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Espresso in Portland, Oregon

Posted by on 30 Jun 2015 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

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 Colombia River Gorge from Vista House at Crown Point Flowers in Portland's Pioneer Courthouse Square

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.

Portland State University float at the Starlight Parade Starlight Parade of the Rose Festival, downtown Portland

Wait... sending a text at the Starlight Parade Posing with stormtroopers at the Starlight Parade

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 Chinatown: as Chinese as it gets Barista PDX's Pearl District location

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.)

Some of 'old' Portland Portlanders enjoying the outdoors along the Willamette River

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 pork festival in the Willamette Valley outside of PortlandA 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

Street mural in downtown PortlandMany 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, 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.

Taking the TriMet streetcar east over the Willamette River Mount Hood in the distance looms over Portland's east

Visible signs of wear in downtown Portland Hipster sock department, Powell's Books

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.

Stumptown Coffee Roasters' wall of cold brew A Stumptown cappuccino

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?

The American Barista Coffee School calls Portland a Mecca, so why not?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.


Espresso Ratings in Portland
Name Address Neighborhood Espresso [info] Cafe [info] Overall [info]
Public Domain 603 SW Broadway Downtown 8.00 8.00 8.000
Coava Brew Bar 300 SE Grand Ave. Central Eastside 8.30 8.00 8.150
Good Coffee 1150 SE 12th Ave. Buckman 8.30 8.50 8.400
Heart Coffee Roasters 537 12th Ave. Downtown 8.00 8.00 8.000
Nossa Espresso Bar 811 NW 13th Ave. Pearl District 8.40 7.80 8.100
Barista PDX 529 SW 3rd Ave., Unit 110 Downtown 8.20 8.00 8.100
Spella Caffè 520 SW 5th Ave. Downtown 8.50 8.00 8.250
Stumptown Coffee Roasters 128 SW 3rd Ave. Downtown 8.00 8.20 8.100

Trip Report: Barista PDX (Downtown, Portland, OR)

Posted by on 24 Jun 2015 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew

Despite his honored barista status and tattoo coverage, three-time Northwest Barista Champ, Billy Wilson, is one of those rare Portland baristas who truly cares a lot about customer experience — and it shows in his shops. Barista (not to be confused with the Barista Coffee Company and other variants of their generic and Google-unfriendly name) is Mr. Wilson’s brainchild. They are a small chain of Portland-based cafés that are uniquely and elegantly designed, elevating the coffee drinking environment to more of a luxury. Barista is also one of the first dedicated coffeehouses in Portland to go the multi-roaster route.

This Barista location — aka Barista 3, or the third of what is now four Portland cafés — opened in the historic Hamilton Building in July 2012. The design theme at this location is more old school sophisticated, and its environment truly does elevate the coffee-drinking experience to something more elevated: there is a white penny round tile floor, a distinctive bar decorated with darkly stained wood, marble countertops, and tall windows in front for window counter seating. It reminds us a little of Caffe Trinity on SF’s Market Street — just newer, more polish, and better coffee. There’s also limited sidewalk metal café table seating in front, which helps given that seating is otherwise a little limited inside.

Regal entrance to Barista 3 at the Hamilton Building in downtown Portland Clean and elegant: inside Barista 3 in Portland

Barista 3's wall of coffee merchandising Floor and window counter seating inside Barista 3

Going that multi-roaster route, here they offered Coava‘s Meaza, Verve‘s Kokanna, and Roseline‘s Catapult for espresso. For retail sale they offered Coava, Verve, Roseline, and Bows & Arrows (in Victoria, BC).

Using a custom black matte three-group La Marzocco Strada MP, they pulled shots of Roseline Catapult with a medium brown, textured, even crema of decent thickness. It had the flavor of some brighter fruit, some spice, but more an emphasis on the coffee’s brightness overall. It’s a solid shot, served in white notNeutral cups, in an elegant setting.

Read the review of Barista PDX in downtown Portland, OR.

