Foreign Brew

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Some blends are created equal: Allann Bros. Maestro’s Blend

Posted by on 30 Jan 2016 | Filed under: Add Milk, Beans, Foreign Brew, Roasting

With the National Felon League coming to town for SuperBloat SuperBore SuperBowl 50, and the entire Bay Area overrun with corporate sponsorship, it’s a good time to shelter in place with some good coffee, right?

Allann Bros. Coffee Maestro's BlendThankfully the folks over at Allann Bros. Coffee in Albany, OR shipped us a pound of their Maestro’s Blend for evaluation. Founded in 1972 by their Roast Master, Allan Stuart, Allann Bros. Coffee opened a chain of eight coffee houses beginning in Ashland, Oregon — ye of the Shakespeare Festival fame.

When it comes to bean stocks, they claim to have developed Direct Trade partnerships and use of only high-altitude grown varietals. They fire-roast their coffee in a 1939 Jabez Burns Roaster and apply post-roast blending. Allann Bros. notes that the Maestro’s Blend is their most popular, signature espresso blend, describing it with a “dark, smoky flavor, coupled with a buttery crema and nutty flavor”.

Visually, it’s a seriously scary dark roast with what seems like enough surface oil to comb your hair in the reflection. It probably has an Agtron reading in the 25-30 range, which is akin to a Peet’s Major Dickason’s blend. This ain’t your conformist Third Wave coffee roasted with a brief puff of hot air just this side of grassy.

As such, it will elicit knee-jerk reactions much in the same way a light New England roast did for many Berkeley coffee fiends in the 1980s. But being a long-time believer in the versatility of coffee among its various roasting styles and brewing methods, I wanted to check out any of its merits.

Dark roast and heavy oils on the Maestro's Blend Tiny 51mm portafilter with some Maestro's Blend grinds

Brewing it many times as an espresso with my usual Mazzer Mini and Gaggia G106 Factory lever machine, it produced a rather healthy crema: generous, albeit not too coagulated. The resulting cup had a crema with a swirl of darker and medium brown crema. Buttery? Perhaps.

It had a decent but not remarkable body, and one would expect more body from coffees roasted in this style. Flavorwise, there wasn’t any ashiness or even bitterness. However there was a notably dryness to the palate — a kind of astringency. As expected, sweetness was mostly an afterthought with barely discernible caramelization of sugar starches of a molasses-like quality. It’s a pungent cup with a flavor dominated by tobacco and smoke, and I couldn’t pick up much of their nuttier flavor descriptors.


Allann Bros. Coffee
Blend Aroma [info] Brightness [info] Body [info] Crema [info] Flavor [info] Overall
Maestro’s Blend 6.0 5.0 7.0 8.0

6.0 6.40

Ultimately as a pulled shot it looks much better than it tastes. Which isn’t a bad taste by any means, but it isn’t very flavorful either. And while there’s some balance for the flavors that are actually present in the cup, it lacked large parts of coffee’s flavor spectrum.

It’s unfortunate when the best things I can say about a coffee are more about the negative qualities it lacks rather than the positive qualities it possesses. Unsurprisingly, the coffee serves better as a complement to steamed milk than straight on its own — and there’s a place for that among coffee styles. But I couldn’t find enough qualities that distinguished it from most other dark roasted blends, which is always a challenge.

Although it has one thing going for it: compared with Peet’s Major Dickason’s Blend, it costs about a third less.

Pulling a shot with the Maestro's Blend An espresso pulled from the Maestro's Blend

Trip Report: Asado Coffee Roasters Pickwick (Chicago, IL)

Posted by on 02 Jan 2016 | Filed under: Add Milk, Foreign Brew, Roasting

Founded in 2009, Asado Coffee Company first opened in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood — the same neighborhood that served as Intelligentsia’s birthplace some 20 years ago. Founder Kevin Ashtari started the business by roasting his own with a makeshift roaster: a rotisserie motor rotated a drum over a barbecue grill.

