Why is Portland, of all places, the capital of American coffee culture? There’s no overt explanation why a city celebrated for its slacker attitude also devotes so much energy to the roasting and consumption of high-grade joe. Even Seattle’s coffee connoisseurs have conceded our superiority, according to a story Seattle-area public radio station KPLU ran last year. It’s a puzzle. We don’t grow coffee in Oregon, unlike hops, the production of which helped spur our obsession with beer.
Maybe it’s all an accident—a function of geography and, believe it or not, race. We’re halfway between Seattle and San Francisco, where Starbucks and Peet’s launched the specialty coffee industry in the ’70s, so Portland was bound to get hooked on caffeine. And 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.
Certainly it’s partly due to serendipity. While Duane Sorenson, founder of Stumptown Coffee, was raised in Puyallup, Wash., it was to Southeast Portland he moved and set up shop in 1999 as the future Yoda of carefully sourced beans roasted in tiny batches. But our love of coffee predates Stumptown. Paul Thornton, head roaster for Coffee Bean International, the city’s largest roaster, says we’re stuck in time. “You know how on Portlandia they say we’re stuck in the ’90s? I think there’s still a heavy ’70s culture here. Portlanders are really interested in that handcrafted, living free kind of thing, and coffee falls into that category when you start to learn more about it. As much work as it takes to get a green bean into roasted form and to the consumer, it takes even more for a farmer to take it from the berry to the bean. They determine how well the coffee is done by picking it up and feeling it.”
Whatever the cause, the history of coffee in Portland is one of constant, obsessive refinement, of obtaining better beans and pulling better shots. Staying on the jittery edge of the culture requires constant attention. Which is what we’ve been doing over the past several weeks. And what have we found?
We found that pre-brewed coffee is going the way of the dinosaur, and Portland baristas are trading complex contraptions for paper and plastic (see below). We found a lot of new gadgets to brew a perfect cup, most of which aren’t new at all. We found some cutting-edge ways to out-snob your friends , a lot of great new coffeehouses, almost passable decaf, and the reason why you might be feeling a little pinched at the counter lately.
The Rise Of Nerd Coffee
Why the coffee industry is shunning state-of-the-art technology for cheap plastic.
By Ruth Brown
For the past few decades, the star of almost every coffeehouse in Portland has been a gleaming, stainless steel machine pumping out shots of thick, strong espresso. The equipment can cost upward of $10,000 and is manned by magicians—heavily tattooed, poorly shaven magicians—who transform in seconds bags of beans into beverages you can only dream of being able to make at home.
But recently, a new idol has been taking center stage on the coffeehouse counter. Pour-over brewers now sit on coffee bars like amateur science projects—funnel-shaped filters used to slowly extract one cup of coffee at a time. Baristas hover intently over the upturned cones with sleek, thin-spouted kettles, slowly tracing a well-practiced pattern over fine grounds. Scales and digital timers ensure that the extraction time and technique is perfect as the coffee slowly drips into a vessel below.
One such barista is Water Avenue Coffee’s Tom Pikaart. He doesn’t look like a Prohibition-era bartender or a fixed-gear bike messenger or a folk musician or any other lazy barista stereotype. In a plain knit sweater and not-at-all-artfully tousled hair, he’s a proud geek. And although he’s a first-rate espresso maker, chatting with him is more like speaking to an obsessive home-brewer than the clichéd coffee elitist. He buzzes about the inner-Southeast industrial cafe, serving people who do look like bike messengers, enthusing over his shoulder about the innovation—which is really a throwback—in the coffee brewing world.
Pikaart stumbled into this new coffee trend while living in Seattle after being given an hourglass-shaped glass Chemex brewer at a trade show.
“I brought it back to the shop where I worked, and everyone was like, ‘Oh, dude!’” he says.
Pikaart started “geeking out” with the new toys, recording the experiments on his blog, pouredover.com, complete with videos and graphs. His profile in the coffee scene grew nationally, and he relocated to Portland to join a group of local coffee vets looking to start a new roastery and coffee bar. When Water Avenue Coffee opened in April 2010, it wasn’t the $10,000 Synesso espresso machine that took pride of place on the counter; it was an eye-catching pour-over bar, made from 60 pounds of poured concrete and glass drippers inside a laser-etched sheet of bamboo.
