Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
A quote in the subhed of Modern Farmer‘s recent article about coffee flour kind of summed it all up for me: “Given the rapidly advancing state of coffee technology…”
I understand that coffee product marketers have a vested interest in injecting a measure of planned obsolescence and general FUD in your preferred coffee choices — trying to equate the evolutionary trajectory of quality coffee with the exponential technology curve of the smartphone. That’s kind of their job. But an agricultural webzine?
The sad part is that they are not alone in this. And yet for over 1,000 years, humanity has followed the essentially unchanged ritual of roasting and grinding coffee beans, extracting a beverage from the grinds with water, and serving it.
Some men hope for revolution but when you revolt and set up your new government you find your new government is still the same old Papa, he has only put on a cardboard mask.
— Charles Bukowski, Notes of a Dirty Old Man
Chemex? Invented in 1941. Pour-over coffee? Invented by Melitta in 1908. Cold brew? Originally called Kyoto coffee, its origins date back to 17th century Kyoto, Japan and the Dutch traders who probably introduced it there. Vacuum pot coffee? Wannabe technogeek webzines with names like Jismodo go full-on circle jerk over their high-tech “Walter White in Breaking Bad” chemistry set looks, but even these devices date back to 1830s Germany — almost a century before the discovery of Penicillin.
Even literal attempts to directly connect the rise of the smartphone to the rise of quality coffee fall horribly short: i.e., the proliferation of smartphone-enabled coffee brewers that invest the bulk of their manufacturing and purchasing costs in useless busy-box application controls and virtually none of it on making better coffee.
So just what is so “rapidly advancing” here? Other than hype and repackaging old brewing methods as “new”.
Another example yesterday came from Condé Nast Traveller: How a Famous Chef Is Helping Cold Brew Coffee Go Global.
I can look past for a moment that cold brew is essentially the Colt 45 of quality coffee (without Snoop Dogg) and that you can get better coffee extractions with hot water and a gym sock. I can even look past that Stephanie Izard is a great chef but yet every chef affiliation with a coffee project has proven meaningless and mediocre at best.
But I’m really looking forward to a Wyndham Grand hotel opening in Kyoto, Japan where they can convert the grossly ignorant public to this great new beverage they’ve invented called “cold-brew coffee.” This is not even about PC bros ranting about cultural appropriation: this is outright cultural theft. And then selling it back to the inventors as if it were their own creation.
Same circus, different clowns.
Whether it’s the promotional materials of coffee purveyors or the so-called journalists who write about them, the only evidence I have for any real revolution is that the educated and intellectuals seem to have fled the premises. Our historical ignorance about coffee only seems to have become worse over the years.
So I implore all of you who even attempt to do this for money: research what you’re doing. Before you tell us that your client or some Young Turk has just invented sunshine, please understand the context and recognize the history and the innovators who may have come long before. Do only that much, and you just might be the coolest thing since an alien Scarlett Johansson drove a rape van around Scotland.
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.
One of the greatest espresso blends on the planet has remained something of a Bay Area secret for the past 23 years. It is almost certain to remain such, as popular tastes have moved on to single origin espresso shots to the pour-over-device-of-the-month to today’s quality-regressive fads being heralded as the forefront of coffee: cold brew (hello, 17th century Kyoto, Japan), nitro coffee, and bored mixologists treating coffee as if it were merely a Torani syrup flavor.
Or to paraphrase Nick Cho: “Second Wave wolves in Third Wave sheep’s clothing“.
All of which makes Josuma Coffee Company and their flagship Malabar Gold blend seem like dinosaurs of a lost age. But if you enjoy an espresso of balance and technical precision, Malabar Gold is a tall order that few American espresso purveyors have been able to match.
Disappointed by virtually all pre-blended green coffee supplies designed for espresso, I first encountered Malabar Gold about a dozen years ago as a home roaster. Buying from off-beat green sources such as Hollywood, CA’s The Coffee Project, the proprietary nature of the Malabar Gold blend strikes you as a false industry secret. For example, purchasing from The Coffee Project requires you to claim your status as a home roaster and not an industry professional.
This makes more sense when you understand Josuma Coffee’s business. Founded by Dr. Joseph John in 1992, they company pioneered the Direct Trade model with India coffee growers a good decade before Intelligentsia came up with the term (and two decades before Intelligentsia became Peet’s Coffee & Tea). They promote themselves largely through industry trade shows and today walk an even balance (i.e., 50/50) between their roasted and unroasted greens coffee businesses.
Over the summer Dr. John’s son, Melind John, invited me down to Josuma’s modest “headquarters” in a Redwood City office park. They had been importing approximately 6 to 7 containers of green coffee from India each year — which most recently has grown to about 9. They store their green coffee in some three different Bay Area warehouses (mostly in the East Bay) and roast in South San Francisco on Mondays.
