I spent six months traveling the West Coast interviewing coffee roasters for my new book, Left Coast Roast (Timber Press, 296 pages, $16.95). I learned some interesting things. Among them: Stumptown's coffee buyers slurp on average 166 spoonfuls of coffee a day, and an inordinate number of roasters were classical musicians. The book chronicles coffee from Seattle to San Francisco, but Portland is where my heart is. The sheer variety of roasters, the mom-and-pop ethic, the fierce focus on quality—it all adds up to a vibrant coffee scene unlike any other. Here are five things you probably didn't know about local coffee:
1. Freddy was a coffee peddler. In 1908, Fred Meyer arrived in Portland from Brooklyn. He began roasting coffee and selling it from a turn-of-the-century food cart—a horse-drawn wagon—he trucked around to local farms and lumber camps. By 1920, Meyer had opened his first grocery store, the one we now call Freddy's.
2. The dream of the 1890s is alive in coffee. Before even Fred Meyer, there was Boyd Coffee Company. Boyd's is one of the oldest continuously operating coffee roasters in the country—and one of the last of the titans to remain a family business. In 1900, Percival Dewe Boyd began peddling his wares from a horse-drawn carriage; today, the fourth generation of the family runs the business.
3. There are a helluva lot of coffee roasters in Portland. In February, The New York Times gave an impressed shout-out to the "more than 30" coffee roasters we sport in a city of just 600,000. But the Times' number swings low by about 25 percent. There are at least 40 coffee roasters operating in Portland, and that doesn't count the innumerable non-Portland-based roasters that sell their beans here. We're practically swimming in coffee.
4. Speaking of swimming in coffee… Researchers at Portland State University and Washington State University Vancouver recently discovered elevated levels of caffeine in the Pacific waters off the Oregon coast. They surmise that high rainfall and combined sewer overflows flush the chemical out to sea.
5. Stumptown is David and Goliath. Stumptown, the company that catapulted Portland into the coffee vanguard, took a drubbing in the popular press when it accepted a venture capital investment last year. The company appears to have gone big time. But has it? These days, Stumptown roasts 2 million pounds of coffee a year, more than the city's smaller roasters. But compared to Starbucks' purchase in 2010 of 269 million pounds of green, unroasted beans and it's practically peanuts.