Views out the front windows inside Barista 3 Clocks in the hallway mark the time at various Portlands throughout North America

Barista 3's coffee menu and La Marzocco Strada MP The Barista 3 espresso in Portland as made from Roseline Catapult

Trip Report: Nossa Espresso Bar (Nossa Familia Coffee, Pearl District, Portland, OR)

Posted by on 20 Jun 2015 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Roasting

Augusto Carneiro grew up in Rio de Janeiro, but he spent much of his youth among family coffee farms established in the 1890s in Brazil’s Sul de Minas and Mogiana region. He moved to Portland in the 1990s to go to university. After graduating, he eventually became frustrated with his choice of an engineering career and was unable to shake the call of six generations of coffee growers in his family. So he began importing Brazilian coffee in 2004, practicing direct trade and sustainable practices at a family farm level before that became a “thing”. Thus Nossa Familia Coffee was born.

The business relationships they developed grew to include this roasting facility in 2012 (with help from a Kickstarter campaign), with the adjacent espresso bar opening in April 2013.

Corner entrance to Nossa Familia Coffee in Portland with the Espresso Bar up the steps Signage for the Nossa Espresso Bar atop the NW 13th Ave. steps

With a garage door roll-up on a cement platform as is typical of the Pearl district, the espresso bar is a tiny walk-up space with limited wooden counter stool seating that overlooks their coffee storage and roasting operations. There’s also “sidewalk” seating among a few metal patio chairs on the raised platform above the NW 13th Ave. street level in front. They offer weekly cuppings on Tuesdays, home-brewing classes, and even trips to origin in Brazil.

Next to their wall of merchandising, they use a two-group, red La Marzocco FB/80 to pull shots of either their signature Full Cycle blend or an Ethiopian single origin microlot.

Instead of exclusively light, fruity roasts that are in vogue these days — which they feel can run to sour for customers — Nossa Familia Coffee also offers medium roasts and even some darker options with more chocolate notes. Some of these can be found among their series of family name blends (e.g., Ernesto’s, Augusta’s, Teodoro’s, etc.); they are the rare example of a newer American roaster making quality blends. And while the business started with their Brazilian family farm roots, they’ve expanded into other sourcing locations: single-origin microlot coffees from Ethiopia, Rwanda, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.

Rob Hoos, their head roaster, is also famous for penning the 64-page “Modulating the Flavor Profile of Coffee: One Roaster’s Manifesto” earlier this year.

Inside the small space of the Nossa Espresso Bar with their roasting operations through the window at left Looking through the window over Nossa Familia Coffee's roasting operations

The Full Cycle blend comes with an even, darker to medium brown crema with a flavor that’s well balanced. There’s a brightness complementing apples and pears, cinnamon, and some bittersweet chocolate. There’s also some molasses and honey with an acidic bite at the finish. They serve it two-sips short in a black Inker cup with sparkling water on the side.

Despite many who regard Portland as America’s “coffee capital,” its coffee culture — like most any other form of culture in Portland — can also be characterized by its lack of diversity or variety. Despite the many quality roasters and coffee houses in this modest town, they all seem to do many of the same things in the same ways while seemingly following the same playbook.

This alone makes Nossa Familia Coffee a notable exception — given its direct ties to origin and its trend-bucking sourcing, blending, and roasting philosophies. But what particularly makes it stand out is that the quality of its espresso shots is among the best in town.

Read the review of the Nossa Espresso Bar in Portland, OR.

The Nossa Espresso Bar's La Marzocco FB/80 and shelves of merchandising The Nossa Espresso Bar espresso

Trip Report: Heart Coffee Roasters (Downtown Portland, OR)

Posted by on 16 Jun 2015 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Roasting

Pro snowboarder and Finnish native Wille Yli-Luoma established this local Portland roaster and two-shop, starkly designed coffeehouse chain in 2009. Inspired by the Swedish fika coffee break, he wanted to bring it to his adopted home town of Portland. (Maybe he’s not Swedish, but remember that Fins are the worlds biggest coffee drinkers.)

Heart says it draws its coffee influences from Scandinavia and the local Portland scene — using its rebuilt Probat to roast its beans to the “lightest degree possible” while fully developing the flavors in what each bean has to offer. Now this sounds like utter nonsense when I think of all the grassy, under-roasted, under-developed coffees I’ve abused my taste buds with under the guise of “Third Wave” roasting. However, Heart exhibits enough prowess at bean sourcing and roasting to offer more than just a trendy cliché in the cup.