Their coffee continues to be almost exclusively sourced from India, and most of their blends consist of 3-4 sources. However, Josuma has more recently started seeking out some coffee sources outside of India to aid the flavor consistency of some of their blends and to help round out their offerings to customers — many of them cafés — to provide them with a complete coffee sourcing “solution” as it were.
I’ve found knowledge about India’s coffee to be staggeringly poor in the West. For one, there’s often a presumption that India is purely a British-inspired tea-drinking nation. In South India, there are at least as many, if not more, coffee drinkers than tea drinkers — plus a tradition of it dating back to the 17th century. In 1670, India became the first location in the world outside of Arabia (i.e., Ethiopia, Yemen) to cultivate coffee when the Indian Muslim saint, Baba Budan, smuggled coffee beans from Mocha, Yemen to Mysore, India in what was then considered a religious act.
I joked with Melind that I had encountered the name “Malabar Gold” on multiple occasions around Mysore (officially Mysuru today). But instead of finding the mythical coffee blend, I only encountered locations of a popular chain of jewelry stores.
The great majority of coffee consumption in India isn’t of the “specialty” variety, but that’s also true of the rest of the world. Even so, India — with the Coffee Board of India — have invested heavily in growing and testing quality coffee. That includes wet- and dry-processed arabicas, the unique Monsooned coffee, and some of the highest quality robusta in the world (something you learn as a home roaster if you like a little quality robusta in your espresso blends). And 98% of India’s approximately 250,000 coffee growers remain small growers.
Melind demonstrated some of their own roasts with the two-group La Marzocco FB80 they crate over to trade shows, complete with naked portafilters. Whether straight up espresso shots or Melind’s favorite cortado option, the shot quality was unmistakable.
As quality espresso pioneer and “dinosaur” David Schomer (of Espresso Vivace fame) said at the recent Portland Coffee Fest about Malabar Gold: “This is the only other espresso I’ll drink. And you can quote me on that.” So we will.
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.
I never understood Third Wave coffee’s War on Blends. Instead of advocating improved access to great coffees and all the flavors they have to offer us, it’s as if a coffee Taliban were telling us what tastes are heretical and forbidden. That if a flavor doesn’t occur in nature, it is an affront to both God’s will and our dogmatic coffee religion.
Today single origins are elevated as the ultimate expression of coffee, only to be surpassed by single microlot coffees. But here’s a major problem: there are good microlots and there are not-so-good microlots. Geographic specificity isn’t a measure of quality — as if the more “micro” the lot, the better the coffee. Nor is micro-geographic purity an actual flavor. But we all seem to act like these were true.
Thus there are many industry advocates for coffee’s version of racial hygiene and Jim Crow laws: worshipping at the altar of coffee’s genetic and geographic purity. This despite most of today’s prized microlot coffees being the result of deliberate genetic cross-breeding and geographic transplanting (e.g.: Kenyan SL-28s grown in El Salvador, Ethiopian Geisha grown in Panama, etc.).
Meanwhile, many of the same Third Wave segregationists are now fawning over uses of high-grade coffees in coffee cocktails, stout beers, flavored liqueurs, and shelf-stable iced coffee concoctions where brewed coffee strangely never goes bad… essentially the debasement of elite coffees as a flavoring ingredient. What does this say about respecting the coffee and how it is carefully procured, processed, and prepared? Would advocates of Grand Cru Échézeaux honor mixing it with fruit juice to make a refreshing summer sangria? Or putting it in a saucepan with honey, cinnamon sticks, cloves, and star anise to make a crowd-pleasing spiced mulled wine for the winter holidays?
On the one hand, I don’t get the point of pineapple mango guava juice. But when it comes to the breadth and complexity of coffee flavor profiles, exclusively relying on microlot coffees is like following Olympic sport where the athletes can set world-record leg presses but lack the upper body strength to do more than three chin-ups and get winded on 200m jogs for lack of any cardio training. While not every sporting event has to be an epic of decathlete cross-training, a microlot espresso is woefully inadequate if you value that sort of balance and well-roundedness.
The vanguard of quality coffee standards today have often abandoned making coffee blends, and the few who still invest in making blends have not taken them seriously enough to do them well — at least in North America. This has created a quality coffee flavor profile vacuum. It’s a much bigger vacuum than the one for quality merlot wines that developed around the time of the 2004 movie Sideways, when public tastes faddishly swayed away from the grape.
Like a blast out of 1994, King’s Row Coffee (KRC) — through their CEO, Sam Sabky — approached me with their stated ideals about coffee that seemed both unfashionably dated and radically new & novel at the same time. They are committed to producing multiple high quality blends with flavor profiles targeted for specific environments and purposes, all roasted to order. Encountering such a counter-cultural approach to coffee was a breath of fresh air.
