It’s a Monday, and it’s been quite a while, so let’s get back in the swing of things with coffee:
Being a native “Beantown-er”, aka “Bostonian”, I was a little put off when I heard this moniker. However, Portland’s “beans” are a far cry from the baked variety of Boston, so I suppose I’ll share. This once.
So let’s get this straight:
Bean = Coffee Bean (not those for baking)
Brew = Coffee Brew (not those with hops and barley)
Back in the pre-20-teens (that is, roughly 2004ish), Portland claimed a new Brew-related, Pacific Northwest fame: The [New] Coffee City. In doing so, it also claimed some new scorn from a rightfully sour fellow Pacific Northwesterner: Seattle. Sorry Seattle… you always have Starbucks.
In fact, Portland quickly became a mini-mecca of all things coffee beans and coffee brewing. To the point where many coffee afficianados have coined Portland the new “Coffee Capital” of America. And while many may contradict Portland’s capital status, few would argue the truly unique approach that only Portland could bring to the field, namely the Third Wave status. The what??
Coffee’s Third Wave:
“The Third Wave insists that the bean is as fundamentally weird and as subject to the voodoo of climate, place and human skill as wine. Just as early microbrewers looked at Schlitz and dreamed of a better world, Third Wave coffee’s proponents want to change the way coffee is perceived.” –Willamette Week
This also means that a huge emphasis has been placed on the vibrant, ethos-friendly and eco-friendly, Green-ness of the coffee industry. In other words, from bean to mug, if it isn’t “certifiable”, it isn’t being served in a Portland coffee shop. What now???
Certifiable [no, not as Insane]:
“Before java ends up in an American mug, it must be grown in the Third World and imported. And some of the largest and arguably the most influential and sustainable importers of high-quality coffee are based in Portland. It may mean paying a premium for beans—which makes sense because, it turns out, a subset of American consumers will pay more for coffee with a story behind it.” –Willamette Week
So call it Green, Sustainable, Fair-Trade, or any other econ buzzword of contemporary choice, but if it isn’t certifiable, Portland will not be proud to pour it. [Damn straight.]
But all this information and all the counter-opinion has to come from somewhere, right? Well, yes. As I have come to find out, a city that drinks a lot of coffee also writes a lot about coffee (with less coffee stains in today’s digital age). Here’s just a few Portland-based, coffee-centric publications in case you’re looking to brush up on your morning brew reading:
And finally, like all things adopted by Portland, the world of coffee has become just as quirky, weird and altogether wonderfully enjoyable as donuts, Happy Hours, and the fresh Northwest air. Which means, just like the VooDoo guys, the 4pm chef or bartender, and professional hikers for the latter, there are some serious – and I mean serious – people that have latched on to coffee. And we call them the Baristas.
Who Are The Baristas?
“For a lot of these guys, coffee is their rock and roll… They’re more interested in coffee than they are in girls or money or anything. It may, inevitably, strike some people as incredibly pretentious: Baristas swanning around like Julia Child reincarnations? Five-dollar cups of coffee allegedly tasting of ‘candied ginger, spring flowers…and orange blossoms’? Come on—it’s just coffee. By the same logic, of course, it’s just wine, just beer, just food, just music, just literature, just a movie, just life, just whatever. And ‘Pretension’ does not quite explain the earnestness and blue-collar commitment of Portland’s new coffee elite… Something deeper is – sorry – brewing.” -Willamette Week
There are even Barista Competitions, such as The Northwest Barista Championship and – coincidentally enough – The Ultimate Barista Challenge which is run by our current landlords. Barista competitors for these events will be required to make espresso, cappuccino, and “signature” drinks which will then be scored by technical and “sensory” judges. And yes, Baristas can often receive extra points for their style of dress, coffee-making music selections and, of course, their collection of tattoos.
So, with all these competitions and all these years of experience and all the publications and knowledge and know-how, what does the Portland Barista have to say about coffee? Above all else, they say – or rather, they preach, they pray, and they plead – that America will learn about the right way to brew coffee. A pour over, for example, may be the only real way to really get at “a clean cup of coffee that captures the nuances of the roast.” Obviously. Never done anything more than press start on the auto-drip maker on your kitchen counter? Then check out Lessons from Portland Baristas as a primer for chatting with the guy behind the counter in the southeast. Or of course, you can check out my own, very *technical* post on making the perfect cup of coldbrew: COFFEE ME.
