Café Society

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If I must: late thoughts on Peet’s buyouts of Intelligentsia and Stumptown

Posted by on 08 Nov 2015 | Filed under: Barista, Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Machine, Quality Issues, Roasting, Starbucks

Unless you’re wearing a tinfoil hat and staying off the grid (except for this blog), you probably know that Peet’s Coffee & Tea — through JAB Holding — bought out both Intelligentsia and Stumptown last month. Predictably, there was much hipster angst on social media (as if that isn’t the whole point of social media), and at first I didn’t see the need to cover the story again.

After all, it is essentially an updated rehash of a post I wrote four years ago. This time around there was an enormous amount of mainstream media coverage as well. But prodded some here, there’s probably another chapter on this topic.

Todd Carmichael once likened Duane Sorenson to Che Guevara, whom is now in a full-on T-shirt sales phaseSome of the mainstream media have come to the defense of the acquired, noting the dual standards of how an Instagram sells for billions of dollars to Facebook and its founders are congratulated while Intelligentsia and Stumptown are showered with “sellout” scorn on social media.

However, most Silicon Valley startups scale by merely replicating data and code. With many leveraging Metcalfe’s Law, these businesses naturally improve the customer experience with scale. Contrast this with the business of coffee, which scales through the much higher friction of skilled labor and quality coffee sourcing.

These two factors are subject to a sort of inverse Metcalfe’s Law: the bigger the scale, or the more customers they serve, the poorer the quality of what they serve. Starbucks didn’t dumb down their baristas and throw out their La Marzocco machines for brain-dead, push-button Verismos because it would improve their coffee quality. They did it out of the necessity to scale to thousands of outlets in the face of a dearth of skilled baristas to hire en masse (and less expensive ones at that).

Show me the hockey stick growthThus do not be fooled by any of the founder rhetoric about how joining Peet’s provides access to better supply chains and whatnot. I cannot think of a single coffee purveyor that has improved with scale — at least from the consumer’s perspective of a quality end product. Investors and shareholders are a different story, however. It’s also worth remembering that Starbucks’ scaling genius was in getting millions of people who don’t like coffee to believe that they did — through flavored milkshakes and the like.

But I don’t begrudge the founders of Stumptown and Intelligentsia for taking a great risk in the marketplace when much fewer cared as much about coffee quality, for making a great product, for working hard at it, and for growing their businesses. They deserve to be rewarded for their efforts and for helping to popularize better coffee. I thank them heartily, but make no mistake: effectively this is their stop. This is where they get off.

The House that Intelligentsia builtYou could argue Stumptown got off earlier than Intelligentsia. While Intelligentsia was still producing barista champions, Stumptown was already downgrading itself as a bottled coffee purveyor as its founder preoccupied himself with becoming a restauranteur. Stumptown counter-intuitively went beyond producing wholesome basics to embarking on the packaged foods path of processed, shelf-stable consumables — just as much of the food world was headed in the opposite direction. In other words: more pumpkin spice latte in a can, less Cup of Excellence.

Why the words “new” and “innovation” should never be associated with good coffee

In fact, the world of coffee today seems obsessed with the brewing-gadget-of-the-week and “new and exciting” coffee beverage concepts as a complete distraction from the basic quality of the fundamentals. These fads and come-ons hint at the side-show desperation of coffee in the 1980s when the emphasis was on faddish gimmicks such as flavored coffees (French vanilla, mocha creme, hazelnut whatever, anyone?).

When you see this associated with coffee, run!Every time I see the words “new” or “innovation” associated with coffee, I know they have completely lost the plot. Those are the marketing buzzwords of factory production and packaging. “New” beverage concept introductions such as cold brew and nitro coffee (another thing to thank Stumptown for) are just a page lifted from the Jack-In-The-Box food fad marketing playbook for the Spicy Sriracha Burger. May as well package nitro coffee in a cardboard box along with an action figure from the next Star Wars movie and call it a Happy Pack. Offer good while supplies last.

I do hope both Intelligentsia and Stumptown have a ways to go still under their new ownership. But then I look no further than Starbucks and how its buyout strategy of competitors with better product played out. Whether Torrefazione Italia, Teavana, or the Clover Equipment Company, Starbucks seems to have taken a deliberate scorched earth approach that ultimately eliminates consumer access to better end product.

Thus I recommend fans get their Intelligentsia and Stumptown fixes while they still can, because there really is only one direction for them to go from here.

Trip Report: Iron Horse Coffee Bar (Union Square)

Posted by on 07 Sep 2015 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Local Brew

Opening earlier this year, this daytime coffee cubbyhole/pop-up might remind you of the Cafe Lambretta chain of miniscule coffee shops that dot the South of Market. But instead of Blue Bottle Coffee they serve Ritual Coffee Roasters.

As a daytime front to the Romper Room bar, they also offer the option to spike your coffee drink as a variety of caffè corretti (Italian for corrected coffee). All of which seems suitable for a bar, even if it now seems to follow the current fad of serving coffee in formats that degrade or mask its core quality — e.g., nitro brews, coffee cocktails, partially extracted cold brews with two-week shelf-lives — under the false pretense of “craft coffee”.