They begin with a James Beard award-winning master chef in Craig Shelton. That Craig also has legit sommelier chops helps with his role as KRC’s taste-maker and recipe man, approaching coffee much as you might a Bordeaux or Rhone blend.
For the roasting itself, KRC relies on the legendary Oren Bloostein of Oren’s Daily Roast fame (based in NY, but always coming to a CoffeeCON near you). Using beans sourced from Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Burundi, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Colombia, Sumatra, and Celebes, KRC applies a post-blending approach where the five or six varietals in a given blend are optimally roasted separately in small batches. (Other roasters sometimes favor a pre-blending approach — which often espouses the idea that component-based roasting loses some of the potential aggregate characteristics of the blend, as if making a pot of stew or spaghetti sauce.)
As for their recipes…
|Blend||Aroma [info]||Brightness [info]||Body [info]||Flavor [info]||Overall|
|The Espresso Blend||8.0||7.0||7.0||7.0||7.50|
|The Shelton Signature Blend||7.0||7.0||8.0||8.0||7.50|
|The Coastal Blend||6.0||7.0||7.0||7.0||6.75|
|The Bonbon Blend||7.0||7.0||6.0||7.0||6.75|
|The Mountain Blend||7.0||7.0||7.0||7.0||7.00|
I made this as an espresso in my usual Gaggia G106 Factory lever machine setup with a Mazzer Mini grinder. The marketing literature calls it “European Style”, which can be quite dubious if by “Europe” you mean France.
They cup it as a “full-bodied, crisp and balanced dark roast”, and there’s clearly some spots of second-crack oils. It’s not as full-bodied as we expected, but there’s a cohesion to it. “Toffee and toasted nuts”? Check. “Bright and clean with no burned aftertaste”? Check. “Great when used with milk”? Quite good.
My shots pulled with a dark to medium brown textured crema — a good sign — with a slightly thin body. The crema was strong enough (we’d rate it an 8.0) to bump the score as our favorite of the lot. Pungent, some spice, some limited sweetness, but no smoke nor ashiness for sure. And some bittersweet chocolate in the base, of which we’re always a fan.
Made as a V60 pour-over with my Mazzer Mini grinder. KRC recommends #4 filters for the V60, and I used Hario’s own #2 filters for all the examples here.
This is Craig’s original coffee and the KRC benchmark, which they call “The World’s Most Sophisticated Coffee”. Talk about a serious billing to live up to.
As described, it’s “an all-day blend for the connoisseur or everyday drinker who takes his coffee black”…”racy, sophisticated and powerful, this coffee is in perfect balance with a lively acidity”… “A ‘Broadband’ medium roast with a remarkable sweetness, large creamy body and smooth finish. Massive complexity and mouthfeel.”
For the most part, the blend delivered on many of its promises. It appears as a slightly dark roast with some second-crack surface oil: few in today’s lightness-obsessed coffee world would call this a medium roast. But the cocoa is there, as is the broadband flavor and balance. However, any acidity is very subdued, but there is a great aftertaste as it truly coats the tongue with sweeter oils. Can we say it?: an excellent blend.
Made as a V60 pour-over with my Mazzer Mini grinder. They call this, “A Robust Taste for Marine Environments” — so brewing in the fog of San Francisco seemed a rather appropriate challenge.
In their words, “The brine in the salty ocean air deadens the palate, resulting in a flat, dull tasting experience, no matter the quality of the coffee” and call this blend “a darker roast and bold, in your face coffee that rises above ambient smells in salty air while preserving a refined and balanced taste”.
It is a more traditional darker roast style with minimal fruit, some smoke, more pungency, but also a pleasant — albeit not great — mouthfeel. Perhaps a touch harsher than the Shelton Signature Blend, but it is still enjoyable. However, I’m not sure I got out as much of its optimization for the ambient marine air.
Made as a V60 pour-over with my Mazzer Mini grinder, KRC labels this “The Ultimate Coffee for Foodies”. Why? They say “we designed the Bonbon Blend to reach peak taste profile when paired with sweet and savory delights, making it an ideal accompaniment to any meal, especially breakfast and dessert.” Sweet and savory covers pretty much all types of food, so we’ll call it a coffee for food pairing.
We’ve never bought into the more recent coffee pairing with food gimmick — suggesting that it is mostly wishful thinking by those attempting to graft wine tasting experiences onto coffee. Food and wine pairings go back centuries if not millennia with the old “if it grows together, it goes together” adage. As for a coffee equivalent, it was originally balled up with animal fats as a trail snack — a kind of Paleo energy bar. Hardly the historical stuff of gourmands.
Now some might make the case that coffee previously had only “one flavor” (their words, not mine) and thus there historically wasn’t a diversity of food pairings to draw from. But we have yet to experience coffee as any more magical or practical for food pairing than, say, cigars.