Things blew up in 2010 when Chicago Magazine named theirs the city’s best cup of coffee, and the independent weekly Chicago Reader named them best coffee roaster. Kevin later took on a partner, Jeff Liberman, upgraded to a 12-kilo roaster, and they’ve since expanded with roasting operations in each of three Chicago area cafés. However, they still focus on somewhat unusual, small coffee farms around the world and only roast two days worth of coffee at a time.

Walkway towards Asado Coffee Roasters, Pickwick, in Chicago Front door entrance to Asado Coffee Roasters Pickwick

One of their newer locations is this historic Loop building, though you might say it’s more of an anachronism than an actual Loop building. Called the Pickwick Stable, it is located in a tight, private alley once called Pickwick Place. This tiny (19 ft x 19 ft) building sits nestled and recessed between two skyscrapers, the Gibbons Building and the Steigler Building. It survived the 1871 Great Chicago Fire — serving as a horse stable and restaurant at various periods throughout its lifetime. It remains one of downtown Chicago’s oldest and smallest buildings.

The long passageway leads up to rather large sign exclaiming “COFFEE”. There is outdoor seating among metal tables and chairs in the alleyway, which would be a great urban respite if not for visiting during the sleet storm of Winter Storm Goliath (and the typical Chicago weather between November and April). The only sheltered seating was a lone chair inside the building next to the service counter.

Entrance to 22 E Jackson when it was Colonel Abson’s Chop House in the 1890s Asado Coffee Roasters' chalkboard menu

Have I mentioned that the place is tiny? Like Spella Caffé in Portland tiny. Their chalkboard menu displays their offerings of drip, pour-over (no batch-brewed here, folks), coldbrew (trendboys be trendboys even in a winter blizzard), and espresso drinks — plus scones, alfajores, and other pastries. They also offer some of their limited roasts for direct retail sale.

Using a three-group spring-lever driven Mirage Idrocompresso (their standard among all outlets), they pull shots of their Especiales blend with a lightly speckled medium brown crema with lighter thickness but decent density. It’s a long cup. Too long, actually, but it still manages not to be runny.

Retail shelf and rear area of tiny Asado Coffee Roasters Pickwick Working the three-group Mirage at Asado Coffee Roasters Pickwick

The Especiales is Asado’s lone blend: a mix of their two Mt. Meru Tanzania coffees (one a peaberry), each roasted at a medium and at a cliché-busting dark level. The result creates a body-forward, almost Brazil-like taste which is refreshingly distinctive, a little retro, but of unquestionable quality. Asado prides itself on seeking out unusual small lot coffee farms to work with. Combined with their roasting styles, they thankfully ignore many of the monolithic Third Wave clichés.

The milk-frothing here is velvety, but beyond excessive. Their cappuccino comes in what’s arguably a serving bowl that’s nearly the size of your head, suggestive of 1980s wannabe French cafés that focused more on bladder-busting than flavor. Or at least coffee flavor; I never understood why some coffee shops see to adding a sprinkle of coffee flavor to their cappuccino as they would nutmeg or cocoa.

It’s an awesome, historic location with great coffee and a solid espresso. But for milk-based drinks, the resulting coffee flavor is washed out in a sea of milk — so we recommend avoiding those.

Read the review of Asado Coffee Roasters Pickwick in downtown Chicago, IL.

The Asado Coffee Roasters espresso The Asado Coffee Roasters cappuccino

Trip Report: Josuma Coffee and the Ancient Quest for Malabar Gold

Posted by on 01 Nov 2015 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Local Brew, Roasting, Robusta

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“.

The non-descript office of Josuma Coffee Company (center) Melind John works their La Marzocco inside Josuma Coffee Company

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.

Josuma Coffee's Malabar Gold blend - roasted Monsooned Malabar from a family's kitchen in Bangalore, India

Visiting the Josuma Coffee Company

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.

Pulling a shot at Josuma Coffee Company Naked portafilters at Josuma Coffee Company

The Josuma Coffee Company espresso The Josuma Coffee Company cortado

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.

