All posts in Portland

Join me March 18 at Powells!

One of the high points for me after Left Coast Roast came out was when a friend told me they’d stumbled across it at the local library. It hadn’t occurred to me that it might find a life in a library. I love libraries. I think libraries are as cool as democracy and universal health insurance. Maybe cooler.


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And the only thing cooler than a library is Powells Books. I go to a lecture series each year that brings in some of the top authors in the country, and to a (wo)man, every single person gets on stage and talks about how amazing Powells is and how lucky we are to have it. Indeed.

I can hardly contain my excitement to tell you that I get to talk about my book at Powells. Ohmagerd. Come watch me faint on stage from the thrill of it all.

Oh, and as if that weren’t enough, joining me will be Duane Sorenson, the CEO of Stumptown. I’m always more comfortable in conversation than stranded by myself in front of a crowd. Duane has graciously agreed to come offer his perspectives on how Portland rose to become one of the finest coffee cities in the world, as well how the coffee industry has changed dramatically in the years since Stumptown opened its doors in 1999. After the talk, which is being hosted by the Fresh Pot, we’ll all taste some delish Stumptown coffees together.

Monday, March 18
7:30 pm
Powells on Hawthorne

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Left Coast Roast (Timber Press) is Hanna Neuschwander‘s caffeine-fueled guide to 55 key coffee companies in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California — from small artisan roasters like Heart, Coava, and Kuma and icons like Peet’s and Starbucks, to rapidly expanding shops like Portland’s Stumptown and San Francisco’s Blue Bottle. Hanna will be joined in conversation by Stumptown Coffee Roasters’s Duane Sorenson. A coffee tasting will follow their conversation. This event is cosponsored by The Fresh Pot.

Starbucks’ Geisha Gamble

The pixie on the table yells, “So, who all here is a partner?” The crowd erupts, politely, indicating “We, we are partners!” I think for a second I’ve stumbled into a Marriage Preservers Anonymous meeting. But no, she means “employee.”

Ah, Starbucks. I’m at one of the company’s high end, LEED-certified, boozy sip shops in Portland for a special event—the unveiling of their much-ballyhooed new reserve coffee: Costa Rica Finca Palmilera; quantity, 3800 pounds; price, $7/cup; roast, light as air. Media outposts from Houston to Atlanta have covered the release and the steep price tag, despite the fact that it’s only available in the Pacific Northwest. As far as I can tell, almost no one who has written about the coffee has actually tasted it.

It’s hands-down the best cup of coffee I’ve ever been served under the banner of a mermaid. I’m not sure that’s saying a lot, but it’s saying something.

Is it a gimmick? Maybe. Cynical? Probably. Likely to get very good, well-roasted, fairly priced coffee into the hands of folks who otherwise wouldn’t try it? Ya bro.

Leslie Wolford, the sprite on the table, is a “coffee specialist” with Starbucks. She talks for a few minutes about the estate, La Candililla, in Costa Rica. (They buy other coffees from the farm and have for some time; she couldn’t give me an exact year). Seventy hectares are managed by a family, split into sectors. The Geisha comes from a sector managed by brothers Marvin and Didier Sanchez, who devote 3 hectares to the variety.

Wolford gives a light disquisition on the history of the variety, which hails from Ethiopia and was brought to Costa Rica in the 50s. Farmers had hopes the seed stock would be resistant to disease, but quickly realized that low yields made it unsuitable for production. It is, though, more resistant to fungal rot than other varieties typical in Latin America. It migrated across the border to the Boquete region of Panama in the 1960s (sources credit producer Don Pachi Francisco Serracin). But it gained notoriety only recently, when the variety began winning competitions and earning top auction bids. According to a brief history of the variety by Geoff Watts,

With rare exception, this Geisha coffee has won every competition it has enttered for almost a decade [starting with the Best of Panama in 2003]. It has set and then broken 5 records for most expensive auction coffee in the world, topping out at a whopping $170/lb at a recent auction. It has become the most talked-about coffee in the industry and caused producers from Mexico to Bolivia to scramble to try to get their hands on seeds to … reap some of the windfall profits before Geisha gets too widespread.

Starbucks’ move is almost certainly a fullfillment of Watts’ prophesy about the reach of Geisha. Like other roasters seeking a signifier of prestige, Starbucks went looking for it. They found it being grown by a farm they already bought coffee from, right under their noses.