Entrance to Heart Roasters in Portland's downtown Inside Heart Roasters, looking towards downtown past their Wall o' Mersh

This newer West Side Portland location has dark hexagonal tile floors, tall windows with lots of light, white-painted walls, a wall o’ mersh, and wood surfaces everywhere: benches, long shared picnic bench seating, small café tables, and window counter seating. Overall, the seating is a bit scarce for the space — it helps if you can sit on the sidewalk benches outside. Especially as you often find in town: they have the de rigueur uncomfortable-and-over-designed chairs that Portlanders must love.

As I mentioned above, Heart is also known for its exclusively light roasts, which they do well in a Nordic style — even if that means high acidity with every cup. These factors combined with a reputation for aloof service and a clientele of the popular people from class have made it highly divisive among Portlanders: they say you either love it or hate it.

Sparse and stark like a Scandinavian nightmare: it's Heart Roasters Heart Roasters' service counter

They offer bread, pastries, and espresso drinks. No pour-overs, unlike their East Side mothership location. Using a custom three-group Mistral machine, they offered two options for espresso: an Ethiopian Dabub Mateyba single origin and their Stereo blend.

The Stereo blend comes with a even, medium brown crema of modest thickness. The shot fills rather high in the cup, seemingly influencing the weaknesses in its slightly thin body. There’s a woodiness plus cloves and cinnamon with a fading acidic sharpness at the finish. Heart does a good job of sticking to a light roast stereotype without stumbling into grassy, almost raw coffee. They actually get light roasting right. Served in white logo ANCAP cups with a shot of sparkling water on the side.

Yes, it’s a lighter style and the emphasis is on a high acidity in the cup — essentially making them a sort of one-note player for how they philosophically approach coffee. But their light roasts are balanced enough on a knife’s edge to avoid the horrid grassy yellow beans that barely make it to the first crack. This is probably the pro skateboarder in Wille coming out in his coffees.

Heart Roasters exclusively light-roasted coffee for retail sale The Heart Roasters Mistral machine

The influences of Copenhagen’s The Coffee Collective and Norway’s Tim Wendelboe show through. Most of their bean sources come from Africa and Latin America in search of a bigger, balanced acidity that works best with their roasting style. This puts them in contention with a lot of Scandinavian roasters for specialty lots.

Their cappuccino comes with rosetta latte art and a decent job of milk-frothing: good consistency and heft but not overly milky overall as can be common in Portland. But the lightness of the roasts offers little for the milk to contrast with, resulting in more of a muddled flavor in the cup.

Love it or hate it? Oddly, we’re in the rare middle ground camp: a very good place, but not exactly one I’d seek out in Portland above a few others.

Read the review of Heart Coffee Roasters in downtown Portland, OR.

The Heart Roasters espresso The Heart Roasters cappuccino

Trip Report: Coava Brew Bar (Portland, OR)

Posted by on 09 Jun 2015 | Filed under: Add Milk, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Roasting

Led Zeppelin fanatic Matt Higgins truly started his career in coffee at Walnut Creek’s Pacific Bay Coffee Company — first as an apprentice, and later as their roaster. Back then in the early-mid ’00s, Pacific Bay was a very different business, with different owners, than it is today. But it was the kind of combination café and roastery that attracted a number of like-minded, budding coffee professionals that would come to make their mark on American coffee over the following decade. (Another example includes Gabriel Boscana — now of Paramo Coffee Roasters, but back then a USBC competitor with Pacific Bay before joining the initial crew at Ritual Roasters.)

Taking his trade back to Portland, Matt began Coava in his garage in 2008. While working at a coffee bar in North Portland, he met Keith Gehrke and the two co-founded Coava as a real business by 2009. The name is a collective noun for green, unroasted coffee beans, spoken as if by someone who enjoys coffee a little too much. (It’s pronounced as the two-syllable “co-VUH” — it’s Turkish for green coffee.)

Coava Brew Bar from SE Main St. Garage doors along Portland's Grand Ave. open to the Coava Brew Bar

Coava expanded to open this location, their first “Brew Bar”, in the Summer of 2010. It’s a vast space in Portland’s Central Eastside industrial district, which they share with the Bamboo Revolution showroom. Hence the stylish all-bamboo bathroom that feels like a modern ice fishing hut.

