The purpose of this blog is to make you find your way to Portland as fast as you can. To move heaven and earth to get there before this magical season it currently enjoys is over. It can’t be the ‘it’ place forever.
When you were young, what did you want to be? Something cool, right? Something far out and cool and different and successful all rolled up and slathered with something fantastical from your imagination.
This place exits for grown men and women in the coffee industry. It’s closer than you think and it’s where the SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) had their annual conference in late April of the year 2012.
If you haven’t been touched by the Portlandia phenomenon and their too true commentary that Portland is where 20 something’s go to retire-or haven’t seen it for yourself-you simply must. Anything I try to touch on will barely scratch the surface of, let alone do justice to, the reality that is in Oregon at the confluence of rivers.
The SCCA show is the event of the year for folks in Specialty coffee. Everyone who is anyone is there. The best and the brightest, the future and the past, all present and accounted for buying, selling, teaching, learning and brewing, tasting and talking in the hive-like environment of the trade show floor, leaking out into decidedly hipper venues in the evenings.
First off, let’s get some things out of the way.
They are cooler in Portland than you or I are. Sure, you or I might have a slightly longer shelf life (never being in style means you’re never really out of style either) but in terms of being painfully in vogue, Portland and its people are.
If you can eat it or drink it-and care about what you consume-Portland has some intense, hyper-authentic version that is probably better than you ever thought possible, let alone could find the words to request.
There is a forntiersmanship, a get’er done intensity. Service is better. Come as you are but for f#$k’s sake bring it when you do. Make it stylish, make it well, make it better than anything anyone else is doing it.
Phew! Practically scare the Canadianness right out of me.
My presence (suburban, middle class, no tattoos, lacking style and/or vintage clothing), I must look like a hunter in blaze orange camo to these people. That notwithstanding, it was my “politeness” that begetted an inquiry from the bar stool beside me.
“Are you Canadian?”
Shoot. More cussing next time!
I am an outsider looking in. With that said, let’s begin.
I could detail the drive down the I5 (aka the highway of the damned), the minutiae of the show, what I ate each evening (with pictures), the wines poured (this was a work trip after all), the discussions and cuppings, those attended and those that got away – but I’ll spare you.
Rather I will attempt to capture three highly subjective impressions, loosely bound, all coffee related.
Stumptown. Something old.
The quietness of our minds has been ransacked by the internet and the lesser demons of Twitter, Facebook and their ilk. All these influences provide such easy access to so much information that any original thought that might have tentatively unfurled a frond from the soil of your mind and flourished, is now impossible. Rather than the space that used to exist where you could hear or read about a place and then imagine what it might be like. You can go there now and know more about it; images, opinions, streaming video than, ironically, if you were actually there.
In fondly remembered times (pre high-speed modems) there used to be some mystery, some gaps that remained that could only be filled in by actually travelling to a destination that had piqued your interest. Magazines presented beautiful images and text that seduced you and encouraged your imagination to happily foment with the potential. These flirtations in print prompted personal journeys to New Orleans, San Francisco and Portland.
The original lure to Portland was a concurrent interest in both a certain Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir and Stumptown Coffee Roasters whose meteoric growth was unheard of at the time. Then, and probably to a large extent still now, they owned this town. O-w-n-e-d i-t. Sure there were other roasters (we’re going back 10 years here) and they might have even had good coffee but they didn’t have cool like Stumptown did. They were doing it different than any other roaster, anywhere.
- They were espresso focused and their espresso blend “Hairbender,” like it or not, had a reputation as something special.
- They played only vinyl in their cafes.
- The industrial design fixtures weren’t IKEA imitations of good design, they were the real thing.
- They didn’t sell to anyone further than 2 hours away for freshness and quality concerns. Respect.
- Cool, freaky people worked there that cared as much (if not more) about things other than coffee.
- Their brewed coffee was exclusively French Press. Decanted into a self-serve pump pot and sold for a dollar.
- They had machines make by Kees. Every other café was puttering around in their shitty imported Fiat Punto and these guys are rocking custom fabricated units from a Netherlands based atelier. If you have to ask you can’t afford one. If you don’t have his phone number it’s because you weren’t meant to.
All this might say more about me and what pushes my buttons than anything, but if Portland wasn’t exotic enough for a guy coming from the Vancouver coffee scene (liberal for Canada, constipated compared to here) Stumptown was another galaxy.
