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International Interlude: Coffee Collective

On a recent trip to Denmark to visit family, I was fortunate to get to visit one of the contenders for best boutique roastery in the world: Coffee Collective.

Years ago, I met the Collective’s founder (Klaus Thomsen, then of Estate Coffee) in Portland. After winning the World Barista Champion title he was hosting a local competition at which I was judging. I’m not sure he could have been any nicer. Regardless, he went on to found and foster one of the most highly regarded coffee companies in the world.

What’s so great about Coffee Collective? For one, the fluffy stuff: The design geek part of me is instantly enamored of their look. The whole colorful geometry thing may have jumped the shark a bit (especially in Europe — jeez, it’s everywhere) but that doesn’t stop me from loving it.

But really, they take coffee to a higher level. From buying to roasting to serving, they pretty much nail everything—and they do it in their own way. CC follows a Nordic approach to coffee, which emphasizes filter coffee over espresso (but of course they offer both), and really plays up the fruitiness and nuance of great coffees. They roast light, but do so thoughtfully—you won’t find a grassy or sour flavor profile in their lineup. Kenyan coffees shine with them. (I brought three bags home.)

And I adore any high end coffee company that serves a shakerato (espresso with simple syrup, shaken in a cocktail shaker with ice). Something magical happens in the shaker that brightens the acidity to a crisp, refreshing peak. It’s proof that not all sugar is anathema to good coffee. It’s summery and fun.

In Portland, Heart Roasters has worked to bring the Nordic approach to the West Coast, and I’m thrilled to have been able to visit one of their muses.

I’ll say one critical thing, though—not about the Collective specifically, but about high end coffee more generally. There’s an aspect of it that does exactly what I think it’s proponents have tried to avoid: It repeats itself. Coffee Collective, while gorgeous, is not terribly different looking or feeling than other high end coffee bars in Europe and the U.S. (This isn’t necesarily because they have intentionally mimicked others—perhaps the reality is more the other way around.) In any case, it’s a place I feel instantly comfortable because it speaks the same visual language as other high end coffee bars. I know exactly where I am the minute I step inside one of these spaces. Don’t get me wrong — I love ’em. But there’s a sameness to them that I think goes unquestioned. And it goes deeper than just how things look: I was somewhat surprised to find on their small menu a coffee from the Finca Vista Hermosa farm in Guatemala. The farm is owned by Edwin Martinez, who spends the better part of each year in Bellingham, Washington. Partly as a result, his direct trade coffees are almost ubiquitous in high end cafes in the Northwest. It’s a bit of a shock to go all the way to Denmark and find the same coffees as I would in Portland. But the apex of the coffee market is a small place. Which also makes it a crowded one—and occasionally an echo chamber. This is especially tricky for roasters that focus on single origin coffees. Without a house blend to define them, these roasters become in some ways an extension of the farm brands they carry (and let’s not mince words, farms like Vista Hermosa have indeed become brands). That makes it doubly difficult to differentiate in substantive ways from other high end roasters that carry the same coffees. It’s something I’ve been mulling for a while—and running into a familiar coffee in Denmark just brought it all home.

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