A photo I took of one of the Malabar Gold jewelry stores in Mysore, India Inside Bangalore's Coffee Board of India: a display featuring some of the local greens

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.

David Schomer doesn't kid aroundMelind 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.

Trip Report: Bright Coffee (Monterey, CA)

Posted by on 20 Aug 2015 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Machine, Roasting

Cameron Davies started this small roaster/café in 2013, and it has changed the face of Monterey’s coffee culture ever since. It’s a small café co-located in the artful Lilify shop along busy Lighthouse Ave. — a few blocks down from Happy Girl Kitchen.

Inside the café takes up one side of the building. The Lilify retail space dominates the remainder. There’s a lot of exposed wood, found-art-like wall hangings, and for seating there’s two thick wooden café tables and a lone stool.

Entrance to Bright Coffee at Lilify in Monterey Branding at the entrance of Bright Coffee in Monterey

While they used to roast locally with a Deidrich IR-7, fights with the local zoning codes have resulted in endless frustration. To work around that, Cameron is now setting up their roasting in Longview, WA (not far from Portland, OR) to be run by her parents. Until then she’s working with select West Coast roasters, such as Seattle’s Kuma Coffee, that don’t require too much equipment adjustment for her roast profile style.

Their two-group lever La San Marco Leva is a find from Phoenix, AZ that was artfully refurbished by her partner, Mike Zimmerer, into something far more decorative. It still operates like a tank — one of the reasons it remains the de facto machine in espresso-obsessed Napoli, Italy.

Entering Bright Coffee in Monterey, with the Lilify retail shop at the right Lilify's retail shop adjacent to the shared space with Bright Coffee

Cameron, like myself, doesn’t get the point of coffee shops dropping $20,000 on the latest overly-gadgetized espresso machine. Sure, they make great conversation pieces. They can also offer a crutch for new coffee shop owners seeking a fast track towards Third Wave credibility — sort of a Viagra for those seeking out coffee-related dick-measuring contests.

The trouble is that virtually every place employing pressure profiling with these new high-tech machines doesn’t know how to do it right, resulting in shots that we’ve invariably found don’t taste any better. This is something Cameron independently observed herself, and she’d rather pour that additional money into her staff and keeping her business afloat. And with the Leva, she not only finds it cheaper but also much easier to maintain.

Seating inside Bright Coffee The La San Marco Leva machine behind Bright Coffee

As someone who has lived near and worked within the Portland coffee scene for some time, she’s also a fan of Heart and Sterling roasters — which are known for they’re very light (almost overly light) roasting treatments. Where she differs is that she also likes to let roasts gas out for far longer than most — sometimes finding that roasts are optimal several weeks after roasting. 2013 WBC champ Pete Licata recently wrote similar thoughts on this.

The result here with Kuma Ethiopia Aricha espresso (their Red Bear Espresso) is a cherry bomb brightness heavy on fruit but is surprisingly not your typical acid bath. There’s some honey, leather, pepper, a pungent aroma, and a dark, dark crema of short coverage and modest thickness. Served in handmade ceramic cups with water on the side. The milk-frothing here is just OK: a little on the light side.

It used to be that Acme Coffee Roasting or Café Lumiere were the only worthy coffee shops around these parts. But that is fortunately changing.

Read the review of Bright Coffee in Monterey, CA.

The Bright Coffee espresso The Bright Coffee macchiato

Trip Report: Modern Coffee (Tribune Tower, Oakland, CA)

Posted by on 16 Aug 2015 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Roasting

This downtown Oakland coffee house sits at the base of the historic Oakland Tribune Building. It’s a small space with ceiling fans and windows that open, a large front window for people-watching over the 13th St. sidewalk at window counter stools, and a few indoor café tables and chairs/benches with a wall of merchandising in the back. In front, there’s also some red sidewalk café table seating.

As a true multi-roaster café, and part of a tiny chain, their merchandising includes selling Stumptown, Chromatic, and Verve coffee retail.

