Seattle may have been the first city to stir up US coffee culture in the
1970s and ‘80s, but its Pacific Northwest neighbour, Portland, Oregon, is
having a big say in its current and future direction.
For Portland’s new generation of ambitious young cafe owners, the
emphasis is less on bucket-sized decaf vanilla lattes and more on the quality
of the star ingredient -- coffee.
The die was cast in 1999 with the opening of indie coffee pathfinder Stumptown, which laid down many of
the unofficial rules that the city’s small independent roasters still adhere
to: fair-trade coffee with traceable origins; a micro-managed in-house roasting
process; and a geek-like obsession for everything from the coffee’s grade (bean
quality) to its taste notes (such as smoky, citrus or caramel).
Encouraged by the success of Stumptown and a handful of other innovators
such as Chicago’s Intelligentsia
Coffee, the US’s specialty coffee movement exploded in the late 2000s with
Portland’s forward-thinking entrepreneurs taking advantage of cheap recession prices
on coffee production equipment and opening up micro-roasters in small shops,
garages and even home basements. But, far from being itinerant summer jobbers
out to make a quick buck, these new-wave coffee-makers seem to be in it for the
long-haul, experimenting delicately with the subtleties of aroma and taste.
They are in good company. As slavish purveyors of fresh and
locally-grown foodstuffs, Portlanders are famous for their discerning palates.
This is the city that kick started the North American craft beer movement in
the early 1980s and has more recently seen its streets colonised by more than 500
food carts who compete to provide the most innovative and economical ethnic
snacks. In such a fertile gastronomic environment, it is hard to fool people’s
taste buds. Coffee in Portland is no longer something hot and wet you gulp down
on your way to work; it is a gourmet artisan product that – as any avowed
coffee geek will tell you - is more chemically complex than wine.
In the fine Portland tradition of ideas developing from the ground up, Spella Caffe began as a humble food cart
bivouacked in a downtown parking lot on the confluence of Alder and SW 9th Streets.
Until 2010, owner Andrea Spella despatched steaming cups of java through a
small hatch and, through word of mouth, garnered a loyal local following.
Despite relocating to a tiny cafe space in nearby SW Fifth Avenue, Spella has
remained true to his hands-on ethos,
roasting carefully blended beans in small batches once a week and brewing them
with a manually-operated lever-pull espresso machine (hence the expression “pulling
a shot”) that allows the baristas to control and add nuance to every cup.
Roasters marries Portland’s love of caffeine with another of its passions –
bicycles. Micro-roasted beans, many of them sourced from a cooperative of women
coffee growers called Cafe Femenino that
collates coffee from farms in Central and South America, are delivered by specially-adapted
bicycle to shops and cafes around the city. Owner, chief roaster and delivery
man, Charlie Wicker, even puts in an occasional two-wheeled cameo at local
bicycling events, where he serves cups of coffee straight from the saddle.
Originally a roaster, the company has recently opened up its first cafe, The
Accidental Cafe, in the revitalised East Burnside neighbourhood. Described
by Wicker as more a tasting room than a coffee shop, the place is unique in that
there is no price list; you put what you think the coffee is worth into a slot box.
Like many small businesses in Portland, Trailhead uses Facebook
and Twitter to impart what beans
are in the roaster and where the mobile bike-cum-coffee-stall is heading next.
A distinguishing feature of the specialty coffee movement is the skill
and knowledge of the people who pull the shots. In Portland, a coffee barista
is a skilled alchemist, adept not just in pretty latte art, but in transferring
the coffee’s dynamic flavours from the bean to the cup. There are even barista
competitions in the US, with Portland coffee maestros regularly walking off
Some of the city’s best baristas put in shifts at the three-year-old Heart Roasters, whose slick East
Burnside cafe is a favourite hangout of Portland’s trendy set and a good place
to eavesdrop on the new language of coffee culture (words like “pour over” and “single
origin”) while sipping a superbly-crafted latte.
Another micro-roaster with a burgeoning reputation is Coava Coffee Roasters, where skilled but
laidback baristas are more likely to call you “dude” than “sir”. Sharing a
large industrial space with a bamboo store in East Portland, the cafe´s decor
is reminiscent of a school woodwork class, with large communal workbenches
offering an ideal forum to chat with fellow aficionados, many of whom travel across
the city for their daily fix. Coava’s coffee menu is unashamedly minimalist, offering
only two choices of bean varietals (roasted next door) that change daily.
Guatemalan, Ethiopian and El Salvadoran coffees are all popular, with the
knowledgeable baristas meticulously channelling their complex flavours into
perfectly balanced drinks.