Coffee Roaster Push x Pull and Chocolatier Cloudforest: Two Outstanding Examples of Fermentation Magic

Push x Pull provides a cup above the rest, and Cloudforest’s chocolate can brighten even the grayest winter day.

Fermentation is magic. Happy, helpful bacteria nosh away at whatever edible they set upon. Deliciousness results.

Beer and wine are the most obvious examples of fermentation’s wonders. But, for lesser-known fermentation fun, consider chocolate and coffee.

In particular, two Portland purveyors have harnessed this magic and operate must-visit storefronts. Even better, the two shops are just a few minutes walk from one another: Push x Pull provides a cup above the rest, and Cloudforest’s chocolate can brighten even the grayest winter day.

Coffee may be ubiquitous in our city, but Christopher Hall, the 37-year-old co-founder of coffee roaster and cafe Push x Pull, possesses a singular focus on natural process beans, to the extreme delight of those in the know.

If more proof were required beyond perfectly pulled shots and captivating cortados, Hall cheerfully discloses that his toddler’s middle name is Bean. Hall’s effervescent attitude and core of longtime employees (one, Emma Reeves, is now a co-owner) corroborate his frequent invocation of “community” as PxP’s overarching theme.

“Natural process” refers to fermentation of the entire coffee cherry after harvesting. American coffee snobs have long turned up their noses at these coffees as funky and inconsistent. Not Hall. While learning the specialty coffee craft at Lovejoy Bakers a decade ago, he developed an affinity for the “wilder” flavored samples that came his way.

“I remember that first Ethiopian natural I had totally blew my mind. The fruit-forward flavors, the exploration of what the fruit has to offer, that’s what I was so drawn to in naturals, and still am,” Hall says. Indeed, fruit, chocolate and earth in nuanced variation characterize the natural process coffees from Africa and Central and South America that compose PxP’s regular rotation. Off flavors are entirely absent, a quality Hall calls “clarity.”

Hall credits better and more transparent practices all along the supply chain in tandem with the relationships he’s fostered with farmers and his other suppliers. Hall’s roasting acumen and equipment—a tiny 2-kilogram roaster will give way next year to a 15 kg model—are factors as well. For my money (and the growing circle of PxP regulars), these coffees are far superior to the relatively one-dimensional washed-process varieties that dominate elsewhere.

A short diagonal southwest from PxP, along busy Southeast Morrison Street, Ecuador native Sebastian Cisneros displays his edible art in a tidy, bright but inconspicuous boutique: Cloudforest.

“There is a magical exchange of volatile compounds,” Cisneros says. He’s describing the process where cacao pods are splayed open and the mélange of pale pulp and dark seeds are laid bare to the sun.

“Acids released from microorganisms feed on the fruity flesh covering the seeds,” he says, “inoculating them with new structures that will transform into yummy flavors during drying, roasting and refining.”

Fermentation, Cisneros adds, “is essential in all fine chocolate making” to remove bitter compounds and replace them with desirable fruity, caramely and, “above all, chocolaty” flavors.

Cisneros is a veritable alchemist of the local chocolate scene.

He first managed to produce wonderful bars more than a decade ago under the brand name Cocanū. Back then, he worked during the wee hours, relying on primitive equipment, in the basement of Kenny & Zuke’s deli. As his production facilities evolved and he took the name Cloudforest, his flavored and pure varietal bars easily exceeded any chocolate produced locally and most of the “artisan” chocolate manufactured by better-known names. Despite Cloudforest’s low profile, this is still the case.

Valentina, a 75% dark chocolate sweetened exclusively with maple sugar, is brilliantly executed and elegant in its simplicity. Cisneros cites his Nest bar, flavored with brown buttermilk and spices, as a far more ambitious endeavor that “took weeks and pounds of failed batches to fine tune.”

A visit to the shop (or the Cloudforest website) reveals an abundance of additional choices, ranging from the vanilla-infused Orchid bar to the Holy Wood: flavored with woodsy-herbaceous and reputedly medicinal palo santo. The namesake Cloudforest bar is refined solely from Nacional-type cacao beans grown in Ecuador’s Camino Verde orchard.

Cisneros has also begun to extend his reach beyond bar chocolate. Summer brought ice cream made from cacao pulp, tasting of fruit with the barest whisper of chocolate flavor, and a hazelnut-chocolate spread suited to spoon right on top.

Hall and Cisneros are travelers on the same path, though they barely know of one another. United in their grasp of fermentation and its capacity to deepen and enhance flavors—like the winemakers and brewers before them—they are the passion-driven culinary savants that have made Portland a food lover’s wonderland. As luck would have it, an outing to sample their wares requires only a simple urban excursion.

DRINK: Push x Pull, 821 SE Stark St., 8 am-2 pm Monday-Friday, 8 am-3 pm Saturday-Sunday (indoor and outdoor seating).

EAT: Cloudforest, 727 SE Morrison St., 503-893-2614, 10 am-7 pm Thursday-Monday (outdoor seating only).