Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
This is a difficult trip report to author. Because on the one hand, we have to pay respects to what Ohori’s Coffee Roasters pioneered in Santa Fe, NM. But on the other hand, we have to call out product failures as we experience them.
Like Peet’s, Ohori’s Coffee started as a take-home bean sales store. Also like Peet’s, as consumer preferences changed over the years, it evolved into a retail coffee beverage shop. This was particularly innovative in Santa Fe, where communal “third places” are rare and most social gatherings take place in private homes. Susan Ohori sold the company to her longtime accountant in 2002, and the tiny chain has operated rather consistently to this day under the “newer” ownership.
This location on Cerrillos Road was the second retail shop they opened, and of the two it is designed to be more of a social gathering space. As I entered, even without knowing Ohori’s Peet’s origin story, I felt like I was in another Peet’s chain café. There are four café tables offering sparse seating in a vast space with tall ceilings with exposed wooden framing. There’s a service counter setup with a heavy emphasis on bean and leaf sales that looks lifted out of the Peet’s interior design catalog. And as for the roasted coffees themselves, many hearken back to a flavor profile of dark roasted ashiness popularized by Peet’s some 40 years ago.
There’s a wall of merchandising (cups, machines, Chemex and pour-over paraphernalia), and the art on the walls here is generously showcased without commission.
As for the retail coffee service, they may have dated roots but have not missed out on many coffee fads. They offer pour-overs, buttered coffee for those most recently into Paleo snake oil, and as a sort of health thing they avoid syrups and artificial sweeteners. Ask for a flat white, which is still not yet on the menu, and they will know how to make you one.
Using a two-group Nuova Simonelli machine, they pull espresso shots in a short paper cup (what’s that the deal with that?) with a creamy-looking medium brown crema of a smooth texture that’s relatively thin. There’s a definite ashy edge to the cup: it’s very harsh with a flavor combination of smoke and ash. This is not a pleasant espresso, and we have consumed hundreds of cups of outright rot-gut espresso before.
And yet Ohori’s has won the “Best of Santa Fe” by the Santa Fe Reporter for 7 of the last 10 years, and even the New York Times recently recommended this location in a 36-Hours piece. At first this lead me to believe that many local fans of the place must rarely ever drink the espresso straight here.
But if that were only the case. The milk-frothing here is dishwater-like: thin with irregular bubbles, producing what seems like little more than milk-flavored air. My wife found the macchiato to be simply undrinkable and abandoned it after the first sip. She never does that. I tried it and sympathized with her assessment. I’ve never experienced this at a Peet’s Coffee, for example.
Thus we can’t be sure that the coffee adoration here is rooted in local loyalty, nostalgia, or layers of milk and natural sweeteners that disguise the raw taste of their espresso. There may be other product lines worth trying besides their straight espresso and macchiato. Ohori’s offers medium- and even light-roasted coffees, even though they believe you often need a medium roast to at least develop the coffee’s flavor more fully — of which I am generally in agreement.
But when the core espresso is this dubious for a best-in-town consideration, something is clearly wrong. And I would be the last person some might accuse of being a Third Wave apologist. Unless you are a die hard, dark roasted Peet’s Coffee fan, we have to recommend that you seek your coffee elsewhere in Santa Fe.
Here in that other SF, this postage-stamp-sized espresso kiosk has a very outsized reputation, and why not? The husband and wife team of Bill and Helen Deutsch got their espresso start in Seattle back in the early 1990s era of ubiquitous coffee carts. They brought that same spirit to Santa Fe and have been operating here since 1993.
Which makes Holy Spirit Espresso akin to an archeological find designed to puzzle future anthropologists; it’s like finding 1990s Seattle espresso cart DNA in the middle of the New Mexico high desert. And like an origin story, its name is the English name for the town.
Out in front of the cart cubbyhole are four four metal chairs and two small tables along the sidewalk with a lone parasol above them. Inside is essentially a parked mobile cart dominated by a two-group Synesso machine (formerly a La Marzocco) — surrounded in a bizarro motif of various postcards, photographs, foreign money, and travel tchotchkes covering every one of the few square inches inside the tiny space.
