Portland has long fancied itself a coffee town, but it wasn't until a chilly November day in 1999 that it became the coffee town. That's the day a young heavy-metal-loving stoner from Washington opened the doors to the first Stumptown Coffee Roasters on a sleepy stretch of Southeast Division Street. Of course, few Portlanders registered yet another neighborhood coffeehouse at the time, but within a few short years, Stumptown's coffee was fueling the city, and Duane Sorenson was the buzz of the coffee world.
When Stumptown opened, Sorenson had one employee, a small vintage Probat roaster and a Ford Pinto for deliveries. Fifteen years later, the company has hundreds of employees, more than 1,000 wholesale accounts and 10 shops in four cities.
It isn't Stumptown's size or finances that have shaped the city. Coffee Bean International roasts far more beans, and Dutch Bros. has far more locations. But Sorenson turned Portland into a town of insufferable coffee snobs—in the best way.
From its early days, scrappy Stumptown stood out not just for the punk rock on its stereos and punk rockers behind its counters, but for its obsessive pursuit of quality. The company became known for going to great lengths—and even greater expense—to secure the best beans in the world. On the other side of the supply chain, cafes hoping to fill their portafilters with Hair Bender had to survive a barista boot camp and invest in approved equipment before they were deemed worthy of displaying an artfully printed "Stumptown" sign in their window.
And the obsession dripped down (sorry) to the customers. Coffee drinkers may have come for the superior product and hip environs, but they received an education in the unique qualities of different origins and processing styles, thanks to geeky, in-depth detail on the packaging. Farms like Hacienda La Esmeralda in Panama became recognizable brand names. Local palates became partial to light roasts. We learned how to pronounce "Yirgacheffe."
Moreover, roasters across the country adopted Stumptown's style and technique. In Portland, a wave of new roasters brought restrained roasting, obsessive sourcing and hip styling to the forefront, leaving Starbucks' charred roasts and faux Italian verbiage for suburban strip malls. Other Portland roasters have taken the baton and run with it, but the next time you're enjoying a pourover micro-lot from an organic nano-roaster powered by unicycle and located inside a hollowed-out Douglas fir tree, toast a demitasse to Sorenson, the guy who made it all possible.
Ruth Brown is a former Willamette Week Web editor now working at The Brooklyn Paper in New York City. She is the author of Coffee Nerd, out in January.
From the Archives:
June 15, 2011: "The Selling of Stumptown," cover feature on Stumptown's sale
1974: Mt. Hood Freeway Killed
1978: Bill Walton Sits Down
1995: Bicyclists Sue Portland
2009: Sam Adams Admits Lying
2011: Occupy Portland