Are they still?
My memories remain fond but so much has changed. Everyone has gotten better, more, different. It’s harder and harder to stand out. It’s also hard to stay cool. We can’t all be the Beastie Boys. Cool doesn’t necessarily travel well either, and when you’re fighting on multiple fronts (they have landed in NY) it’s got to be tough.
Tactically the Germans shouldn’t have gone into Russia. In hindsight I suspect there will be a similar insight, not obvious at the time but where the power shifts if it hasn’t already.
Regardless, I visit on every trip through.
Coava. Something New.
There are, by knowledgeable comments at the bar, something like 55 micro roasters in Portland.
Read that line again.
Ok actually, it was a salesman I was talking to so cut the number in half and take off a little bit… there are about 20 micro-roasters playing ball down here at the time of this writing.
Don’t forget about the half dozen sizeable roasters already feeding bean to a discerning public.
I could mention at least 6, if not more off the top of my head, that fit the bill for this new-kid-on-the-block-micro-roastery-with-ambition, but only one that I’ll mention today: Coava.
They are a few years old, started by some guys that-best I could tell from initial visits-were Baristas.
Sort of remarkable if you hail from Vancouver where I can think of barely one equivalent quality café that is owned by folks that used to work the bar somewhere else.
The space is a genius marriage of café and bamboo workshop that is off-the-hook gorgeous in all it’s Spartan, industrial chic. There is luminous cabinetry, gorgeous woodwork; it has all the airiness of a well-curated art gallery but in this case it is the coffee that is on display.
I don’t know if smaller is fundamentally better, or if there is some magic that comes from more modest roasters, but these folks have great coffees, beautifully roasted and not so much prepared as performed, by the cup with the now iconic KONE filter. As the water was layered and danced around, the blooming coffee rising in the filter, it was explained that there was a purpose to the pattern and movement of the pour-the all too common goal of so many in this part of the world; a better tasting cup of coffee. Amen.
Have you ever been above someone hanging from the bars at a playground, and then for fun peeled one reluctant finger back at a time? If Stumptown is the gripped hand around this town-places like Coava are slowly, but most certainly relaxing it’s grip, one finger at a time. And it’s all very exciting.
The take home message?
Coava is a must visit.
Courier Coffee Roasters-Something Borrowed
New to me, somewhat new to Portland, my path crossed with Joel from Courier Coffee Roasters at the Synesso booth where roasters ply their wares on the machines, killing two birds with one stone-showcasing both coffee and contraption at the same time.
CCR are big enough to roast on a 25 lb roaster, small enough to deliver all their orders by bike. Big enough to have a café space and baked from scratch daily offerings of yummy yums. Small enough that unless you’re a local, you’ve probably never heard of them.
I was introduced by a mutual friend who sells us both coffee and while on the tradeshow floor, found ourselves in need. Americano for her, espresso for me. Joel had just set up his station and was rolling the first few test shots, get’n’r dialed. Even if you’ve never been to a coffee trade show, it should come as no surprise that there is coffee on offer at every turn. Selective tasting (vs. drinking) is the order of the day, lest you pass out from caffeine related organ failure.
I never made it to the CCR café, which was described as a going concern. A café/bakery with everything made fresh by a crew of two and devoid of any big dollar polish. But what it may have lacked in fixtures, it made up for in real, honest to goodness authenticity. Folks for whom, freshness, flavour and the belief in something (bikes are better) wasn’t a marketing shtick but a get-up-at-4am-and-bust-your-nut reality every single day. It was if there was no division between life and work-the overlap was seamless. Ride hard, eat well, and drink great coffee.
And so it was on the tradeshow floor, I was presented and drank and enjoyed a CCR espresso. Its provenance was El Salvador, San Luis Farm, Bourbon Varietal from the Menendez family. It was delicious and the most memorable of my time in this coffee Mecca at a coffee saturated tradeshow. I proudly rock one of their (*ahem* loosely borrowed) t-shirts on the weekends.
CCR are but another decidedly different experience in a town with endless examples of different.
Consider all of the above as selective brushes of colour to the vibrant mosaic you will find here. Finishing as we began, I implore you to go soon. Who knows how long this season will last. The good news is that it’s only gotten better since my first visit-encouraging to be sure.