There’s even St. Drogo, the patron saint of coffee. (He’s also the patron saint of ugly people, but we’re not going to infer anything from that.)
Using old Astoria grinders and very-Seattle Caffé d’Arte bags of coffee, Bill or Helen pulls a shot with a medium brown striped crema of modest thickness. The doppio ($2.25) is filled extra high in the cup. It has an old world Italian-leaning flavor profile of mild tobacco smokiness, spices, and some woodiness and is served in mismatched ceramic cups without saucers when you ask “for here”.
The milk-frothing is dense, not too airy, and with uneven microfoam bubbles. Posted as a “Best of Santa Fe 2012” winner, Bill was awarded for best local barista. No matter when, they’re still pretty good and you have to do something right for such a tiny business to remain in operation this long.
Read the review of Holy Spirit Espresso in Santa Fe, NM.
This central Santa Fe coffee house resides in the Santa Fe Arcade on the 2nd Floor. Opening in December 2015, it was developed as a new coffee house “concept” by an area restaurant group lead by Gerald Peters called Santa Fe Dining Inc.
Yes, apparently coffee has become a restaurant theme in America, with this concept being self-described as “full-service third wave coffee house”. Which only underscores how the term third wave has become the modern coffee equivalent of the hackneyed gourmet label from the 1980s.
We’ve been mocking the wannabe hipster use of third wave for a decade now, so most of you are probably glad we’ve largely given it a rest over the years. But ten years later and we’re still surprised that so many relative newbie coffee lovers come to its defense — and so much so that desperate marketers continue to use it.
For the many Millennials who were too young to know the 1980s, a little social history lesson about the term gourmet may provide context. As Wikipedia notes for the word:
In the United States, a 1980s gourmet food movement evolved from a long-term division between elitist (or “gourmet”) tastes and a populist aversion to fancy foods.
Sound anything like the many curmudgeons today who seem offended by the mere existence of “fancy coffee”? Also note that this transformation followed the establishment of supposed “second wave coffee” stalwarts such as Starbucks and Peet’s.
The 1980s saw the popularization of many otherwise commodity foodstuffs to an elevated status with an obligatory gourmet label. Orville Redenbacher became synonymous with gourmet popcorn. Jelly Belly popularized the concept of gourmet jelly beans. Lather, rinse, repeat. Thus at the time, the word gourmet became a sort of shorthand nudge-and-wink to let consumers know that this wasn’t your father’s foodstuff and that its distinguished quality commanded a higher price.
Compared to our coffee wave, your coffee wave is tough and chewy.
Problem was that the term gourmet wasn’t backed by any real definition, guarantee of quality, nor certification. This left the barn doors open for every profit-minded copycat and charlatan to rush in and lay claim to its meaning.
Thus today the term gourmet has since been relegated to downmarket product come-ons in the aisles at commodity goods stores such as Wal-Mart; meanwhile the premium quality/price vanguard has moved on to terms like artisan. Just this week at the ABQ Sunport (airport), I walked up to a Comida Buena with bold “gourmet deli” branding that served me a soggy croissant sandwich wrapped in tin foil and left under a heat lamp for who knows how long. What does gourmet really mean when this happens?
The same is true today of third wave coffee, which has become an unqualified label boasted by wannabes in an attempt to claim some sort of false legitimacy. Meanwhile, virtually all of the top-quality roasters and coffee shops in the world distance themselves from the term. What does third wave really mean when this happens?
Which brings us back to the 35° North Coffee concept. Their slogan, coined by restaurant vet and manager Rob Rittmeyer, is “Find your latitude”. Its name refers to Santa Fe’s latitude as well as the number of grams of coffee used in their pour-overs.
As part of a concept restaurant chain, the food gets a bit more of the attention here. They serve beignets, a croque monsieur, and banh mi sandwiches as a sort of French-influenced theme — even if French is a poor choice for a coffee affiliation.