Entrance to Modern Coffee at the base of the Oakland Tribune Tower Sidewalk seating in front of Modern Coffee at the Oakland Tribune Tower

Service and ordering counter at Modern Coffee Multi-roaster retail coffees available at Modern Coffee

Inside there are many wooden surfaces, large stone tiles on the floor, and a white, two-group La Marzocco FB/80 with Mazzer grinders. They offer pour-over and Chemex coffee as well.

The Oakland Tribune Tower with Modern Coffee at its entranceAs a multi-roaster café, they rotate their bean stocks and were serving Counter Culture Coffee‘s Big Trouble for this espresso review. They served Linea Caffe for pour-overs.

This alone makes Modern a bit of a novelty for anyone from the U.S. East Coast — where Counter Culture’s combined service and supply deals have been known for their financial strong-arm tactics to achieve distribution exclusivity at most cafés.

Here they pulled their shots three-sips-short with a mottled medium-brown crema and a rather broad flavor of spices, some herbs, and brightness with a bigger kick at the end — but still lacking much heavy acidity. It’s a relatively lively cup, but with a flavor profile that isn’t terribly too distinctive. Served in white notNeutral cups.

Read the review of Modern Coffee at the Tribune Tower in Oakland, CA.

Service counter in Modern Coffee Window counter seating inside Modern Coffee

Modern Coffee's La Marzocco FB/80 and Mazzer grinders The Modern Coffee espresso

Trip Report: Yo el Rey Roasting (Calistoga, CA)

Posted by on 06 Aug 2015 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Roasting

In the 26 years I’ve lived in the Bay Area, I’d never been to Calistoga. Sure, I knew about the touristy mud baths and summer temperatures more conducive for copper smelting than for outdoor barbecues. What I didn’t quite expect was a laid back town that still wears a lot of its history, located in a rather wooded valley.

While the Napa Valley wine culture certainly encroaches on its doorstep, Calistoga has a decidedly different feel than the rest of the Napa Valley vibe — with its food fetishes, wine farming monoculture, lifestyle and housewares boutiques, faux Italian villas, and preponderance of German and Japanese luxury cars. It’s a little closer to a Lake Tahoe mountain town than the quaintly packaged lifestyle branding of a Yountville or St. Helena.

Entrance to Yo el Rey Roasting in Calistoga, CA Front of Yo el Rey Roasting - don't ask what's with the drug-influenced organic coffee sign

The coffee here can also hold its own. This small café, first opened in 2008, is located just off of Calistoga’s Lincoln Ave. “main street”.

Outside there are metal café table for seating along the sidewalk. Inside there is window stool seating and a few chairs and café tables with a Diedrich roaster smack in the middle; they roast organic, single origin coffees in-house.

Baked goods come from ABC, and they offer a variety of coffee options from cold brew to pour-overs with Clever drippers.

Diedrich roaster inside Yo el Rey Roasting Roasted coffees for retail sale, and Clever drippers, at Yo el Rey Roasting

Using a two-group manual lever Astoria machine, they offered an espresso shot from a single origin organic Sumatran — which is a little bit of a bold choice for a smaller town like Calistoga. For example, we could not find such a thing offered retail in Portland, OR, given their obsession with Ethiopian shots supplemented by the occasional Guatemalan or Colombian origin.

The shot had a limited aroma, some strong smoke that hits the olfactory palate quickly, and a medium brown crema of decent heft but still scant on quantity. There was a sharp brightness to the cup with some molasses sweetness and a flavor of dark baking chocolate and spices.

Although the flavors were not in balance and it was clearly a single origin, it emphasized multiple bands of the flavor spectrum. Interesting and good, to say the least. Served in colorful China ceramic cups.

Read the review of Yo el Rey Roasting in Calistoga, CA.

