we’ve always felt it is a slight underachiever among its peers — whether in rival Seattle or Portland itself.
Portland’s Coffee Monoculture
Which brings us to the third and most critical factor keeping Portland from reaching its quality potential. Stumptown may be a slight underachiever for its elite class, but they are to be commended for taking a great risk and establishing a new kind of coffee operation for the region. Most other Portland shops established since Stumptown seem rather risk-averse and are instead focused on execution, sticking with the formula, rather than taking the risk of offering new ideas of what coffee could be. This is where Portland’s lack of cultural diversity seems to also manifest itself in its coffee culture.
With few exceptions, what Portland has is a number of micro-businesses following a slightly updated Stumptown blueprint in miniature. The degree of this conformity here is palpable and even gets a little monotonous. As with the Seattle music scene in the 1990s after Nirvana made it big, nearly every notable new band in town was donning their grunge flannels and crunching the same power chords. (Nirvana coincidentally having a dubious rumored historical connection to the aforementioned Dharma Bums, btw.) Whether that was because there weren’t enough bands differentiating themselves from Nirvana or whether the market/industry was only interested in bands that sounded like Nirvana knock-offs, the effect was the same.
Similarly, Portland “brew bars” (everything is a “bar” or “lounge” these days, whether you’re getting a coffee or getting your eyebrows waxed) tend to follow a rather narrow definition of roasting (microroasters), roasting styles, use of microlot coffees (and the inevitable Portland single origin Ethiopian shot), rather poor attempts at blends when they aren’t outright verboten, accompanied by cut-and-paste ad copy about seasonality and bean-to-cup attention to detail, etc. as if read off of a checklist.
Where’s the pour-over-only shop like a Phil’z that serves only blends and defiantly eschews the notions of geographic traceability entirely? Where’s the Latin American perspective as you get from a Cumaica Coffee? (Though Portland has a great exception with Brazil in Nossa Familia — no wonder it’s one of our favorites in town.)
There are a few multi-roaster shops, but they generally toe the party line: self-imposed rules about geographic specificity, sourcing from the same half-dozen producing countries, and roasting only well this side of the second crack. There’s always nitro (invented at Stumptown) and cold brew, but those are completely different beverages, really. (Not to mention they’re also doing it in Cleveland too.)
But where do you go for a vac pot coffee? Where’s the Third Wave coffee house co-located inside an S&M shop? Even a place such as the tiny Mountain Grounds, who prominently classifies their roasted bean stocks by growing altitude (2200m, etc.), would be guilty of heresy in this environment.
A Mecca of Conformity?
This isn’t just Portland. We have the same issues with the restaurant scene in San Francisco; when everybody is serving locally sourced, organic, farm-to-table cuisine, a great thing quickly becomes a repetitive mantra and ultimately a self-parody.
While SF has some excellent restaurants, it is rather narrow and limited when compared to places like Chicago or New York. Places where Mexican food isn’t exclusively the same seven Taco Bell ingredients recombined for meals under $10-$15, where dangerous ideas such as offering a tasting menu based on the unique cuisine of Jalisco is even attempted.
If Portland is to ever become a coffee “Mecca”, as is often stated, such a “center of activity or interest” simply cannot play it safe with with a single formula, even if it is a great formula. It should attract diverse and even conflicting influences and nonconformist ideas from all over the world. Because what is the coffee lovers’ benefit of having 40, 60, or even 2,000 local microroasters to choose from if they all are pretty much copying each other?
In conclusion, if you like the philosophical approach to coffee that a Portland roaster or café takes, chances are that you’ll find much to love in abundance throughout this city. It’s a great thing and many people do it well. But if you want to try something different from that insular, narrow definition, you pretty much have to leave town.
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