Accessed from inside the mall, there are five nicer faux marble café tables along a back booth and a marble rear counter with a half-dozen stools. There’s also a separate seating room (the “War Room”) with more and larger tables across of the main entrance. The kitchen, and its vent, are massive: these are clearly food people. And the food sensibilities don’t stop with edibles, as they even offer (as is creative coffee in New Mexico) an oatmeal latte: complete with actual oatmeal, brown sugar, and granola as influenced by Colorado ski bums.
They do roast their own coffee on-site with all the space they have, but any labeling of blend, coffee origin, or other pedigree is virtually absent from a supposed third wave coffee house. They offer drip, pour-overs (supposedly single origin, but how could you tell?), nitro coffee, and espresso service. And yes, they even offer something called a “Latitude Adjustment”: a nod to the Paleo snake oil types seeking a Bulletproof Coffee(tm) knock-off.
All said, they use the three-group La Marzocco Linea behind the counter on shots of their “dark roast blend” to produce an even, medium-to-darker-brown crema of decent thickness. Whatever wave they are supposed to belong to, I have had identical coffee experiences in the late 1990s. But to their credit the espresso body is good, and despite being served in a short paper cup the results are better than expected. It has a darker flavor profile of herbal pungency with some tobacco but no ashiness.
Read the review of 35° North Coffee in Santa Fe, NM.
Opening in August 2014, this independent coffee shop is a casual space located in the strip-mall avenues of NE Albuquerque. It’s in an odd part of town (like what isn’t odd in ABQ?) … located in something of a no-name neighborhood.
However, just a mile and a half further down Lomas Blvd. NE this weekend will be the sixth annual Southwest Coffee & Chocolate Fest at the New Mexico State Fairgrounds — a 135-vendor consumer coffee and chocolate event that has inspired more than a few New Mexico roasters and cafés. Yes, this is a true Southwestern coffee fest and not the grotesquely bloated, shark-jumped SXSW affair simultaneously going on in Austin, TX.
Driving eastbound on Lomas Blvd. NE, you can’t miss it for the dayglow orange painted building out front — a space (and a Web site) it shares with Baker Architecture + Design. Pull into any one of its five parking spots in the front lot, and you’ll notice a couple of café tables on the sidewalk out front. There are a few simple café tables inside for seating.
There is a turquoise-painted, weathered wood counter with a three-group UNIC Stella di Caffè machine for serving their espresso shots. No pour-overs here, folks, but they’re also known for their cold brew — as is required in these high desert parts. Bottles of which also make an appearance on their wall of coffee merchandising.
They promote their heavy use of local food and drink producers (e.g., Rasband Dairies for milk, etc.), and they’ve ventured into burritos and pastries such as the notorious “pie tart” — a sort of less unnatural version of the Pop Tart.
Their coffee — while private labeled as Honest Coffee — is roasted by Prosum Roasters in town. They also feature a guest roaster as an alternative, and on this visit it was Arizona’s Cartel Coffee Lab. (Speaking of artisan Pop Tarts…)
Pulling a shot of a three-bean Central American/Ethiopian blend with a darker roast on it, they served the shot a little hot with a modest body and multi-colored crema that thinned out. The flavor was a bit weaker on first sip but oddly strengthened with greater concentration towards the bottom of the cup — with chocolate, some caramel, some woodiness and a bit of cherry brightness for a darker roast espresso.
Served in a quadrilateral-cut wooden block with two holes for a sparkling water glass and the espresso shotglass. It’s particularly a New Mexico thing. Milk-frothing here can be a little uneven, but the quality is generally good.
It’s a good introduction to New Mexico’s newer breed of coffee shop, which we’ll review more over the coming weeks.
Read the review of Humble Coffee Company in Albuquerque, NM.
Sometimes the headline gives all the spin you need to know. Our spin here is on the same story published yesterday in the NY Times Business section: Starbucks Prospers by Keeping Pace With the Coffee Snobs – The New York Times. Except we’d like to think our spin has a slightly different, less investor-relations-for-PR take.