The KRC Bonbon blend is a lighter roast than the others, but it is still on the edges of second-crack oil. Otherwise it’s more of a medium brown.
Their cupping notes call it “a bold coffee, characterized by a balanced body, a vibrant acidity and a smooth and crisp finish to keep the palate refreshed.” The story is you should try it before and after eating something sweet for a comparison, demonstrating how its acidity balances with your “tainted” flavor palate after eating a chocolate bonbon (hence the name).
Before my chocolate croissant, it seemed rather light-bodied with some acidity and salt. But it was balanced and lacked any harsher elements. After the croissant the acidity was more subdued, the body was enhanced, but the flavor profile of the coffee seemed to flatten out. The difference was subtle, and it turned out to be a good coffee before and after eating something.
Made as a V60 pour-over with my Mazzer Mini grinder. They define it as “Designed for High Altitude Brewing”, noting that “brewing at higher altitudes over-extracts bitter alkaloids and under-extracts desirable oils.” To compensate, KRC blended in a bean with oils that extract at a lower than normal brewing temperature.
Their cupping notes call it “a medium roast with a creamy body and remarkable sweetness. Bright, balanced and smooth at altitude.” I found it to be a medium to dark roast with clear edges of second-crack oils. It has a somewhat thicker body and a little of that felt-like mouthfeel that’s almost part particulate, part oils. And there’s a sweeter finish to the cup.
Brewing this at 90m/300-ft, I didn’t stand to benefit from how the blend was tailored for high-altitude brewing. But it was a good cup of coffee in any case.
Targeting specific environments for coffee enjoyment is an interesting and rather unique approach. I enjoyed all of the coffees, and in particular their flagship Shelton Signature Blend — which is the foundation for all their varieties. And IMO, a good blend is a rare find among newer North American roasters these days.
However, I did not notice major differences in the different blends overall: they were all good, all somewhat similar in roasting style and flavor profile, but not radically that different from each other.
The environmental benefits of one blend versus another seemed incremental, but perhaps not enough to convince a coffee lover in Denver, for example, to forgo their Espresso Novo habit for the KRC Mountain Blend. Not all palates are that sensitive. Still, I have to give them credit for trying something new and not following the herd of Third Wave sheep.
Through King’s Row Coffee, I can also pass along a 20% off discount code of theshot20 if you’d like to try something yourself.
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|
Like many Northwest espresso operations of any history, Chicago native Andrea Spella (and wife Amanda) began his business as an espresso cart. Co-located among one of many Portland-area food cart ghettos where just about anything on wheels invades a vacant lot, Andrea roasted his own beans in SE Portland once per week and served a decidedly Roman style espresso from his humble cart.
Citing frequent busted pipes and the weather sensitivity of his business in the food cart ghetto, he moved out in 2010 to open up this thumbnail-sized downtown storefront that’s barely more than a kiosk. Three or four standing customers can simultaneously fit inside, tops. Though there are three red-painted café tables and chairs on the sidewalk out front. There are tile floors, an old marble service counter top, and a layout that feels very much like a tiny bakery.
Like a pre-World War II midget submarine out of water, two and only two people can operate this tiny cubbyhole. One takes orders and handles any money exchanges, while a barista operates pinned behind their three-group, hand-pumped, piston-driven lever Rancilio in back — a setup far more common to Napoli than Portland.
But don’t let the modest size and prices here fool you. The New York Times claimed theirs as the best espresso in town back in a 2009 travel article. Despite the many roasters and coffeeshops that have since blossomed in the area, I was surprised at how good the espresso is here. It would rank among San Francisco’s best.
There’s a great attention to detail. The espresso made from their own Minas Gerais, Brazil-based signature espresso blend comes with a gorgeously textured, layered crema from a very careful and deliberate shot pull. It has a complex, rich, mellow, and broad flavor of blended spices, pungency, and limited sweetness.
While a more medium roast, it can seem a bit more on the darker, roasted end of the spectrum when compared with many of Portland’s newcomer cafés. But they perform this blended roast extremely well — in the way that Heart Roasters pulls of light roasting well.
If we buy into the Third Wave myth, anybody who made coffee prior to 2006 is irrelevant. Having been founded in 2007, Spella might escape such outright dismissal despite not subscribing to any Third Wave trappings.
Because unlike the countless examples of the Portland coffee purveyor stereotype that have arisen since Stumptown made their mark, Spella Caffè doesn’t serve a (frequently Ethiopian) single origin shot with its cloying screams for attention. There’s a real refined elegance here in a (hold your nose) true blended espresso.
Just wow. It makes all the conformity of the single origin espresso rebellion seem, well, foolish. Served in multi-colored Nuova Point cups.
Read the review of Spella Caffè in Portland, OR.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.