Yo el Rey Roasting's lever Astoria machine and coffee menu The Yo el Rey Roasting espresso

Trip Report: Blue Bottle Coffee at Hanahaus (Palo Alto, CA)

Posted by on 02 Aug 2015 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Quality Issues, Starbucks

Blue Bottle Coffee‘s attention to details and quality should have fueled its growth under most any circumstances. But the interest from, and infusion of, venture capital have given that growth a nitro boost: new cafés are opening around the world, and various related services (e.g., Handsome Coffee and Tonx Coffee) and small business chains (e.g., Tartine Bakery) are being gobbled up in the vortex.

That venture capitalists most familiar with the “virtual” tech world (e.g., Google Ventures) are also investing in very brick-and-mortar coffee businesses doesn’t entirely add up to me. Why not Krispy Kreme donuts for that matter?

Of course, the tech world believes it has a special and unique relationship with coffee, identifying with coffee-fueled programmers as it does. But coffee is weird in that 83% of American adults drink coffee, and yet just about every social group seems to identify with coffee and claim it as their own unique and special secret: cyclists, salesmen, radio DJs, writers, chefs, physicians, police officers, etc.

Blue Bottle Coffee at Palo Alto's former Varsity Theater Entering the Varsity Theater courtyard with seating for Blue Bottle

Unlike the virtual world where the word scalability almost knows no bounds, the very physical world of coffee is much more challenging. At one end, its roots are in the ancient art and science of farming. And at the other end, despite all the robotics and artificial intelligence brought to bear through superautomatic coffee brewing systems, the best stuff served in a cup still requires the efforts of a lot of human hands.

So what happens when investors seek hockey stick growth projections for a coffee chain when they are otherwise used to scaling metrics such as billions of selfies and Facebook likes? The pressure and expectations of these growth projections frequently leads to quality trade-offs. Before Starbucks coped with their growth demands by essentially becoming a global fast food chain, with push-button-automated machines operated by an ever-growing army of low skilled button-pushing employees, recall that the original coffee they often produced by true baristas operating La Marzocco machines wasn’t all bad.

Hence the big question for Blue Bottle remains: for how long can they march towards world domination before the quality tanks? James Freeman firmly believes its a fate he can avoid. But as you take on more and more investors and give away more and more ownership of the company, a tipping point edges ever closer as the VC interests in money inevitably weigh down the scales against coffee idealism.

Seating in the Varsity Theater courtyard outside of Blue Bottle Blue Bottle Coffee's wall of merchandising and roasted coffee at Hanahaus

Blue Bottle service counter inside Hanahaus The Hanahaus leased office space next to the Blue Bottle

That strange bedfellow relationship between VCs, tech, and coffee is on full display at one of the latest Blue Bottle Coffee Co. openings in Palo Alto. This former Varsity Theater (and Borders books) has been revived as the “SAP Hanahaus” workspace with an attached Blue Bottle Coffee service.

The historic building offers a unique outdoor courtyard in front, with various secluded café tables and benches, leading to a hall of merchandising (home brewing equipment, bags of roasted coffee) before you reach the front service counter and bulk of the interior tables. Past the service counter is the leasable workspace by the hour for all your start-up needs.

Using a two-group La Marzocco Strada, they pulled a thick, shorter shot with a mottled medium-brown crema. It had a potent aroma, a good body and mouthfeel, and a rich and complex blend of flavors that included dark chocolate, molasses sweetness, and some honey. The shortness of the pull brings out concentrated complexity: this is not your typical pale, narrowband, watery single origin shot pulled by Third Wave sheep. Served in designer logo Kinto cups with sparkling water on the side.

So has Blue Bottle reached the tipping point yet? Based the quality of the espresso here, not in the least bit. However, an espresso-loving friend (whom I converted years ago into a home roasting devotee) was not impressed by it, saying he’s often had better.

Based on that one shot, I rarely have better. But it is extremely rare that you find shots consistently pulled of this style and density, so this will require repeat visits to verify if this just wasn’t a one-off.

Read the review of Blue Bottle Coffee at Hanahaus, Palo Alto, CA.