Alisa Martinez, global brand manager for the company, tells me frankly, “This is the best coffee we’ve ever served.”

Someone asks about roast. Wollingford’s answers are a bit hedgy. She calls it a light roast, but you can tell she feels a little uncomfortable saying this. Later she plants it in the middle of the SBUX dark-o-meter. This is false. It’s a light roast by any accounting of Starbucks’ standards. Wolford spends a lot of time talking about how the flavor and complexity would be lost if there was too much roast. At this, I develop a mouth gape—a Starbucks senior “partner” stating publicly that overroasting can inhibit complexity.

The Geisha is roasted in a batch roaster, 80 lbs. at a time. It’s one of the few Reserve line coffees to have this distinction—mostly because there’s so little of it.

For those who worry about the coffee being old or stale, that’s also not a concern here. There’s so little of the coffee—only 3,000 pounds—Martinez estimates it will be gone by January, a total run of about four weeks.

Meanwhile, the floor is open for conversation and the questions and commentary from Starbucks baristas in the audience are blowing my mind. Someone checks the Geisha’s brightness against remembered Kenyans. Someone thinks to ask about optimal brewing temperature. Someone expresses surprise at its sweetness even though it’s a washed coffee. Everyone loves it. I realize I have been seriously underestimating Starbucks baristas.

Wolford, meanwhile, is on her perch itching to get to the nitty gritty stuff—“Pineapple, yes!” “Anyone getting peach? White peach, not yellow?” “It’s got acidity, but it’s also so soft—isn’t that lovely?” She asks everyone to savor the coffee as it cools, pointing out that the flavor Just. Keeps. Going. She uses the word “singular” nine times after I start counting.

But the whole experience is singular. Starbucks served me black coffee I kind of love. It is complex. It makes me think. It lingers.

It is notably better than similarly priced coffees that have long had overinflated reputations—Jamaica Blue Mountain, Kopi Luwak, Kona.

That’s not to say that future shipments of Geisha will get the same treatment (there will be more—in three years Geisha will be so common, we’ll wonder what all the fuss was about way back when). But this particular coffee seems to hit the mark on most fronts: It’s fresh, it’s carefully (and not too darkly) roasted, and it’s being thoughtfully presented, brewed to order on a Clover, with gentle encouragements to at least sip it once without cream and sugar.

Is it better than the other infamous Geisha in my repetoire, Stumptown’s Panama Esmerelda Especial? My predictably psychological brain wants to remember Stumptown’s coffee as better—more delicate, more ephemeral. It was certainly the latter. To be honest, I don’t remember it that well.

Starbucks’ Reserve Costa Rica Finca Palmilera is available only in 48 stores in Portland and Seattle. ½ lb bags are $40. Get it while it lasts—another CR Geisha was available briefly online, but sold out in one day.

Roaster Roundup: Happy Cup

Perhaps because if its long association with the concept of fair trade, coffee has settled into many a cozy marriage with social enterprise and other ethically motivated business concepts.

Enter a new Portland coffee roaster—in a town bursting to full with them already—called Happy Cup. The nine-month old company is roasting approximately 2,000 pounds of green coffee a month on a rented 6-kilo Probat, with plans for big growth. Already, 27 Portland Metro area grocery stores are carrying the jaunty bags. How did they do it?

Happy CupWith a good story—and a little savvy marketing muscle. Happy Cup is a for-profit company that supports Portland’s population of developmentally disabled adults in two ways: First, and perhaps most importantly, by employing them on its production line. (“Line” in this case is a bit of a misnomer: The production space is a bright, smallish room with rectangular tables, like a not-depressing office break room.) Over 78% of this population is unemployed in Portland and those that do find work often have trouble keeping their jobs for more than a few months at a time. But at Happy Cup the work is designed to fits the needs of the population, not the other way around. It is built as a safe space in which adults with special needs can develop their job skills. You’ll find employees working short, two-hour shifts to fill, stamp, and seal bags of beans, earning minimum wage ($8.80 per hour) for their efforts. One employee, Suanne, talks about what earning her paychecks enables her to do: “I’m going to the beach next month, and I’m saving for a trip to Seattle to see some of my family.” Dustin adds, “I go bowling, to the video arcade and to outdoor markets. I’m not bored at home anymore.”

