Matt Higgins, 29, changes emotions so fast it's hard to keep up. From a spirited moment of adolescent horseplay—throwing his keys halfway across the massive chamber that will soon be home to his coffee tasting room, shouting "Dropped your keys!"—he turns to me, suddenly calm and serious. "The longer I'm in this business, the more I realize I have yet to learn."
That duality seems to be part of the fabric of a growing community of new coffee roasters in Portland. It's a post-adolescent profession that has defined its responsibilities to farmers and consumers as serious ones, but is unwilling to give up the rough ethic of fun that attracted its practitioners to coffee culture to begin with. It reminds me of an old saying: "The best thing about getting older is that you don't lose the other ages you've been." As Portland's independent coffee industry grows up, it's still the loose, DIY community it's always been, only now it knows QuickBooks.
At least eight roasting operations have opened in Portland in the past two years, including Higgins' Coava Coffee Roasters, which he runs with partner and roast master, 25-year-old Keith Gehrke. Coava (Turkish for "green coffee") and a generous handful of other roasting companies are set to open cafes or begin operations in Portland this year. Of the almost 30 businesses roasting coffee in Portland now, about half of them are "micro-roasters" like Coava (meaning they roast extremely small quantities of green coffee—about 20 pounds at a time or less), and almost all of them opened sometime in the past five years. "It's an onslaught," says Justin Kagan, the purveyor of Badbeard Coffee, one of the newcomers. Roast Magazine publisher Connie Blumhardt says, "It's happening all over the U.S., but Portland has an unusually high number of new roasters."
BEAN GEEK: Oblique roast master Justin Johnson. IMAGE: Leslie Montgomery
The movement has been percolating in Portland for a decade under the pioneering stewardship of Stumptown Coffee Roasters—which has expanded to New York and Amsterdam—but recently the trickle has become a downpour. The new wave of roasters is an opinionated group of mostly young men who have two things in common: an obsession with coffee quality, and the desire to help consumers understand where it derives from.
The roaster is the closest most of us will ever get to the sources of our coffee, and this new generation of craftsmen is taking the role very seriously. Now, with small roasting retail operations in almost every major neighborhood in the city, Portland's already well-educated coffee consumers have easier access than ever to knowledgeable roasters and nuanced coffees. "It's pretty cool to have people come in on roast days and show them the development of the bean," says self-proclaimed coffee nerd Justin Johnson, roaster for Oblique Coffee Roasters, which opened earlier this year in Southeast Portland. "It's hard not to be the biggest geek in the world. You see light bulbs going off as they begin to understand what they're drinking."
"It's going beyond latte art and the name of the farm," says Higgins, a former barista who most recently worked for Albina Press. "Roasters, and now consumers, are paying attention to the coffee's grade, varietals, altitude. And rightfully so—coffee surpasses wine in chemical complexity." A commonly repeated fact among coffee nerds is that coffee has over 800 known volatile aromatic compounds (some claim 1,000)—beating out wine and chocolate for chemical complexity by a healthy margin. Later this spring, Coava will open a tasting room on Southeast Grand Avenue to help drinkers untangle that complexity. In an innovative showroom it will share with design group Bamboo Revolution, it will feature coffee flights and other simple ways to taste and compare single-origin coffees.
Everyone seems to agree that a "Northwest style" of roasting has emerged: Coffee from small, traceable origins is roasted to express the unique flavors of where the coffee comes from. Often, that means using a lighter roast profile, "where the hidden flavors of coffee live," explains Brandon Smyth of brand-new Water Avenue Coffee. Chris Davidson, of Atlas Importers in Seattle, says most of the roasters he works with in Portland "want to push the conceptions of what coffee should be like or can be like: push the fruit, push the floral, push the acidity."
The easiest place to showcase these principles is in coffees from single locations, such as from the Guji Washing Station in the Sidamo region of Ethiopia, or the Cerrado region of Brazil—even down to the level of a particular area of an individual farm: "Single-origin coffees, in some ways, are more naked and more pure," says Charlie Wicker of Trailhead Coffee Roasters. He was a data analyst before he sought out a more "soulful" profession in coffee, as he puts it. The quiet, thoughtful way he and his compatriots speak about coffee indicates that for them coffee is connected to a whole world of ideas. "Single origins are the most interesting from an emotional point of view," he says. "You can say the coffee all came from this farm. That's important to people, and to me."
But there's room for all comers. In a suddenly crowded market, playfulness and innovation are as much a necessity as a luxury, and each new roaster is coming up with his or her own way of exploiting the potential of high-quality green coffee beans. Andrea Spella of Spella Caffe focuses on traditional, Italian-style espressos, for which the coffee beans are roasted longer and blended (i.e., not from a single origin). The blends are heavy on Brazilian coffee, which tends to have very smooth, sweet, chocolate notes. Others, like Wicker, Kagan, Johnson, and Joel Domries of Courier Coffee, are bending the Northwest style back toward some kind of middle ground, seeking mellower flavors.
Wicker says he tries to tame some of the wilder, "brighter" flavors that can bring Northwest roasters to ecstasy. "I roast a little slower because I think it's a more palatable cup. Brightness is not universally loved. You don't want to hide the nuance and beauty of coffee; you want to find the balance to create something magical." He pauses and adds, "I guess I'm decidedly in the middle."