Inside there are seemingly acres of open showroom space — 10,000 square feet: you could operate a roller rink in here on weekends — with a machine shop feel. With roll-up doors along the Grand Ave. entrance, they also offer limited metal café table seating along the SE Main St. sidewalk.

Acres of space inside Coava Brew Bar in the Bamboo Revolution showroom Inside the Coava Brew Bar

Coava's roasted beans for retail sale on display Seating inside Coava Brew Bar looking out over the corner of SE Main St. and SE Grand Ave.

Inside you’ll hear more than just the Led Zeppelin stereotype — such as the sounds of SchoolBoy Q to the Jesus & Mary Chain combined with the occasional TriMet streetcar rattling up Grand Ave., locomotives running nearer to the Willamette River, and all with obstructed views of downtown Portland just beyond the river.

There’s exposed wood everywhere along with concrete slab flooring. Seating is very limited for its space, consisting of a few shared large tables and benches with chairs plus additional counter seating at one side furthest from the windows. A functioning 1980s 5-kilo Probat roaster sits proudly next to the service counter along with various coffee roasts for retail sale.

They admirably offer an incredibly simplistic menu in the manner of doing just a few things really well, including offering some excellent pastries. Using a matte gray refinished two-group La Marzocco Linea (a technique that La Marzocco admired so much they adopted the practice themselves), we rated shots of their Ethiopia Meaza. With Matt reacting a bit to his time at Pacific Bay, Coava doesn’t do blends.

Coava's on-site Probat roaster inside the Brew Bar Coava's La Marzocco Linea for espresso service

The Meaza came as a compact shot, two sips short, with a mottled medium brown crema of decent thickness. Served in a white ANCAP cup, it has a sharper, astringent, acidic bite that finishes off a mostly pungent shot with sweeter edges of candies and syrup. A solid, quality espresso shot within the confines of what’s possible with single origin Ethiopian coffee (a habit that’s practically ubiquitous among Portland coffee bars).

Their cappuccino is modestly sized with detailed latte art, a good layer of microfoam, and a decent balance without being too milky. They also have excellent pour-overs, exclusively using their own Kone metal filters over Chemex brewers. (Yes, they eat their own dog food.)

Bonus points for their baristas’ customer-focused attitudes about coffee. They stash their milk in an ice chest in a way that it’s almost hidden. My wife felt sheepish asking for milk to add to her pour-over, but she was greeted with a very non-judgmental “You should have your coffee the way you like it.” Definitely one of the best coffee destinations in all of Portland.

Read the review of Coava Brew Bar in Portland’s Central Eastside.

Coava's coffee menu of the day Coava's Chemex pour-over bar showcases their Kone filters

The Coava espresso - from their Ethiopia Meaza The Coava cappuccino

Trip Report: Bow Truss Coffee Roasters (River North, Chicago, IL)

Posted by on 08 May 2015 | Filed under: Add Milk, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Roasting

I first came across Bow Truss coffee a few years ago at Chicago’s Gilt Bar, across the street from the massive Merchandise Mart — a building so large that it inspired Soviet envy and had its own ZIP code up until 2008. The coffee was particularly good for a gastropub, and Lakeview-based Bow Truss was in the process of papering up the windows of their planned downtown Chicago shop just around the corner.

Bow Truss coffee shop openings haven’t come quietly. Earlier this year, their Pilsen opening was the target of much publicized anti-gentrification protests. (West Oakland’s Kilovolt Coffee suffered a similar welcome several months earlier with barely a media mention.) In a story not all too unfamiliar to San Franciscans who recently witnessed bus rage, some Pilsen residents apparently preferred the historical charm of street signage penned by the Latin Kings, Vice Lords, and the Insane Gangsta Satan Disciples. Though I can personally attest that back in the days before consumer GPS and FourSquare, gang tags provided a relatively reliable form of geolocation in Chicago’s South and West sides.