The company also plans to donate 100% of its profits to the Full Life Foundation, which will support arts programming for disabled adults. The Foundation’s work will build on the work already being done by a for-profit organization called Full Life, just down the street from the Happy Cup roastery. At Full Life, adults with special needs engage in job development activities and arts projects—everything from making macaroni collages to putting on small-scale theater productions, to hosting Britney Spears dance parties (occasionally the latter happens spontaneously). Full Life is a for-profit job training and recreation center, generally funded by money from the state. Adults are most often referred to its programs through Medicaid. It’s these same adults who are finding employment at Happy Cup. The roastery expects to begin turning a profit within about six months, at which time a good portion of their profits will fund the nonprofit Full Life Foundation.

Both Full Life and Happy Cup exist because of Rachel Bloom, a former special education teacher with an entrepreneurial streak. The idea for Happy Cup came after a chance encounter with Trevin Miller, the owner of one of the country’s only brick-and-mortar green coffee supply stores, Mr. Green Beans. Miller was looking for a space large enough to house his 6-kilo Probat; Bloom had the space and an idea was born. (The roastery is unique in one other way: Miller’s Probat is also available to other Portland roasters—everyone from local microroaster Sterling Coffee Roasters, which is filling in gaps while their own new machine is installed, to a man who roasts 25 pounds of coffee for his nursing home each week.)

Miller of Mr. Green Beans sources the coffee for Happy Cup, and works out the roast profiles (there are currently eight blends and one single origin coffee). Each coffee is charmingly named by the staff (ex: Boom! Boom!, Hot Bean, Flying Unicorn are just three examples). Charlie Austin, formerly a home roaster, does production roasting for the company.

Bloom has big plans for the future of Happy Cup—she hopes it will be a national brand within in the next few years. How will she accomplish that scale of growth? The same way she’s grown Full Life to serve 160 adults every day, and the way she’s already grown Happy Cup into a surprisingly weighty local brand—“I’m a hustler.”

Portland’s 20 Best Coffeehouses

Just out from Eater PDX is a guide to Portland’s 20 best coffeehouses, compiled by editor and man-about-town Jordan Michelman. Lots of left coast roasters on the list, including Stumptown, Boyds, Clive, Courier, Coava, Cellar Door, Extracto, Heart, Public Domain, Ristretto, Sterling, and Water Avenue. Phew. But also on the list are plenty of top-notch cafes that you won’t find in the book because they don’t roast their own. Perhaps most notable is the new microcafe Maglia Rosa, located inside West End Bikes downtown. The cafe is run by veteran barista and former U.S. Barista Champion Phuong Tran, who (according to the cafe’s Twitter feed), is “going to be sucker punching people with killer coffee and showing young pups old tricks.” We believe it.

Check the full list over at EaterPDX.

Too Big For Its Former Britches, Stumptown Opens a New Roastery

Stumptown is officially a player. Hot on the heels of a major venture capital investment in 2011, the company has finally moved out of its scattershot, undersized digs and into a rehabbed, 37,000-square-foot space that will house its roastery and administrative offices (these were formerly spread over three buildings, two of them houses in a SE Portland neighborhood). With a new 90-kilo Probat, and a major investment in top-notch sustainable technology, Stumptown is off to the races. The new facility, whose construction reportedly contributed 200 jobs to a depressed local market, was feted by the major of Portland as well as U.S. Rep Earl Blumenauer in a ribbon-cutting ceremony yesterday.

What started as a tiny microroastery in 1999 is hitting the (sorta) big time. With 2 million pounds of coffee a year and upwards of $35 million in revenue, Stumptown sits firmly among the ranks of other mid-sized regional roasters like Batdorf and Bronson and Caffe Vita.

The new space is gorgeous, full of refurbished old wood, with floor-to-ceiling windows everywhere, including looking into the roastery from the street.

Below are some pictures from a party celebrating the new space took place last night with Stumptown employees and friends.