The recent growth in the industry is the fulfillment of a decade's worth of obsessive focus by dozens of people who caught the coffee bug—nearly all started as baristas or home roasters—and couldn't shake it. Many grew up with coffee culture, and consumers and the industry have grown up with them, which has made being a small, independent coffee roaster increasingly viable. Perhaps ironically, the number of local roasters has exploded since the start of the global recession. That's not so strange, says Higgins. "The recession has slashed the price of big roasting equipment," he explains, "and it's a renter's market."
That said, it's not a cheap endeavor: Just to get up and roasting legally it's about $40,000 for a garage setup (that includes a roaster and $10,000 worth of green coffee, among other basics). Some locals have gotten by through investing together in roasting machines. For example, Spella and Kagan share a roaster.
Still, there's our nearly unquenchable thirst for coffee, and lust for anything homegrown or DIY. "In Portland, everything is from the ground up. We as a city embrace that," says Chad Freilino, who is helping Seattle-based Caffe Vita get a Portland cafe and roasting operation off the ground this year. Vita will join the flood of young newcomers and a handful of more established Portland roasters who opened second locations in the past year, such as Extracto and Ristretto. Even Portland's largest roaster, Coffee Bean International, which roasts "private label" coffees for large national brands, will open a showcase cafe called Public Domain at the end of April that promises to hit all the buzzwords: micro-lots, seasonal menus, artisan-roasted.
From the smallest to the largest, coffee roasters in Portland are carefully turning coffee drinking into finely attuned aesthetic and educational experiences. But even with such grown-up ambitions, ask roasters what keeps them at it and they all have the same answer as Extracto owner Chris Brady: "I just want to roast coffee I like to drink."
Microroasted traditional espresso blends with a twist from a professional cellist; sold online.
7901 SE 13th Ave.,756-0224, bluekangaroocoffee.com
Portland's oldest roasting company.
The Seattle-based roaster will open a shop and roastery in downtown Portland in 2010.
921 SW 16th Ave., 221-7435, cellardoorcoffee.com
Microroaster-retailer with a tinkering problem (see portlandcup.blogspot.com).
Coava Coffee Roasters
One of Portland's most accomplished young microroasters will open an innovative gallery/tasting room in 2010.
Coffee Bean International
Portland's largest roaster is little known because it roasts for other brands like Target; that will change when they open a showcase cafe called Public Domain at the end of April.
Obsessively fresh microroasted coffee that delivered to your home and local restaurants by bike. Look for a cafe/retail shop…eventually.
2921 NE Killingsworth St.,281-1764 and 1465 NE Prescott, Suite B, 284-1380, extractocoffeehouse.com
One of the only microroaster-retailers with two cafes; helped pave the way for the recent explosion of coffee roasters.
2211 E Burnside St., 206-6602, heartroasters.com
Microroaster-retailer notable for its stunning shop.
2706 SE 26th Ave., 238-2547, kandfcoffee.com
Medium-large wholesale roaster with a cafe in the Clinton neighborhood.
200 SW Market St., 221-0418, and 2355 NW Vaughn St., 222-2302, kobos.com
Medium-large wholesale roaster with retail cafes.
mcmenamins.com/406-mcmenamins-coffee-roasters-home, see website for legion McM-bars and McM-cafes.
Yep, they roast their own.
Mudd Works Roastery & Coffeehouse
4237 SW Corbett Ave., 235-6833, muddworks.com
Microroaster-retailer with whimsically named coffees and a new cafe in Southwest Portland.
Oblique Coffee Roasters
3039 SE Stark St., 228-7883, obliquecoffeeroasters.com
The restored Victorian building has good bones; so does the coffee.
The only family-direct coffee in Portland is imported from the family farm in Brazil and custom roasted by Kobos.
A sustainability-focused large wholesale roaster.
Ristretto Coffee Roasters
3808 N Williams Ave., 288-8667 and 3520 NE 42nd Ave., 284-6767, ristrettoroasters.com
The first microroaster to follow Stumptown into the fray, now with two locations.
6720 SE 16th Ave., 236-8234
Old school microroaster-retailer that keeps it beans in giant bins on the floor.
520 SW 5th Ave., 752-0264 and cart on the corner of Southeast 9th Avenue and Alder Street, 752-0428, spellacaffe.com
Microroaster-retailer featuring traditional Italian-style espresso served from a cart and in a new cafe.
St. Johns Coffee Roasters
Microroaster makes sure St. Johns isn't left out; delivers to your house.
Sterling Coffee Roasters
2120 NW Glisan St., sterlingcoffeeroasters.com or search on Facebook.
Micro-microroaster (1 pound at a time!) with tony style from the crew behind Coffeehouse NW.
128 SW 3rd Ave., 295-6144; 1022 SW Stark St., 224-9060; 3356 SE Belmont St., 232-8889; 4525 SE Division St., 230-7702, stumptowncoffee.com, see website for out of state locations.
The wunderkind that started it all has taken on Seattle and New York. Next: Amsterdam?
Trailhead Coffee Roasters
Microroaster-retailer specializing in coffees from women's co-op Cafe Feminino and delivered to local grocers by bike.
Water Avenue Coffee Company
A former Stumptown roaster and the man behind the American Barista School bring you Portland's newest microroasting-retail operation; opening a cafe in spring 2010.
World Cup Roasting
1740 NW Glisan St., 228-5503, worldcupcoffee.com
You know them from the Powell's cafe, but this medium-sized roaster has other cafes and sells to offices.
Microroaster whose coffees are available at a few shops and markets around town.