Bow Truss Coffee Roasters at the Merchandise Mart Brown Line 'L' exit Entrance to Bow Truss Coffee Roasters in Chicago's River North

People standing around as you enter the River North Bow Truss Coffee Roasters Looking back at the entrance inside River North's Bow Truss Coffee Roasters

This tiny location opened in the winter of 2013, sitting beneath a Ravenswood Brown Line “L” stop. It’s also incredibly busy with a constantly slamming front door (they need to fix that).

The interior is a victim of poor space planning, making the seating situation much more scarce than it needs to be. For example, one exposed brick wall is covered with a large chalkboard artwork for Bow Truss — which could be better served as counter space with stool seating.

Bow Truss Coffee Roasters' half kayak filled with roasted coffee for retail saleIt has a dark interior with one central round table and a mismatch of stools at a counter on the opposite wall, a front window table, and there’s a handful of chairs strewn about the place. Plus a lot of people standing around because, well, there’s no place to sit.

Behind the counter there’s a decent amount of service space, with luggage in a shipper’s net hung from a ceiling pulley above. Roasted beans for sale are on display in an upright half canoe that’s split back-to-back. There are also oars beneath the wooden counter, two sleds, and a ViewMaster at the retail accessories and “coffee accoutrements” stand with slides of Vegas hotels. Thus there’s little theme here beyond “garage sale”.

They offer V-60 pour-overs, batch brewed coffee, cold brew coffee, and espresso. They also adopt the language here of “take-away” versus “to-stay”. Using their Foundation blend — the barista tunes a Mahlkönig grinder and the two-group Rancilio Xcelsius to it — they pull shots of a true doppio size in white Espresso Parts cups.

It has a darker, textured crema and a deep, rich flavor of darker spices, herbs, and some molasses sweetness with some acid in the finish but not a major bite. It predominantly exhibits flavors of cherry and 85% dark bitter chocolate, served with sparkling water on the side. For $3.25 they offer an “alternate espresso” (Colombia Nariño single origin on our visit).

They also make a very milky cappuccino: a large volume of liquid and with a scant, thinner surface of microfoam with latte art. As with many Chicago coffee shops, try to avoid the milk-based drinks and get the straight shots here for the best results. This town is drowning in milk.

Read the review of Bow Truss Coffee Roasters in Chicago’s River North.

Bow Truss chalkboard signage and the 'accoutrement' and accessory bar Mahlkönig grinders and a Rancilio Xcelsius inside River North's Bow Truss Coffee Roasters

The River North Bow Truss Coffee Roasters espresso The River North Bow Truss Coffee Roasters cappuccino: bring fins and a swimming cap

Trip Report: Plein Air Café & Eatery (Chicago, IL)

Posted by on 21 Apr 2015 | Filed under: Add Milk, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Roasting

This café is located in the middle of the University of Chicago campus in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Its next door neighbor is the historic Frederick C. Robie House — designed by famed area architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, and influential enough to inspire a $371 Lego kit you can still buy off Amazon.com. Just two blocks down in the opposite direction is a monument to the world’s first nuclear reactor, assembled under Enrico Fermi’s supervision as part of the Manhattan Project.

With a neighborhood pedigree like that, you expect decent coffee. (Even with the frequency of nearby shootings in the surrounding area.) Fortunately this place largely delivers.

University of Chicago campus neaby Henry Moore's Nuclear Energy sculpture marks the spot of the first nuclear chain reaction

Entrance to the Plein Air Café building, shared with the CoOp bookstore Signage for the interior entrance to the Plein Air Café

Sharing a building with the campus Seminary CoOp Bookstore, owner Soo Choi conceived of this café in 2012 as “a French atelier-inspired café and eatery seeking to provide a warm, serene environment where guests can savor coffee, food, and design.” It did not open until March 2014, snagging on permits, chef churn, and other delays.

The wait seems worth it, as it’s been rather packed ever since. For a campus café, and perhaps reflecting the well-heeled and intellectual UChicago demographic, it is often crowded with a mix of UChicago grad students, faculty and staff, and educational tourists (they do have a few good museums on UChicago campus).

Inside they offer several café tables, a couple of long shared tables, and a series of stools at a long window counter. Outdoor patio seating facing the Robie House also exists among wooden benches and tables when weather permits. They serve salads, soups, and baguette sandwiches along with coffee service from a pick-up window. Complimentary taps of cold, sparkling and still water you can pull in jelly jars.