“Ultimately, the reason [pour-over brewers] are so optimal for drinking fancy-pants specialty coffee is that they’re very flexible, very dynamic and, with a trained operator, with a manual process, you can make on-the-fly decisions, and with those subtle adjustments, you can get a better-quality product,” Pikaart says. “Single-cup brewing is easy, flexible and delicious. The barista has greater control. It’s also a more inclusive brew method—when a barista is behind an espresso machine, they’re very separate from the customer. With a pour-over bar, you can see straight through it, and the customer side and barista side aren’t that different, so it’s interactive. It also has a high romantic value. It makes me think of a tea ceremony, setting up all the gadgets, pouring the water over the coffee. It’s ritualistic. I think a huge part of its value is that it’s just fun.”
At least 27 different coffeehouses in Portland now offer pour-over coffee—whether it’s with a Chemex Coffeemaker at Coava in Southeast, a Swissgold filter at Courier downtown or a Clever Coffee Dripper at Sterling in Nob Hill.
Pour-over brewing is nothing new. A German housewife by the name of Melitta Benz invented the coffee filter that still bears her name in 1908, and the Chemex was invented by a German-American chemist, Peter J. Schlumbohm, in 1941 (it remains the only coffee maker in the collection at MoMa). But both brewers spent the latter part of the 20th century gathering dust in American cupboards, as automated gadgets and espresso became de rigueur.
Over the past decade, an increased focus on high-quality, ethically sourced, single-origin beans and carefully crafted blends—the so-called “third wave” of coffee—has changed the way many of us think about joe. The realization that each bean from each growing region could elicit its own unique flavors led baristas and consumers alike to seek out new ways to highlight these differences. As it transpired, the best way to do this wasn’t new at all.
It’s not a movement Portland can specifically lay claim to, but we make for a unique case study. In 2005, third-wave pioneer Stumptown Coffee opened a tasting room and retail outlet near its Southeast Belmont Street coffeehouse, dubbed the Annex. Its crown jewel was the first-ever Clover machine, an $11,000 Seattle-made automated single-cup brewer that was all the buzz of the industry at the time. Stumptown acquired six others, but in 2008, Clover was bought by Starbucks. The local roaster promptly dumped its entire collection of the machines and returned to using simple old Melitta brewers. The move may have been born out of anti-corporate interests, but the result was brilliant: The controlled brewing and clean, smooth cups allowed baristas to showcase the rainbow of flavors in every bean. And the cheap, low-tech equipment allowed their converted customers to replicate it at home.
“I think people are finally starting to appreciate the idea that coffee can be something really exciting. Really flavorful, really complex,” says Annex manager Liam Kenna. “These methods, they make it approachable…you can spend $20 on a ceramic cup and get an amazing coffee at home.”
“Manual brewing lends itself to the particular type of coffee from a particular place better than anything else within the coffee industry currently. It’s the best way to see what’s really going on with each of these coffees,” agrees Stumptown’s director of operations, Matt Lounsbury.
In 2009, a barista in Bellingham, Wash., began importing a pour-over brewer called the V60 from Japanese glass-manufacturing company Hario, and putting them in the hands of influential baristas across the country. One of its most notable converts was Chicago’s Intelligentsia Coffee, which ditched all its Clovers and created a pour-over bar of V60s, helping turn the $10 plastic dripper into a must-have gadget for coffee geeks everywhere.
“I think the demise of the Clover was extremely timely, and it’s undeniably correlated to the rise of the individual brew,” says Pikaart. “My whole position is that I can do with my $20 brewing cone what that $10,000 device does.”
In 2010, Stumptown opened its Brew Bar in New York, an espresso-free coffee bar offering any of its beans brewed in a Chemex, Hario, Melitta, siphon, French press or AeroPress. The company now plans to expand and transform the Annex into the same concept.
But as Portlanders know well, nothing is any good if other people like it. You can now buy Hario V60s in Williams-Sonoma. Last year, Starbucks announced it would be rolling out pour-over brewers into all of its stores. And earlier this year, Clover unveiled its latest creation: the Precision Pour Over—a hands-off, computerized machine that delivers a temperature-controlled, metered flow of water over a V60, potentially eliminating the need for a skilled barista. Starbucks is already testing the system in one of its Seattle stores.
“Parity is the highest form of flattery,” shrugs Pikaart. “Could [Starbucks] kill it? Probably not. Because we have the passion. We will be here whether it makes money or not. I expect it to taper off…[but] as long as people continue to throw money at it, it will continue to be cool.”