Coffee shops. Not the scores of Starbucks outposts, though they are as invasive as morning glory. Instead, we're talking about the locally owned caffeine fuel stations, with names as oddball as those of old English pubs: Albina Press, the Fresh Pot, Muddy's, the North Star, the Way Post, Gold Rush, Tiny's, Random Order, Stumptown, Crema, World Cup, the Black Cat, the Ugly Mug, Extracto, Ristretto....
Portland's independent cafes define a brand of local cool, with their tattooed baristas, laptop-toting herds sucking down espresso at all hours, the growl and whoosh of grinders and chrome-plated espresso machines that double as industrial sculpture. It's all so distinctively Portland—a charming quirk of Northwest culture to some; to others, evidence that not enough people have real jobs in this town.
But the naked eye doesn't tell you that there's more going on here. A few of those Portland coffee shops are as highly regarded, in their own sphere, as the nation's finest restaurants. Many of those baristas aspire to a skill level and status comparable to Florentine leatherworkers or Savile Row tailors. In fact, quietly, but confidently, Portland has moved to the vanguard of what may turn out to be the biggest transformation of the coffee business since Starbucks taught America's Sanka drinkers to pay $4 for a latte.
"If you were to ask most people what's the epicenter of coffee in the United States, they'd probably say Seattle," says Chris Tacy, a Portland tech-industry consultant and full-bore coffee obsessive who once worked as a cafe manager and barista. "A few might say San Francisco. But the truth is that, since about two years ago, the epicenter has truly been Portland."
Portland: America's new coffee capital? It's a matter of opinion. What can't be argued is that an extraordinary constellation of personalities, businesses and ambitions has settled around the black brew in this town. And this industry—or maybe it's more a fanatical subculture—is changing how coffee is grown, made, marketed and consumed. And that makes the caffeine trade one of precious few fields in which Portland can legitimately claim to be a center of world-leading innovation. (So take that, biotech!)
Coffee people often talk about three "waves" in the drink's history.
The First Wave was granddad's coffee, generic sludge poured in diners and truck stops. The Second Wave is Starbucks, and the advent of "specialty" coffee as an "affordable luxury." No matter where you are, Starbucks aspires to deliver a predictable product. Standardization made Starbucks' Green Mermaid ubiquitous; it also, by accident, created a market for something very different.
The Third Wave insists that the bean is as fundamentally weird and as subject to the voodoo of climate, place and human skill as wine. Just as early microbrewers looked at Schlitz and dreamed of a better world, Third Wave coffee's proponents want to change the way coffee is perceived.
The Third Wave is a global phenomenon. Baristas and coffee roasters from all over the map debate the fine points of the trade on websites like Coffeegeek.com and Coffeed.com, in forums where coffee is an art and science as much as a business. Companies like Seattle's Victrola, Chicago's Intelligentsia and Oslo's Mocca & Java are extremely well regarded.
But if Seattle, Starbucks' birthplace, was the key city of the Second Wave, Portland may be becoming the pivotal city of the Third Wave.
Like the health of a music scene or a university's intellectual vitality, the real story can't be measured empirically. But a lot of anecdotal evidence suggests Portland is emerging as the Third Wave's premier R&D lab.
"In Portland, you have a little ecosystem of people geeking out at a whole different level," says Anthony "Tonx" Konecny, a barista and popular coffee blogger who's worked for top coffee companies in Seattle and New York and is now at work on a cafe project in Los Angeles. "You have a few places that are making coffee better than all but a few cafes in the country."
The analogies are rough at best, but when it comes to coffee, Portland could be the Apple to Seattle's Dell, the Vice to Seattle's Vogue or—with its vibrant local-ownership ethos—the Green Bay Packers of the coffee world.
Before java ends up in an American mug, it must be grown in the Third World and imported. And some of the largest and arguably the most influential importers of high-quality coffee are based in Portland.
Sustainable Harvest, a company based in the Pearl District's EcoTrust Building, doesn't bring nearly as much coffee into the country as Wal-Mart, say, or Starbucks. But the company, which moved to Portland from the Bay Area in 2000, may be the largest independent importer of certified organic and fair-trade beans, and it's growing fast. Since 2003, the amount of coffee imported by Sustainable Harvest has more than doubled, from 5 million pounds to 10.2 million. The company supplies national powerhouses like Whole Foods, Peet's and Newman's Own. Besides its half-dozen employees in Portland, the company runs offices in Mexico, Peru and Rwanda.
