I stopped in Seattle for a day, and despite my efforts to find somebody in their press office to have a cup of coffee with, I couldn’t meet up with anybody from Starbucks while there. Oh well, I was still going to check out their cool new roastery and tasting room.
It was worth the stop. The siphon coffees I tried were disappointing, but the espresso was excellent, and they take it seriously, with four different grinders, each dialed in for a different kind of coffee and adjusted throughout the day to ensure a proper shot.
The staff in the shop was also more than happy to talk coffee. The most interesting conversation I had was with their roaster Mikey, who started homeroasting a little before he started working at Starbucks about 15 years ago. He still roasts on a stovetop popcorn-maker, but he is skipping about 10 steps of home technology to upgrade to one of these babies in the near future. Count me jealous.
I also stopped at Victrola, which is next door and one of the Seattle shops with a better reputation. But after the equivalent of about 5 cups of coffee in a short amount of time, I was too caffeined out to check out any of Seattle’s plethora of indie shops. Next time.
This is what the gentleman at the ticket desk inside sfMOMA told my friend Jess and me when we asked about the coffee options inside the museum. Thankfully, we didn’t listen to him, because the “bougie” shot I had there was one of the best I can remember: a rich crema with a nutty/chocolatey taste and a solid body. I learned from my short time in the Bay Area that quite a few people love to hate on sightglass, but I will definitely check out their 7th Street location the next time I find myself in town.
Most of my short stay in the Bay Area, though, was with my friends Peter and Betsy, who recently moved to Walnut Creek from San Francisco. When Peter doubted that I could find good coffee in Walnut Creek—Peter had already shown me that Walnut Creek has the best tacos I’ve ever had—I decided to treat it as a challenge. Yelp made the challenge a little too easy, though. We found the Coffee Shop, a multi-roaster cafe that serves excellent “bougie” coffee from all over the country, including Cafe Grumpy from back home. We also had some great old-school espresso at Pacific Bay Coffee Co., a coffee shop and micro-roaster in downtown Walnut Creek. The head roaster Chris geeked out with us, offering samples of some natural-processed Colombian coffee (he explained that most Colombian coffee is washed, not natural), and we talked shop a little. I picked up some Guatemalan beans for my travels.
Of course, we also had to hit up the Blue Bottle in Oakland, where Peter snapped this photo of me. (There were others, but he insisted I use this one.)
Portland coffee is probably most famous for Stumptown, but the highlight of my coffee experience there was the walking tour of Eastside roasters offered through Third Wave Coffee Tours. The tour took us to five different Portland roasters, including Stumptown, and one tea shop. The coolest stop, in my opinion, was Buckman Coffee Factory, a shared-roaster facility that allows Portland’s micro-roasters to roast their own small-batch coffees without investing in the equipment and buildout required to build a food-safe roastery. Few cities have enough micro-roasters to support a business like this, and Portland has two! Stephanie, the events director, and Joey Buckman, the owner, walked us through a cupping of two Kenyan and two Costa Rican coffees. (I expect to write in more detail about cupping as my travels progress, but for the uninitiated, this kind of cupping has nothing to do with Michael Phelps). I couldn’t really detect any flavor notes in the coffees, but I liked the Kenyans more, which is consistent with my general preference for African coffees.
Coffee Recs in Portland
Both on the tour and off, the coffee was excellent, and hard to miss: according to our tour guide, Portland has more than 800 coffee shops, most of them independent. Even Seattle likes Portland coffee best. I was only there for two days, but I walked away with several favorites:
Third Wave Coffee Tours — If you like coffee or just want something “different” to do while in Portland, I’d recommend looking into which tours are available while you’re there.
Heart Coffee Roasters — I had their drip back once back in New York, and made a point of visiting in Portland. They weren’t on the tour, but heart’s Ethiopia Worka was the best cup of coffee I had on the trip: mild acidity and medium body, with cherry and peach notes.
barista — An independent institution in Portland, with four locations throughout the city that feature coffees from multiple roasters. One shop, the Brass Bar, features their own coffees, and is located in the Pine Street Market.
Coava Coffee Roasters — I had a macchiato on the tour, and didn’t have the time to try their drip or espresso, but Coava was a featured roaster at barista, and highly recommended by Patrick, a friendly chocolatier from Québec City that I ran into at a coffee shop in the Pearl district doing his own coffee tour of Portland. Plus, the space at their brew bar on Grand Avenue is just really cool.
Courier Coffee Roasters — I did a bad job of finding the hipster spots, but if you’re looking for one, this fit the bill, at least when I was there. A bearded dude holding two 33-rpm records at the bar was chatting with the barista about Steven Seagal movies and how to make the most of one’s time in prison, while suggesting that if the shop charged more for the cookies, they would sell more. The coffee was good, and it was served without any of the typical hipster snobbery.
Stumptown — We went to their headquarters on the tour, where we got an overview of Stumptown’s buying practices and approach to coffee. I’m not the biggest fan of Stumptown, and this trip didn’t change my opinion a whole lot, but hearing the company story, beginning with a 1919 Probat that you can still look at in their store, was really cool. Unfortunately, I think you can only get this tour through Third Wave Coffee Tours. If you just want the coffee, you can go to one of their many locations around Portland, including one in the airport, which opened in July and is quite hard to miss when you get past security.
I want to thank Hanna Neuschwander of World Coffee Research for taking time to give me some very useful pointers, and Lora Woodruff of Third Wave Coffee Tours for squeezing me in off the waitlist and for offering an awesome tour of Portland coffee roasters.