Inside the Plein Air Café Odd table art inside the Plein Air Café

Ordering at the Plein Air Café service window Windows and outdoor seating at the Plein Air Café overlooks the Robie House

Pastries on display at the Plein Air Café Metric Coffee for retail sale at Plein Air Café

As for the coffee service, they are one of the few retail locations serving Metric Coffee. Metric Coffee has received plenty of accolades and a dump truck load of buzz since its 2013 inception. At a San Francisco ceremony in January, they received a Good Food Award for their Kenya Kayu coffee. (Just don’t get us started on coffee being classified as “food” given that heroin better fits the dictionary definition.)

In the cramped space behind the service window glass (showing off the latest pastries), they operate a two-group La Marzocco GB/5. They sell Metric Coffee beans for retail sale at the counter and use their Quantum Espresso to pull shots served properly short with a congealed, medium brown crema with darker brown spots. The shot is full-bodied, potent, and has an acid bite in the long finish over some herbal and molasses flavor notes. Served in a mismatch of ITI China saucers and decorative Front of the House demitasses with a thumb grip at the top.

Is Metric Coffee magically delicious? I’m not sure I’d go chasing a leprechaun for it, but it’s up there.

The milk-frothing here shows good texture, and they do a decent pass at latte art. However, they are heavy-handed with the milk ratio on their cappuccino (served in Vertex mugs). Stick with the double shots. In fact, a lot of quality Chicago coffee shops seem to drown their standard cappuccino in milk, so that’s wise advice anywhere in town.

The Plein Air Café's workhorse: a La Marzocco GB/5 Pick-up counter at the Plein Air Café

The Plein Air Café espresso The Plein Air Café cappuccino

Trip Report: Showplace Caffè (SOMA)

Posted by on 07 Apr 2015 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew, Roasting

It’s hard to say why I like this place as much as I do, but I do. Though it’s just not the espresso.

Opening in late 2010, this place is pretty much a dive in a part of no-mans-land SF. But it melds with the neighborhood and transports you to another place — if that place is a location shoot from a Quentin Tarrantino movie. Don’t ask why I’m into that sort of thing, though I like expecting to run into Tim Roth. But suffice to say, it’s a tiny, corner spot planted in a neighborhood full of auto repair shops and industrial garages.

Showplace Caffè from the corner Showplace Caffè from the front sidewalk

Inside Showplace Caffè looking out Looking out the windows at Showplace Caffè

Ryan, a former Blue Bottle Coffee employee in a previous life, is typically the lone staffer operating this place. And even he can occasionally disappear outside for smoke breaks. Lines are short and it’s kind of a locals-only thing.

Outside, there are two beat-up outdoor tables on the front sidewalk. Inside, there’s one table for seating at the corner windows. To the rear corner there’s something of a mini-lounge consisting of a couch, a turntable, books, and art magazines. (Oddly, on first visit they were playing a vinyl LP of the Stones’ Exile on Main Street just as I had heard at nearby Sightglass the day before.)

At the plywood counter, they have a two-group La Marzocco Linea. But they also sport a red, 1-lb Sonofresco roaster and beans currently from Sweet Maria’s.

Ryan working the La Marzocco at the counter at Showplace Caffè - with coffee menu posted behind Showplace Caffè's Sonofresco roaster

Tiny but sweet digs inside the tiny Showplace Caffè Working auto garage behind Showplace Caffè

While they currently offer De La Paz coffee for drinks and retail sale (and formerly did the same for Sightglass), they ultimately plan to roast their own from Sweet Maria’s Coffee Shrub commercial sister.

Sometimes you can catch them running experiments with their batch roaster, playing with how to extend typical roast profiles. Their ideal roast is an expressive light roast as they’ve experienced from Seattle’s Slate roasters — where in spite of the lightness they can still somehow extract dark chocolate and other notes characteristic of darker roasts.

A decaying Earl Scheib sign marks that you're near...They’re also big fans of dry-processed coffees, their bright and fruity flavors, and the dangerous high-wire act needed when processing these coffees. (They find the washed-coffee-only types in the industry to be a little limiting… if not irritating.) Lest we forget that Illy — about as quality-control-obsessed as they come — makes their flagship blend from a standard nine coffees, four of which are always naturals.