Sustainable Harvest president David Griswold says his company helps high-quality farmers finance their crops and improve their training. (For example, it flew farmers from around the world to an annual seminar in Oaxaca, Mexico, and records Spanish-language broadcasts on coffee growing for Peruvian radio stations.) It also pays a premium for beans—which makes sense because, it turns out, a subset of American consumers will pay more for coffee with a story behind it.
Sustainable Harvest's coffees are certified "fair trade," meaning farmers receive at least $1.41 per pound. By contrast, this week coffee traded at $1.03 per pound on the New York commodity market.
Sustainable Harvest has company on the local importing scene. Mercanta, a British company considered one of the finest specialty-coffee importers in the world, bases its North American operations in Portland. A warehousing operation called Costa Oro, the first of its kind in Portland, started in 2003 and handles over 700,000 pounds of organic beans a year.
But Griswold says his company's Portland address is crucial not because other importers are here, but because a broader community of coffee experts is turning Portland into the Athens of the Third Wave. "There are more people trying to chart the future of this industry here than anywhere else," he says. "I used to sit in our warehouse in Emeryville, Calif., and never meet anyone but truck drivers."
Bad roasters can reduce the best beans in the world to cinders. Portland is home to a number of high-quality roasting companies—including the one that many think is the best in the country, Stumptown.
Founded just seven years ago, Stumptown now looms over Portland coffee. More than a hundred local shops and restaurants serve its beans, and the three cafes it runs itself are among the busiest in the country; the addition of at least one more is in the works. The company is a local-commerce icon in the way Powell's Books is. Outside of Portland—even though it rarely sells its beans beyond the metro area—Stumptown is seen as one of a handful of elite, trendsetting roasters. ("When I think coffee in Portland, I think Stumptown," says Doug Zell of Chicago's Intelligentsia, another top roaster. "There's a handful leading the way, and they're one of them.") Coffee cognoscenti admire Stumptown's efforts to buy crazy-good coffee and roast it in ways custom-designed to accentuate individual varieties' best qualities. And, once that's done, to convince consumers to take coffee very, very seriously.
Last year, the company opened a place called the Annex on Southeast Belmont Street, maybe the only public showplace of its kind for coffee. Every day, twice a day, the Annex hosts formal coffee tastings, in which the aromas, textures and flavors of a half-dozen beans are analyzed. It's also possible to pay $5.50 for a cup of coffee here: Panama Esmeralda Reserva—which, at $103 per pound retail, is reputedly the world's most expensive bean—is made on a device called the Clover 1s, an $8,000 single-cup brewer that looks vaguely like an iMac.
Even if you can't pick out the "vintage '96 Cristal champagne," Esmeralda's floral strangeness is more like an Eastern European liqueur or freaky Belgian beer than a plain-old cup of joe. If this already hugely successful local company has its way with our palates, waking up may never be the same.
Cafes, importers and roasters are one thing—we drink a lot of coffee, and someone's gotta get it to us. But who knew that coffee needed a media capital, and that it would be Portland?
No fewer than four international coffee-oriented magazines are based here. The oldest and biggest, Fresh Cup, started in 1994; its audience of 12,000 subscribers consists mostly of cafe owners, whom it plies with articles on smoothies and paint color schemes as well as coffee coverage. The monthly faces competition from even more niche-oriented titles it helped spawn. Roast and Barista, both founded by former Fresh Cup staffers, combine wonky technical information with profiles of business insiders. (The fourth magazine, Imbibe, aims at consumers and considers coffee along with liquor, beer and wine.) A recent issue of Roast, which has a bimonthly circulation of 6,500, contained an article on roaster emission standards in Washington state and a nine-page treatise on making blends.
Barista can also be highly technical—"diligently rinse the portafilter," etc.—but has a zingier subcultural edge. It covers the global, highly competitive world of the professional espresso-slinger: "The Bold, Beautiful Finnish Baristas," "Kiwi Coffee King Crowned," "Mastery and Mayhem in the Mid-Atlantic."
"For a lot of these guys, coffee is their rock and roll," says Sarah Allen, the former Oregonian reporter (and, more distantly, indie-rock critic) who runs Barista out of her Southeast Portland house. "They're more interested in coffee than they are in girls or money or anything."
Later this month, Barista will team up with Stumptown and a few other sponsors to present the Northwest Regional Barista Competitions. Competitors are judged on speed, skill and artistry. (Each must prepare a plain espresso shot, a cappuccino and drink of their own design for 12 judges.) Organizers expect big crowds for the free three-day blowout at the Wonder Ballroom.