The good news for Starbucks is that they’ve returned to financial growth after years of stagnation. But make no mistake about Starbucks’ brand extension failure after failure in getting here. They’ve failed at virtually all of their major market expansion attempts beyond coffee: movies and books, music, beer & wine, food (ZOMG, BBQ?). These failures are major blows to Starbucks’ continued growth plans. Because just like their mature fast food brethren, Starbucks has reached a saturation point with their core (coffee) products.
For example, let’s compare Starbucks with Taco Bell. Starbucks is expected to maintain same-store sales through the old marketing hack of continually introducing new products, such as cold brew coffee or the Chestnut Praline Latte. (Hence why the words “new” and “innovation” should never be associated with good coffee.) This is their equivalent of when Taco Bell introduces DareDevil Loaded Grillers in Mild Chipotle, Hot Habanero and Fiery Ghost Pepper flavors. But to truly grow their business, Starbucks needs to do more than just coffee. In Taco Bell terms, this is akin to their recent mad foray into breakfast menus.
Thus reading that “Starbucks Prospers by Keeping Pace With the Coffee Snobs” through their Starbucks Reserve program is akin to defeat. Eight years ago we pondered Starbucks introducing “Starbucks Select” concept stores as part of their eventual desire to claw their way back into the quality coffee market — the very market they so wantonly abandoned for the mass-market race to the bottom over a decade ago. This would be like Taco Bell saying that they are going to focus more on up-market tacos for growth.
Thus instead of expanding into new categories, Starbucks is retreating to its original basics. But with the commodity-quality coffee market already saturated and its growth stagnating, Starbucks is now seeking growth by going up-market and competing with smaller, more nimble, and ever-more established independents in a higher quality market they conceded long ago. Except since it is Starbucks we’re talking about, it is more likely aiming to compete with the indie-turned-corporate darlings of Stumptown or Intelligentsia.
Keep reading the NY Times piece, and you’ll encounter absurdities such as, “Starbucks’s size gives it an edge in securing the best beans. They can do what the smaller competitors can’t.” Oh really? As a bigger company, they are actually at a disadvantage at dealing with smaller family farms producing higher quality beans. For them, working with Starbucks is akin to trying to do business with NASA. And for Starbucks, dealing with such small, piddly providers is grossly inefficient and expensive compared to the supply chains they’ve optimized to supply tens of thousands of global coffee shops with near-identical products.
The piece even ends with an ode to mobile payments and delivery services — which have nothing to do with quality and everything to do with quantity, convenience, and transaction volume.
It just goes to show you how the same data can be interpreted so differently, depending on your perspective. Even if Jim Cramer would be proud.
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.
Some 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).
Thus 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.
You 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.
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?).
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. Coffee is an agricultural product, and there’s a reason why we don’t seek out “new” and “innovation” when buying other agricultural products such as asparagus or pork.
“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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
Today merely the name “Portland” carries its own serious baggage and presumptions — some accurate, but many not. This post will attempt to sift through both of them from my own limited perspective with particular attention paid to the town’s much-celebrated coffee culture.
Portland — aka “Stumptown” (from the many felled trees of its development), aka “Rose City” — may have over 90% of the population of Seattle, but it feels nearly twice as sleepy. Portlanders love their runs and parades, and I arrived in time for the Starlight Parade of their annual Rose Festival — complete with marching bands and floats from many of the area’s high schools. A city like San Francisco is too cool and cynical for this kind of small town sentimentality. But the Portland locals line the downtown streets many hours before the event, parking their lawn chairs with great anticipation, social camaraderie, and a packed picnic basket.
Speaking of public gatherings, not unlike Oakland’s First Fridays, Portland has its own First Thursday in the gentrified Pearl District — with its many cobblestone streets, cookie-cutter modern lofts, public storage units, and chain stores. In contrast is the artier Last Thursdays in the NE Alberta District — which is something of a front line for the town’s current gentrification battles, adjacent to one of the town’s very few hotbeds for gang violence.