Roaster Roundup: Nossa Familia

I recently spent a morning visiting with Augusto Carvalho Dias and Rob Hoos, the owner and roaster (respectively) of Nossa Familia Coffee (“Our Family” in Portuguese). Nossa is a somewhat unusual company in that the coffee they roast comes directly from farms in Brazil owned by various members of Augusto’s family—they call it Family Traded.
Though they have been roasting for more than five years in Portland, the company has kept a mostly low profile, selling primarily to offices and restaurants. But recently, they’ve expanded to a new space in the Pearl District, upped the ante on roasting with a new, energy efficient Loring Smart Roaster (the only one in Portland), and are considering plans for a cafe.
In many ways Nossa Familia is a roasting company that is doing something qualitatively different than other roasters in Portland—with the family traded model, with the Loring, and otherwise. But without a showcase cafe, they’ve lacked the “street cred” of other roasting companies. (It’s a funny thing about coffee—it’s hard to be a well regarded coffee company without a cafe.) Their choices and business model differ from the norm—which is a good thing. (My mantra: Variety, especially in coffee, is almost never bad.) Because they operate a bit differently, people don’t always know what to make of Nossa. For example, the family trade model has both some significant upsides—deep, direct connections to the stories behind each coffee, open lines of communication for feedback and improvement, the ability to focus on one origin, among others. It also had a few possible downsides—sourcing from a small number of farms in a single country limits variety, and poses potential difficulties with keeping coffee fresh.
To that end, I posed a few questions to Augusto and the Nossa team. Here’s what they had to say:
How do you guys handle “seasonality”?

We handle seasonality by making sure that we are only purchasing the freshest available crop from our farms in Brazil at the time. My family knows the quality that we like and expect here at Nossa Familia Coffee. We cup the coffees before each shipment to approve the samples. The harvest cycle in Brazil is long starting in May and ending in September. After the harvest the coffees have to rest for at least 60 days, then they are sorted for screen size, density, and all defects removed. Once this is done they wait for shipment in a climate (humidity) controlled environment. My family is working with a university in Brazil to test the difference between burlap, grainpro and a new material. So this coming year all coffees that are further out from harvest will likely be in grain-pro or the new material they are developing.

Side note: Augusto led a side-by-side cupping of the same microlot of coffee, one stored in GrainPro, and one stored in burlap then transferred to GrainPro for shipping. The different in taste was remarkable. I actually quite liked both (they were only three months out from harvest, so still both quite fresh in the scheme of things), but it was amazing how toned up or down certain flavors were.

Coming from a single origin, does that present a problem?

I see it as an opportunity. All coffees change throughout the year, and instead of ignoring that we work with the coffee to adjust our roast profiles. The humidity controlled environment in Brazil is great, and we have never had any customer issues or drop in quality as the year progresses. Grainpro bags are also a huge help.

It is our goal to have the most optimum Brazilian green that we can get our hands on. It is important to us that acidity and organic volatiles are present at peak levels for us to achieve the best roasted results. With each container, we are purchasing more and more coffee in grainpro packaging to increase green quality in order to move more in this direction.

You hear a lot about strip picking in Brazil—often with a sneering tone. I don’t know coffee harvesting from Adam, but I wonder if you could provide any info on the harvesting practices at Nossa family farms.

This is a subject that we could talk about for 2 hours over coffee, or beer. I used to be a total detractor of strip-picking. It just sounds bad and “unromantic” compared to hand-picking.  That was until I visited Brazil during a recent November and saw a farm where a portion of coffee cherries had not been picked at all and were rotting on the plants. A combination of higher costs and a shortage in labor meant that good cherry went unpicked. I started learning more about the economics of coffee farming and the amount that most farms in Brazil have invested in post-harvest selection.  The mills at the farms do an amazing job of separating ripe, green, dried, and over-ripe cherries. The result is that a farm will have some excellent lots and some sub-par lots. That’s okay—there are roasters buying the sub-par lots. We happen to buy the excellent lots. The total percentage of excellent coffee in a farm is reduced compared with cherry picking, but the high end lots are just as high end and it allows the farm to stay in business.

What are the farms that Nossa imports for/buys from/roasts?
Fazenda Cachoeira da Grama – Owner, Gabriel Dias Carvahlo
Fazenda Recerio – Owner, Maria and Diogo de Carvalho dias
Fazenda Santa Alina – Owner, Joaquim and Lucia (Tuca) Dias
Fazenda Rainha  – Owner, Luis Fernando de Carvalho Dias (this farm was sold a few years ago and is now managed by one of my cousins and her husband, but it is no longer in the family)

Do you have a sense of how large or small your purchases are compared with total sales for this farm (are you a relatively small buyer, or a big one for them)?

A majority of our beans come from Fazenda Cachoeira da Grama. Cachoeira produces up to 5,000 bags annually of which, we purchase approximately 1,200. We also purchase organic farms through my cousin’s export company, they help us source organic beans from a few local certified farms.