Blue Bottle's La Marzocco Strada at Hanahaus The Blue Bottle espresso at Hanahaus

Espresso in Portland, Oregon

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

Living on the Left Coast for so many years, it’s almost shameful that the closest I came to Portland, Oregon before 2011 was an SF Slim’s show by The Dharma Bums while on their Bliss album tour. (Yes, I was a fan.) Sure, I’d been to Crater Lake and Coos Bay even, but never Portland. By 2011, a couple of day-job-related day trips to Portland afforded the brief coffee walk through town. But it wasn’t until last month that I did a serious deep dive.

This lapse had nothing to do with the sun-spoiled Californian stereotype: wishing to avoid Portland’s damp cold, clouds, and legendary rainfall. Although I must say that arriving from the land of drought shaming that has turned neighbors into water narcs, watching local Portlanders casually hose down their sidewalks was a little like watching them blow their noses in gold leaf.

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

The Portlander in their Native Habitat

Today merely the name “Portland” carries its own serious baggage and presumptions — some accurate, but many not. This post will attempt to sift through both of them from my own limited perspective with particular attention paid to the town’s much-celebrated coffee culture.

Portland — aka “Stumptown” (from the many felled trees of its development), aka “Rose City” — may have over 90% of the population of Seattle, but it feels nearly twice as sleepy. Portlanders love their runs and parades, and I arrived in time for the Starlight Parade of their annual Rose Festival — complete with marching bands and floats from many of the area’s high schools. A city like San Francisco is too cool and cynical for this kind of small town sentimentality. But the Portland locals line the downtown streets many hours before the event, parking their lawn chairs with great anticipation, social camaraderie, and a packed picnic basket.

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

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

Speaking of public gatherings, not unlike Oakland’s First Fridays, Portland has its own First Thursday in the gentrified Pearl District — with its many cobblestone streets, cookie-cutter modern lofts, public storage units, and chain stores. In contrast is the artier Last Thursdays in the NE Alberta District — which is something of a front line for the town’s current gentrification battles, adjacent to one of the town’s very few hotbeds for gang violence.

From Rose City to White City

The story of gentrification is not uncommon among American cities. Some of what makes Portland a little different is how overwhelmingly, well, white the city is. So white, it’s almost blue. The last U.S. census figures may count the city’s racial breakdown as 76% white (for comparison San Francisco is 54%). But observationally throughout the city, those figures seem like an understatement.

In the eyes of a skinhead, Portland, Oregon looks like the city of the future.
–“Skinhead Against Skinhead“, TIME Magazine

On the TriMet streetcars that run all across town — the closest thing the locals have to the Bay Area’s BART — station stops and instructions are announced in Spanish as well as English, but there’s hardly a Latino to be found on the system. (And yet BART audio is English-only.) Thus in true stereotyped Portland politeness fashion, it eerily seems like the system goes out of its way to culturally accommodate people who aren’t even there.

Even Portland’s Chinatown seems so in name only, save for a couple of old gates spread among a district of what one local called “douchey nightclubs”.

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

Portland’s lack of racial diversity may stick out like a sore thumb to someone from the Bay Area, but that’s not to say there’s anything inherently wrong with it — although some rightfully point out that it’s partly a product of historically racist state and local policies. But given that coffee ranks #1 on the list of Stuff White People Like, all that whiteness can’t be all bad, right? Except this theme of diversity — and Portland’s general lack thereof — comes up again when we talk about Portland’s coffee culture (more below).

Why is Portland, of all places, the capital of American coffee culture? … This city is still very white. Why does that matter? According to the National Coffee Association, Caucasians drink a half cup a day more coffee than blacks or Hispanics.
— “Drip City“, Willamette Week

The Portlandia Stereotypes

Of course, we have to address the Portlandia stereotypes — a term that even the locals have amusingly embraced. Enough of them are true enough to support parody: the beards, the many yoga instructors, the dog walkers sporting discount tattoos, the animal freaks, drivers who are extremely (and charmingly) courteous, etc.

Yet there’s a distinctly higher hipster quotient in SF’s Mission District. What you don’t hear about Portland is at the roots of the city: the historically dark, weathered, slightly dirty Pacific Northwestern Gothic about the place. (Note that these are some of my favorite and most unique characteristics of the town.)