Iron Horse Coffee Bar resides in the daytime entrance of Romper Room Service counter inside Iron Horse Coffee Bar

You’ll find Iron Horse Coffee Bar in the pedestrian-friendly Maiden Lane alleyway by the “Coffee that doesn’t suck” signs — perhaps a less lame version of “World’s Best Cup of Coffee” for a modern era — placed around the feeding streets and walkways on its perimeter. You’ll also notice it by the two baby blue café tables in the middle of the street out front of the Romper Room entrance.

Named after the restaurant that stood here in 1950, the service counter barely takes up the front entrance with a sign, a two-group La Marzocco GB5, large bags of Ritual, alcohol bottles, and a few Lucky Charms cereal bowls. For indoor seating you can sit at one of the barstools at a counter that runs along the opposite wall.

Pastries on display inside the tiny entrance to Iron Horse Coffee Bar Inside the Romper Room (nice inflatables) withbar stool seating for sipping Iron Horse coffee inside

Using Ritual’s Ursa Major blend, they pulled shots with a striped darker and medium brown crema. It’s pulled as a rather long shot, but it still holds up in body — so they’re definitely not stinging on their portafilter dosing. Even so, at $3 served in a paper cup at a pop-up with no amenities (hello, $3 club), there is absolutely no reason they should be charging the exorbitantly highest rates for espresso shots in all of SF. This is a temporary coffee dive along Maiden Lane — not some tourist fleecing station inside the gates of DisneyWorld.

The quality is decent but nothing special. It has flavors of pungent herbs and some spice and surprisingly limited acidic brightness for Ritual. Unless you want to “correct” your coffee, enjoy sitting in Maiden Lane, or it’s just too convenient, I would keep walking.

Read the review of Iron Horse Coffee Bar in Union Square.

Outdoor seating in Maiden Lane in front of Iron Horse Coffee Bar The Iron Horse Coffee Bar espresso - not worth the $3 price tag

Trip Report: Mazarine Coffee (Financial District)

Posted by on 28 Aug 2015 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Local Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

As an ambitious new coffeeshop in SF’s Financial District, they immediately joined the $3 club — i.e., representing the basic price of admission for a single shot (or double shot) of espresso. While other notable SF openings have failed to live up to these lofty new expectations, this one manages to justify much of its expense.

Mazarine Coffee is named after the Bibliothèque Mazarine — the oldest library in Paris. Now that might sound cultured and sophisticated enough on the surface in an I-Love-Eurotrash manner. But given the coffee quality in Paris until just recently, that’s like naming your sushi restaurant after your favorite Nebraska landmark. (Though my coffee insiders have it that the founder’s working title for the café in 2013 was “Bravo Java”, in which case the name is still a huge step up.)

Outdoor seating in front of Mazarine Coffee Entrance to Mazarine Coffee

Coffee merchandising inside Mazarine Coffee Seating inside Mazarine Coffee

That said, founder/CEO Hamid Rafati switched from his electrical and mechanical engineering roots to professionally commit himself to the art of making great coffee. While the café’s name might seem a bit of a faux pas, he built this place with inspiration from quality sources — including the Southland’s Klatch Coffee, where he even recruited multi-USBC champ Heather Perry to lead the barista training. In addition to committing to offering a rotation of sources as a multi-roaster café, they also offer salads and sandwiches with wine and beer on tap.

There’s fenced-in sidewalk café table seating along Market St., front window counter seating, a lot of grey concrete, a white marble counter, a blueish subway tile backsplash to the service area, and bench seating with burgundy cushions at thick wood-finished café tables. The place is usually packed with patrons ordering nitro coffee and other requisite coffee fads. (Sorry, but nitro coffee, coffee beer, and coffee cocktails are no more “craft coffee” than sangria is “craft wine”.) The service counter is divided between pour-over (Kalita Waves and Baratza grinders) and espresso (Nuova Simonelli grinders) stations.

Service area at Mazarine Coffee with Kees van der Westen Spirit and Nuova Simonelli grinders Close-up of Mazarine Coffee's Spirit with Heath ceramic cups on top

Looking back at the entrance to Mazarine Coffee Service counter for espresso with Spirit machine at Mazarine Coffee

For espresso they use a customized three-group Kees van der Westen Spirit and were serving their private-labelled summer Belle Espresso blend from Klatch. They also served Ritual Coffee for some of their other drink formats.

They pull espresso shots with a mottled split between a medium and darker brown crema. It’s not voluminous but weighty. Served three-sips short, it has a thick body and a fully developed roast flavor with molasses sweet edges and some acidic apple brightness at the front of the sip — centered around pungency but rounded and not overly so. Served in Heath ceramic cups with sparkling water on the side.

The use of Klatch coffee is rather unique for the area, and it’s about time. It lends itself to a more complex and balanced espresso than is typically available from many of the area’s Third Wave cliché cafés. And as I believe it is written in a dusty book somewhere inside the original Bibliothèque Mazarine: Joe Bob says check it out.

Read the review of Mazarine Coffee in the Financial District of San Francisco.

Laptop zombies at the rear of Mazarine Coffee Another view of the outdoor sidewalk seating in front of Mazarine Coffee

The Mazarine Coffee espresso from Klatch Roasting beans Kalita Waves for pour-overs at one of the Mazarine Coffee service counters

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 (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.

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 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

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