The story of gentrification is not uncommon among American cities. Some of what makes Portland a little different is how overwhelmingly, well, white the city is. So white, it’s almost blue. The last U.S. census figures may count the city’s racial breakdown as 76% white (for comparison San Francisco is 54%). But observationally throughout the city, those figures seem like an understatement.
In the eyes of a skinhead, Portland, Oregon looks like the city of the future.
–“Skinhead Against Skinhead“, TIME Magazine
On the TriMet streetcars that run all across town — the closest thing the locals have to the Bay Area’s BART — station stops and instructions are announced in Spanish as well as English, but there’s hardly a Latino to be found on the system. (And yet BART audio is English-only.) Thus in true stereotyped Portland politeness fashion, it eerily seems like the system goes out of its way to culturally accommodate people who aren’t even there.
Even Portland’s Chinatown seems so in name only, save for a couple of old gates spread among a district of what one local called “douchey nightclubs”.
Portland’s lack of racial diversity may stick out like a sore thumb to someone from the Bay Area, but that’s not to say there’s anything inherently wrong with it — although some rightfully point out that it’s partly a product of historically racist state and local policies. But given that coffee ranks #1 on the list of Stuff White People Like, all that whiteness can’t be all bad, right? Except this theme of diversity — and Portland’s general lack thereof — comes up again when we talk about Portland’s coffee culture (more below).
Why is Portland, of all places, the capital of American coffee culture? … This city is still very white. Why does that matter? According to the National Coffee Association, Caucasians drink a half cup a day more coffee than blacks or Hispanics.
— “Drip City“, Willamette Week
Of course, we have to address the Portlandia stereotypes — a term that even the locals have amusingly embraced. Enough of them are true enough to support parody: the beards, the many yoga instructors, the dog walkers sporting discount tattoos, the animal freaks, drivers who are extremely (and charmingly) courteous, etc.
Yet there’s a distinctly higher hipster quotient in SF’s Mission District. What you don’t hear about Portland is at the roots of the city: the historically dark, weathered, slightly dirty Pacific Northwestern Gothic about the place. (Note that these are some of my favorite and most unique characteristics of the town.)
In fact, “thriving” is a word I definitely would not use to describe Portland and its anything-but-vibrant downtown. Like Porto, Portugal, I found it hard to tell if it’s on its way up or way down. Downtown there are derelict vacant lots, sometimes filled with food carts and lined with sidewalks coated in layers of mystery stickiness. Homelessness and mental illness are on prominent display along with too many strip clubs to count (and yes, there is even a vegan one).
And despite many fantastic wilderness options nearby, the bicycling stereotypes, and a trendy Pearl District that hosts a retail outlet for every outdoor enthusiast store imaginable, obesity is a noticeable problem here as in much of America. Portland does not size up to the outdoorsy fit-city-in-spandex stereotype you get in places like Boulder, CO or Austin, TX.
A good part of Portland’s allure includes a local food scene high on the local, organic, and artisanal, an abundant beer microbrewing culture, and a location with a much cheaper cost of living than most. Although you can get the hipster/foodie/microbrew/slacker/cheap-living mix in almost equal measure in a place like Austin, TX, Portland seems to draw much of its appeal along the coast.
Most Portlandia stereotypes seem defined by the expectations of recent residents who aren’t from the area, just as the “fruits & nuts” stereotypes about Californians in the 1970s were primarily driven by refugees from the Midwest rather than the California natives themselves. It’s a little like how residents of Las Vegas lead rather normal and mundane lives, whereas its tourists feel obligated to destroy their livers and lose their minds because of preconceived expectations of behavior once they arrive.
In other words, from what I’ve observed, it’s the more recent immigrants trying to self-fulfill false stereotypes who are among the most exaggerated Portlandia examples — a lot of California and Seattle expats who came for what they thought was in the marketing brochure. (Just don’t ask me what Florida’s problem is.)