Okay, so you’ve read the blogs, paid for a subscription to the magazine, tested out every possible technique for Chemex and Cold Brew and it’s still not tasting quite right? Yeah, it happens. Hey, most of us are not baristas! So you do what any sane person would do: cancel all your plans for the upcoming long weekend, buy your plane ticket to Portland, and start taking notes on your top 10 places to get coffee – holy caffeine! And in case this is actually your plan, I’m here to help out by compiling the top hot spots with a few of my own local spots so that you have that pre-made Top 10 List all ready when the plane wheels touch down.
Where To Go – The Biggies:
- Stumptown – THE Biggie, as well as a personal favorite, Stumptown is the aptly-named Portland favorite on the coffee scene. They are also the providers of all things Portland Brew to other local favorites such as Albina Press, The Fresh Pot, and so many more.
- World Cup – You may bump into this one without even realizing it if you are doing the touristy Portland thing, as World Cup’s primary location sits conveniently at one of the several entrances to Powell’s Books. Why not enjoy a cup with your new read?
- Barista – Perfecting the “multi-roaster” menu poured by the best in Portland, Barista changes its options seasonally and highlights different roasters throughout the year. And the Pearl location sits nicely along Brewery Row, making a perfect mid-shopping day stop.
- Sterling Coffee Roasters – A proud self-roaster & brewer, Sterling is a reasonable newcomer that has made a spot for itself. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that they serve their coffee in brandy snifters…?
- Coava Coffee Roasters – Known best for their dramatic, bamboo-centric cafe space in the SE, many don’t spend enough time getting to know the variety of Coava’s small-batch & highly sustainable coffees from around the world – you should!
- Clive Coffee – An epicenter for all things high-end brewing and roasting, their “showroom” is a great place to sample local coffees as made by their exquisite coffee machines. Consider dropping in for a “Clive at 5” Happy Hour with espresso & booze pairings.
Where To Go – Some Personal Favorites:
- Floyd’s Coffee – One of my first coffee stops in Portland while job searching in the Old Town/China Town area and what a comfy first stop! Perfect for post-market stops or meeting gatherings, with a sunny patio area (when there is sun) – ahhhh!
- Common Grounds – A neighborhood place for those just off Hawthorne with sometimes questionable internet connectivity (ha!), but man, what a good iced skim mocha. Yeah, I’ll take that and just not get work done… really, it’s okay!
- Oui Presse – Another Hawthorne hot spot, this one is markedly French with some interesting quirks (namely – their magazine selection and token bunny slippers for sale), but their vanilla latte is definitely worth a try on any given day!
- Spunky Monkey – An independent coffee roaster and coffee cart afficianado on the scene, you’ll likely spot these guys pink cart location on NE 20th or at the Portland Farmer’s Market before any other. Honey Lavender Latte… Do. Not. Miss.
- Courrier Coffee – The self-described “intentionally lo-fi” roasters are conveniently located on the kiddy-cornered Oak Street in downtown with a very warm-and-welcome-to-everyone approach to coffee. Seeing as I generally go iced, I appreciate the hand-cut cubes!
- Backspace Lounge – More a hip workspace-meets-night-lounge that happens to serve great coffee, this place has become a standby in the downtown district. Come for caffeine, or for the computers, or for the semi-lude and incredibly enjoyable Poetry Slams.
So in the end, whatever brewing technique ends up being your favorite, or which spot ends up becoming your coffee home, or which barista is raised to the status of eternal personal idol – the pitch is still the same: Portland has some damn good coffee. Perhaps Tony Konecny, coffee blogger and barista elite, said it best:
“Somewhere in Portland, you have a little ecosystem of people geeking out about coffee on a whole different level than anywhere else. It’s entirely cool.”
Go ahead Portland. Geek your little hearts out. You’ve got something good brewing here…