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

In fact, “thriving” is a word I definitely would not use to describe Portland and its anything-but-vibrant downtown. Like Porto, Portugal, I found it hard to tell if it’s on its way up or way down. Downtown there are derelict vacant lots, sometimes filled with food carts and lined with sidewalks coated in layers of mystery stickiness. Homelessness and mental illness are on prominent display along with too many strip clubs to count (and yes, there is even a vegan one).

And despite many fantastic wilderness options nearby, the bicycling stereotypes, and a trendy Pearl District that hosts a retail outlet for every outdoor enthusiast store imaginable, obesity is a noticeable problem here as in much of America. Portland does not size up to the outdoorsy fit-city-in-spandex stereotype you get in places like Boulder, CO or Austin, TX.

A pork festival in the Willamette Valley outside of PortlandA good part of Portland’s allure includes a local food scene high on the local, organic, and artisanal, an abundant beer microbrewing culture, and a location with a much cheaper cost of living than most. Although you can get the hipster/foodie/microbrew/slacker/cheap-living mix in almost equal measure in a place like Austin, TX, Portland seems to draw much of its appeal along the coast.

Most Portlandia stereotypes seem defined by the expectations of recent residents who aren’t from the area, just as the “fruits & nuts” stereotypes about Californians in the 1970s were primarily driven by refugees from the Midwest rather than the California natives themselves. It’s a little like how residents of Las Vegas lead rather normal and mundane lives, whereas its tourists feel obligated to destroy their livers and lose their minds because of preconceived expectations of behavior once they arrive.

In other words, from what I’ve observed, it’s the more recent immigrants trying to self-fulfill false stereotypes who are among the most exaggerated Portlandia examples — a lot of California and Seattle expats who came for what they thought was in the marketing brochure. (Just don’t ask me what Florida’s problem is.)

Portland the Coffee City

Street mural in downtown PortlandMany publications have made out Portland to be some magical, mythical place inhabited by barista leprechauns, where rivers of microlot espresso run down streets adorned with portafilter handles and Mahlkönig EK 43 grinders. Although we’ve seriously questioned what a “coffee city” actually means in today’s environment, Travel + Leisure has regularly ranked Portland at the top among “America’s Best Coffee Cities,” and The Daily Meal recently ranked Portland #1 in the same category.

A few years ago there was a lot of professional chatter about how Portland unseated Seattle as America’s coffee capital. Then add over 60 microroasters in the city, regional champion baristas (back when that was a thing), three national coffee magazines (Fresh Cup, Barista Magazine, Roast Magazine) — plus many quality coffee shops, equipment makers (though Able since moved to CA), and specialty retailers — and you can justify the hype. However, there are several factors that dim the shine here.

First is the question of size. Much about the greatness of Portland’s coffee culture gets weighted relative to the town’s seemingly small size — scaled as if by an “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear” disclaimer. Instead of using purely direct yardsticks such as nationally renowned quality, reputation, variety, or industry awards, Portland’s relatively low population density is often applied as that fun-house-mirror-like lens through which many gauge the local coffee scene.

Which brings us to the second factor: quality. There are some really good coffee shops and roasters here, no question. But are they standouts among the best in the country? For the most part, not exactly. Kansas City has some great roasters and cafés as well, and I wouldn’t necessarily crown Portland’s best as superior to KC’s finest.

A lot of what’s good about coffee in Portland naturally traces its influences back to Stumptown Coffee Roasters. And as much as Stumptown is one of the nation’s elite roasters and coffee chains, we’ve always felt it is a slight underachiever among its peers — whether in rival Seattle or Portland itself.

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

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

Portland’s Coffee Monoculture

Which brings us to the third and most critical factor keeping Portland from reaching its quality potential. Stumptown may be a slight underachiever for its elite class, but they are to be commended for taking a great risk and establishing a new kind of coffee operation for the region. Most other Portland shops established since Stumptown seem rather risk-averse and are instead focused on execution, sticking with the formula, rather than taking the risk of offering new ideas of what coffee could be. This is where Portland’s lack of cultural diversity seems to also manifest itself in its coffee culture.