Many publications have made out Portland to be some magical, mythical place inhabited by barista leprechauns, where rivers of microlot espresso run down streets adorned with portafilter handles and Mahlkönig EK 43 grinders. Although we’ve seriously questioned what a “coffee city” actually means in today’s environment, Travel + Leisure has regularly ranked Portland at the top among “America’s Best Coffee Cities,” and The Daily Meal recently ranked Portland #1 in the same category.
A few years ago there was a lot of professional chatter about how Portland unseated Seattle as America’s coffee capital. Then add over 60 microroasters in the city, regional champion baristas (back when that was a thing), three national coffee magazines (Fresh Cup, Barista Magazine, Roast Magazine) — plus many quality coffee shops, equipment makers (though Able since moved to CA), and specialty retailers — and you can justify the hype. However, there are several factors that dim the shine here.
First is the question of size. Much about the greatness of Portland’s coffee culture gets weighted relative to the town’s seemingly small size — scaled as if by an “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear” disclaimer. Instead of using purely direct yardsticks such as nationally renowned quality, reputation, variety, or industry awards, Portland’s relatively low population density is often applied as that fun-house-mirror-like lens through which many gauge the local coffee scene.
Which brings us to the second factor: quality. There are some really good coffee shops and roasters here, no question. But are they standouts among the best in the country? For the most part, not exactly. Kansas City has some great roasters and cafés as well, and I wouldn’t necessarily crown Portland’s best as superior to KC’s finest.
A lot of what’s good about coffee in Portland naturally traces its influences back to Stumptown Coffee Roasters. And as much as Stumptown is one of the nation’s elite roasters and coffee chains, we’ve always felt it is a slight underachiever among its peers — whether in rival Seattle or Portland itself.
Which brings us to the third and most critical factor keeping Portland from reaching its quality potential. Stumptown may be a slight underachiever for its elite class, but they are to be commended for taking a great risk and establishing a new kind of coffee operation for the region. Most other Portland shops established since Stumptown seem rather risk-averse and are instead focused on execution, sticking with the formula, rather than taking the risk of offering new ideas of what coffee could be. This is where Portland’s lack of cultural diversity seems to also manifest itself in its coffee culture.
With few exceptions, what Portland has is a number of micro-businesses following a slightly updated Stumptown blueprint in miniature. The degree of this conformity here is palpable and even gets a little monotonous. As with the Seattle music scene in the 1990s after Nirvana made it big, nearly every notable new band in town was donning their grunge flannels and crunching the same power chords. (Nirvana coincidentally having a dubious rumored historical connection to the aforementioned Dharma Bums, btw.) Whether that was because there weren’t enough bands differentiating themselves from Nirvana or whether the market/industry was only interested in bands that sounded like Nirvana knock-offs, the effect was the same.
Similarly, Portland “brew bars” (everything is a “bar” or “lounge” these days, whether you’re getting a coffee or getting your eyebrows waxed) tend to follow a rather narrow definition of roasting (microroasters), roasting styles, use of microlot coffees (and the inevitable Portland single origin Ethiopian shot), rather poor attempts at blends when they aren’t outright verboten, accompanied by cut-and-paste ad copy about seasonality and bean-to-cup attention to detail, etc. as if read off of a checklist.
Where’s the pour-over-only shop like a Phil’z that serves only blends and defiantly eschews the notions of geographic traceability entirely? Where’s the Latin American perspective as you get from a Cumaica Coffee? (Though Portland has a great exception with Brazil in Nossa Familia — no wonder it’s one of our favorites in town.)
There are a few multi-roaster shops, but they generally toe the party line: self-imposed rules about geographic specificity, sourcing from the same half-dozen producing countries, and roasting only well this side of the second crack. There’s always nitro (invented at Stumptown) and cold brew, but those are completely different beverages, really. (Not to mention they’re also doing it in Cleveland too.)
But where do you go for a vac pot coffee? Where’s the Third Wave coffee house co-located inside an S&M shop? Even a place such as the tiny Mountain Grounds, who prominently classifies their roasted bean stocks by growing altitude (2200m, etc.), would be guilty of heresy in this environment.
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.
|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|
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.
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.