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.
Trailhead Coffee 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 with prizes.
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.