With few exceptions, what Portland has is a number of micro-businesses following a slightly updated Stumptown blueprint in miniature. The degree of this conformity here is palpable and even gets a little monotonous. As with the Seattle music scene in the 1990s after Nirvana made it big, nearly every notable new band in town was donning their grunge flannels and crunching the same power chords. (Nirvana coincidentally having a dubious rumored historical connection to the aforementioned Dharma Bums, btw.) Whether that was because there weren’t enough bands differentiating themselves from Nirvana or whether the market/industry was only interested in bands that sounded like Nirvana knock-offs, the effect was the same.

Stumptown Coffee Roasters' wall of cold brew A Stumptown cappuccino

Similarly, Portland “brew bars” (everything is a “bar” or “lounge” these days, whether you’re getting a coffee or getting your eyebrows waxed) tend to follow a rather narrow definition of roasting (microroasters), roasting styles, use of microlot coffees (and the inevitable Portland single origin Ethiopian shot), rather poor attempts at blends when they aren’t outright verboten, accompanied by cut-and-paste ad copy about seasonality and bean-to-cup attention to detail, etc. as if read off of a checklist.

Where’s the pour-over-only shop like a Phil’z that serves only blends and defiantly eschews the notions of geographic traceability entirely? Where’s the Latin American perspective as you get from a Cumaica Coffee? (Though Portland has a great exception with Brazil in Nossa Familia — no wonder it’s one of our favorites in town.)

There are a few multi-roaster shops, but they generally toe the party line: self-imposed rules about geographic specificity, sourcing from the same half-dozen producing countries, and roasting only well this side of the second crack. There’s always nitro (invented at Stumptown) and cold brew, but those are completely different beverages, really. (Not to mention they’re also doing it in Cleveland too.)

But where do you go for a vac pot coffee? Where’s the Third Wave coffee house co-located inside an S&M shop? Even a place such as the tiny Mountain Grounds, who prominently classifies their roasted bean stocks by growing altitude (2200m, etc.), would be guilty of heresy in this environment.

A Mecca of Conformity?

The American Barista Coffee School calls Portland a Mecca, so why not?This isn’t just Portland. We have the same issues with the restaurant scene in San Francisco; when everybody is serving locally sourced, organic, farm-to-table cuisine, a great thing quickly becomes a repetitive mantra and ultimately a self-parody.

While SF has some excellent restaurants, it is rather narrow and limited when compared to places like Chicago or New York. Places where Mexican food isn’t exclusively the same seven Taco Bell ingredients recombined for meals under $10-$15, where dangerous ideas such as offering a tasting menu based on the unique cuisine of Jalisco is even attempted.

If Portland is to ever become a coffee “Mecca”, as is often stated, such a “center of activity or interest” simply cannot play it safe with with a single formula, even if it is a great formula. It should attract diverse and even conflicting influences and nonconformist ideas from all over the world. Because what is the coffee lovers’ benefit of having 40, 60, or even 2,000 local microroasters to choose from if they all are pretty much copying each other?

In conclusion, if you like the philosophical approach to coffee that a Portland roaster or café takes, chances are that you’ll find much to love in abundance throughout this city. It’s a great thing and many people do it well. But if you want to try something different from that insular, narrow definition, you pretty much have to leave town.


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

Trip Report: Spella Caffè (Portland, OR)

Posted by on 27 Jun 2015 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues

Approaching Stella Caffè along 5th Avenue in downtown Portland, OregonLike 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.

The tiny entrance to Portland's Spella CaffèLike 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.

Ordering at the counter inside Spella Caffè Sidewalk patio seating as viewed from inside Spella Caffè

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.

Operating the lever Rancilio machine inside tiny Spella Caffè The ridiculously photogenic espresso at Spella Caffè

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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