For now Showplace serves espresso using the Peel Sessions blend (two Africans) as a full double shot with an attractive tiger-striped crema. It’s a larger shot with slightly lighter body. It has a reserved brightness and decent flavor balance of spices, mostly herbal pungency, and some edges of caramel sweetness. Milk-frothing here is pretty solid, producing velvety textures and rosetta latte art. Served in black Espresso Parts cups.

Come to Sightglass for the scene and variety, but come here when you want great espresso and a whole other experience. Highly recommended if you’re ever doing jury duty at the SF Glamour Slammer (as I was recently).

Read the review of Showplace Caffè in SF’s SOMA district.

The Showplace Caffè espresso The Showplace Caffè cappucino

Trip Report: Ritual Coffee Roasters Redux (Mission District)

Posted by on 19 Mar 2015 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Roasting

It’s not like I never go back to the same place twice. I often evolve the ratings and reviews for a coffee purveyor over multiple visits: sometimes a few, sometimes dozens. Sometimes over a period of several years.

This experience ultimately factors into our consistency rating, as the quality of a place can depend so much on the barista that day, the coffee supply that week, the state of the equipment maintenance that month. It’s a bit audacious to attempt to quantify this, I know.

A new parklet under construction outside the Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters mothership Inside the remodeled Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters

Yet I am quite confident in the consistency and repeatability of our ratings system and review style — at least for my own personal use — based upon hundreds of blind spot re-tests I’ve repeated over the years. Comparing and contrasting new reviews and ratings for a place with those I’ve made for it in the past, I’ve frequently surprised myself for how well I’ve captured the sensory and quality experience of an espresso rated years prior. That is, when a place demonstrates remarkable consistency.

But with so many great retail coffee options abound these days, it’s rare that we post separately about return visits. It’s been over nine years since we last posted about a visit to the Ritual Coffee Roasters mothership in SF’s Mission. And particularly with its recent remodel, it’s more than deserving of an update.

Art and benches at the rear of the remodeled Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters Wall o' merch at the remodeled Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters

Eileen Hassi’s busy café first opened in May 2005 (along with then-partner, Jeremy Tooker, now of Four Barrel Coffee fame). It opened as a long, modern, clean space with many tables and thrift store living room sets in the back. But over the years, free Wi-Fi brought hordes of laptop squatters and the place also attracted a bit of a grittier Mission vibe. (Arguably Jeremy got so freaked by the environmental changes that it spurred him on to open his own place.)

A Fall 2014 remodel is now starkly clean and minimalist, with a white/black/red color scheme. It very much looks ripped off from the Montgomery St. Coffee Bar, save for the succulent garden in back, but it works. Or maybe that’s Saint Frank I’m thinking of. Or the latest reincarnation of Wrecking Ball. Or maybe that’s more “all of the above”.

When I lamented over Bay Area espresso sameness years ago, I never thought that would extend to the same architects and interior designers to make so many coffee houses look the same as well.

Service counter looking towards the rear of the Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters Succulent garden at the rear of the remodeled Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters

One major positive from this location’s redesign seems that in getting rid of some of their chairs and the on-site Wi-Fi, they also got rid of many of the, well, vagrants. Which makes the space a lot more inviting and less standoffish than it was prior. In addition to less clutter, there’s also more of an emphasis now on long, communally shared tables.

They originally used and sold Stumptown‘s Hair Bender (with Eileen and Jeremy being big Stumptown fanatics), but they’ve long since started roasting their own — at first with an on site Probat that has long since been removed offsite. Over the years they replaced their shiny red, three-group La Marzocco FB70 with a GB/5 … and then a three-group Synesso … and now two custom 2- and 3-group Synesso Hydra machines. Black counters and white machines with red trim and wood paddles. Plus the mandatory Mazzer and Mahlkönig grinders.

The baristas remain well-trained: they grind to order, they pull shots directly in the cup where appropriate, and they take their time making a deliberate tamp — even down to the final twist.

The Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters looking to the entrance from the rear 3 Fish Studios/Eric Rewitzer art design on the walls while you wait for your Ritual Coffee order

Same as it ever was, they produce an espresso (a regular and rotating seasonal blend) with a mottled medium-to-dark brown crema of modest thickness and some congealed richness — and occasionally some larger bubbles at the center. Flavorwise, there’s a caramel sweetness combined with a good mid-range palate (roasted hazelnut, etc.) and sharp acidity in the finish — which is a little like a trademark. Roasting their coffees bright, they can border on underripe fruit sometimes — which works as a pour-over but can be problematic as espresso. And now served in their newer Le Porcellane d’ANCAP cups with a sparkling water on the side.

Going back to our opening on consistency, what is noticeably different now from before is a little more of a broader flavor profile and reduced emphasis on underripe fruit that raised its flavor score since my last visits in 2013. If you’re into milk-based drinks, the rosetta latte art can vary from award-winning to amateur, depending upon the barista shift, but they get the fine microfoam down well no matter what. Hence part of why — over some 40 visits over 10 years — they rate as “Consistent” but not “Very Consistent”.

Approaching 10 years of operations, this Ritual location still delivers the goods and has even revitalized itself somewhat in both the environment and some of the end product itself.

Read the updated review on Ritual Coffee Roasters in the Mission.

Synesso machines and Mazzer grinders at the Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters service counter The Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters espresso

Trip Report: Blue Bottle Coffee Co. at Heath Ceramics (Mission District)

Posted by on 01 Feb 2015 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Local Brew

One of Blue Bottle Coffee‘s great challenges today is to continue growing with the success of their coffee and café operations while avoiding becoming a commodity: a boilerplate coffee shop with a flavor profile so consistent that it becomes a little monotonous and boring, despite its obvious quality. Back in 2007 we wrote about Blue Bottle’s role in the Bay Area’s budding espresso sameness fatigue.

Coincidentally, that reference was in an article about Piccino Cafe — which has since closed, reopened to a larger restaurant space, and switched from Blue Bottle to Sightglass roasting. Sightglass has also since opened a second roasting operation in the Mission District where they immediately addressed the sameness concern by roasting and offering select coffees that aren’t available at their other locations.

Garage entrance to Heath Ceramics and the Blue Bottle Coffee inside Inside with the Blue Bottle Coffee to the left and the Heath Ceramics plant to the right

Just a few blocks from the second Sightglass roastery is this Blue Bottle Coffee outlet located inside the garage door of a Heath Ceramics production and retail warehouse. The location suits Blue Bottle’s alliance with Heath, and it also offers another unique space for them to operate. Even if Blue Bottle has yet to diversify their coffee offerings as much as the smaller-scale Sightglass.

Off to the left in this space is the in-house Blue Bottle retail café, with a decent-sized service counter, a lot of shelf space dedicated to whole bean sales, and a rear shelf of merchandising. To the center is the café seating area, adorned with the warm colors of wooden benches and chairs for seating inbetween the café and Heath’s production plant residing behind glass windows.

Open seating area for the Blue Bottle Coffee inside Heath CeramicsThe area is decorated with succulents and tall white ceilings with a lot of exposed pipes. At the service counter they employ a two-group La Marzocco Strada machine. Going just a little off what was expected at the visit, they served espresso using their Colombia Las Margaritas Red Bourbon Honey single origin roast instead of their traditional three-bean blends. This gave the cup a bright fruitiness that shown throughout the cup — or disrupted the balance, however you perceive it.

The flavor is sharp: mace, cloves, and bright spices. It comes with a mottled medium brown crema and is served with a small glass of sparkling water on the side in a Heath Ceramic cup (of course).

While it’s a very astringent cup, at least they are experimenting beyond the expected at some of their cafés. Even if we had to deduct a few points for the annoying hipster barista who insisted on calling our shot a “spro”. (The groan-worthy “spro” being the #yolo of coffee vernacular.)

Read the review of the Blue Bottle Coffee Company at Heath Ceramics in SF’s Mission District.

Baristi behind the La Marzocco Strada at Blue Bottle Coffee in the Heath Ceramics Espresso with a side of sparkling water at Blue Bottle Coffee in Heath Ceramics

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