The 25-barista field will include a strong Portland contingent. Thanks to rigorous training demanded by the top local cafes—"It'll be months before we trust someone alone behind the bar," says Albina Press owner Kevin Fuller—and migration from Seattle, San Francisco and elsewhere, Portland's barista corps may be the best in the country. Stumptown's Kyle Larson, a Seattle transplant, won the Northwest title in 2004, while Albina Press' Billy Wilson took second in the U.S. last year.
Cafes and roasters sponsor competing baristas, just like car companies outfit NASCAR teams, because victory brings prestige, publicity and, ultimately, sales. Last month, for example, The New York Times, in an article on nascent Third Wave cafes in New York City, eagerly noted that a barista from "the celebrated Albina Press" plans to open a cafe in Gotham.
"How does a tiny little cafe in North Portland go from opening and doing $10 of business a day to being in The New York Times?" Wilson says. "For us, competitions were the vehicle." The quasi-rock stardom growing up around the profession reflects the fact that making the best espresso is, in fact, pretty difficult.
"It's like being a cobbler," Wilson says. "Every day you learn something new about materials and technique. It's knowing that we're pulling shots today differently than we were doing it three months ago."
If the work is deceptively complicated, the rewards—perhaps surprisingly—are starting to catch up.
"Some of our baristas have been with us for five or six years," says Stephen Vick, a former software engineer who trains baristas for Stumptown. "When you have your choice of shifts, you're probably making $20 an hour. We have baristas buying houses and having families. Everyone gets health care. It's just completely transformed."
This will all, inevitably, strike some people as incredibly pretentious. Baristas swanning around like Julia Child reincarnations? Five-dollar cups of coffee allegedly tasting of "candied ginger, spring flowers...and orange blossoms"? Come on—it's just coffee.
By the same logic, of course, it's just wine, just beer, just food, just music, just literature, just a movie, just life, just whatever. "Pretension" does not quite explain the earnestness and blue-collar commitment of Portland's new coffee elite. Nor does it explain why, for instance, a barista from Oslo and a Nicaraguan roaster would come to Portland for educational stints at Stumptown, as is happening this fall. Something deeper is—sorry—brewing.
In the late '60s and early '70s, the Oregon wine business consisted of a handful of crusty iconoclasts and post-hippie back-to-the-landers fixated on the idea that they could coax grapes out of Willamette Valley soil. Today, of course, pinot noir is synonymous with the state. It's just possible that something similar is happening with coffee—and that Portland, as a magnet for people who think differently about this most common of beverages, is doing for coffee what Berkeley, home of Alice Waters and "California cuisine," did for food three decades ago.
"Will you see baristas driving Mercedes?" Billy Wilson asks. "It sounds ridiculous. But 20 years ago, what did the wine industry look like in America? Most of it came out of a box. But then people started to get interested, and a whole profession grew up around it. The same thing could happen with us—I see it happening now."
Meet a few of the "weirdoes and eccentrics" behind Portland's coffee revolution.
At 4 o'clock on a Monday morning, Joel Domreis hunches over a tiny coffee roaster in a cluttered workshop on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, scribbling figures in a spiral-bound notebook.
The 26-year-old—he seems more like a teenage mad scientist—has been at it since 3 o'clock. A Portland kid obsessed with coffee since middle school, Domreis started roasting two years ago in his back yard, using an open propane flame and a tin the size of an English muffin. ("That coffee totally rocked.")
That level of obsession and commitment to detail makes Domreis—even though he's just starting out—emblematic of the Portland coffee revolution's spirit. The smart, driven people—"a bunch of weirdoes and eccentrics," in one local barista's words—in the trade seem primarily motivated by an overwhelming passion for the bean.
Domreis now has real professional equipment and a real business license tacked to the wall. But the plan for his one-man company, Courier Coffee Roasters, doesn't seem much more elaborate than the slogan on his hand-drawn business cards: "I ROAST COFFEE + BIKE IT TO PEOPLE."
This morning, Domreis roasts a single half-pound batch and pours it into a large Mason jar. Then, it's off into the night—ghosting by bike to a darkened bungalow about a mile and a half away. He tiptoes up to the porch and gently sets down the Mason jar (for which he'll charge $6), then returns to headquarters—and more hours working his roasters, trying to figure them out.
"Every day is epic at the roastery," he says.
Sarah Allen quit her reporting job at The Oregonian the day in 2000 that the paper endorsed George W. Bush for president. Today, Barista, the magazine she and her fiancé run out of their Southeast Portland house, helps both define and validate the international world of professional espresso pullers. Barista's bimonthly issues bustle with technical articles, profiles and debate over the fine points of an increasingly involved profession. Recent issues feature articles on baristas in Poland, Kenya and Guatemala, as well as numerous contributions from Portland writers.
"Baristas traveling down to Central America to meet farmers and learn about coffee cultivation—10 years ago, that would have been unheard of," Allen says. "People ask how many topics we could possibly have to cover. We're nowhere near running out."
The Rock-Star Barista
A few years ago, Billy Wilson was an idealistic college kid trying to figure out what to do with his life.
"A friend of mine told me, 'Look, your calling in life is where your greatest talent meets the world's greatest need,'" the 26-year-old says now.
Today, Wilson is one of the best baristas in the country, if not the world. The heavily tattooed espresso ace from North Portland's Albina Press took second in last year's U.S. Barista Championship. But Wilson sees his competitive exploits—and the growing collection of trophies on Albina Press' counter—as a small part of what drew him to the coffee business.
"I see this new coffee movement as something that goes straight back to farms and villages in the Third World," he says. "It can literally change the lives of whole families. So I want to do it well."
For 15 years, Portland native Din Johnson lived in California. Problem: "The coffee in L.A. is just garbage," he says.
Johnson started roasting beans at home. Now, he and his year-old espresso bar and roastery, Ristretto, are part of a small movement of solo entrepreneurs diving into Portland's high-end coffee world. Johnson, like other high-quality roasters, aims to move beyond charry, jet-black roasts to create something a lot more subtle and strange. (Johnson's wife, Nancy Rommelmann, is an occasional contributor to WW.)
"Coffee is completely winelike," Johnson says. "Everything that exists in wine exists in coffee: microclimates and place, flavor subtleties. People are starting to wake up to that."
The Trail Blazer
If there's one guy who's key to Portland's Third Wave rise, it's Duane Sorenson; if there's one moment, it's November 1999, when the son of a Seattle sausage maker opened Stumptown Coffee Roasters in a storefront on Southeast Division Street. "At the time, people were like, wait a minute," he says. "You're opening in a place that already has more coffee shops than just about anywhere, plus you're out in the sticks. You're kind of screwed."
Today, Sorenson's company is the dominant name in the Portland coffee world and an international trail blazer. Though the company now employs enough nationally known talent to make it a sort of coffee think tank, Sorenson remains its embodiment. He globetrots to coffee-growing regions two weeks of every month. ("I get dysentery about twice a year," he says.) He tracks down rare, high-quality beans, pays record-setting prices to farmers and charges record-setting prices to Portland consumers—part of a "crusade" (his word) to connect coffee drinkers with Third World sources.
"Stumptown has seen a lot of press, so people in Portland might be like, oh, great, Stumptown," Sorenson says. "But no one's rocking it on the quality tip the way we are. I want us to be on the very top of the pyramid for quality and how we operate as a company. And I want Portlanders to be the luckiest coffee consumers in the world." —ZD
A 2005 study identified 419 "coffee restaurants" in the Portland metro area, or two for every 10,000 residents. That put Portland in a virtual three-way tie for third per capita, with San Francisco and Bellingham, Wash. The Seattle metro area ranks second—but well behind the leader, Anchorage, Alaska.
Unusual spinoffs of Portland's coffee fixation include Java Jackets, the company that manufactures those little cardboard sleeves that go around to-go cups. Founded in 1991, Java Jacket has sold more than 1 billion sleeves worldwide.
A cogent explanation of the origin and meaning of the term "Third Wave" can be found at http://www.baristamagazine.com/Issues/VolumeII/AprilMay06/aprilmay06-third.html.
Coffee is the world's second-most traded commodity, after oil.
The Portland Development Commission has given about $950,000 in grants to coffee-related businesses since 2002. Recipients range from individual cafes, such as North Portland's AJ Java and Abbey Cafe, to Portland Roasting Company, one of a number of large-scale roasters based here.
The Northwest Film Center screens Black Gold, a film about coffee, fair trade and globalism, at 7 pm Wednesday, Oct. 11. See page 65 for review and details.
The Northwest Regional Barista Competition takes place Oct. 20-22 at the Wonder Ballroom. In addition to the competition, the reigning world champion, Denmark's Klaus Thomsen, will make a special appearance. Admission is free; details can be found at nwbarista.com.
The American Barista School, a training center in Southeast Portland, attracts between 150 and 200 students a year from around the world.