Portland Coffee: Micro Roasters, Macro Influence

by Francoise Villeneuve with Antoinette Bruno
Antoinette Bruno and Francoise Villeneuve Antoinette Bruno and Francoise Villeneuve
November 2011

As a convenient and affordable luxury, coffee has weathered the economic storm, and the Portland metro region now boasts 18 coffee roasters—at least half of which are small operations*. Portland’s DIY mentality and relatively low real estate prices allow young, creative men and women to live the American coffee dream. Portland roasters are taking what the rest of the country might consider a relatively small amount of startup money and transforming it into a viable business.


The Stumptown Affair

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Stumptown has largely paved the way for the city's micro coffee roasters by showing a company could feasibly source, roast, and serve its own coffee, rather than purchasing from an outside roaster—in a sense, controlling the coffee from the field to the cup. Earlier this year the entire coffee scene, both pros and aficionados alike, went into an uproar at the mere whisper of Portland-grown coffee empire Stumptown’s sale. For those who had pinned their hopes on Portland settling the Portland-Seattle coffee rivalry once and for all (and quashing Starbucks’ domination, the investment was a big deal. But then, in Portland, coffee itself is a big deal.

To Chris Ryan, editor of coffee magazine Fresh Cup, “the Stumptown development is the biggest story in Portland's specialty coffee culture this year, only because it affects so many people.” The company supplies coffee for cafés and restaurants beyond its four retail locations, so it carries a hefty weight. “When the news broke that Stumptown had sold some of its shares to an investment firm, there was widespread concern in Portland about what that would mean for the brand,” says Ryan. “Many Portlanders were worried that the growth allowed by the investment money would lead to a decline in the product. But in my view, Stumptown's reputation in Portland has remained strong. But the effects of the new money may be felt down the road.”

Growing the Market

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Unlike the craft brewers and distillers of Portland, the city’s coffee roasters don’t yet have their own guild. Where is the Portland coffee world’s equivalent of Distillery Row? Until now Portland roasters have joined national guilds like the Roasters Guild, a national trade group of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, but nothing has the exposure of a Distillery Row. That may be changing soon thanks to the efforts of Coffeehouse NW and Sterling Coffee owner and coffee roaster Adam McGovern.

Stumptown’s success has proven that there’s a big market for specialty coffee in Portland (and beyond). But instead of going big solo, McGovern has chosen to pool resources with his fellow micro coffee roasters to change their collective reality—and create a sort of coffee version of Distillery Row in the process, named Coffee Roasters United. “Mass plays a huge role in way coffee works. We work closely with Cellar Door and Heart to make sure we’re all sharing information and not hiring each others people,” says McGovern. By combining forces, they consolidate sourcing, allowing them to save on shipping and increase their buying power at the same time. Although McGovern and his cohorts haven't yet officially opened a shared roasting facility for Coffee Roasters United, they plan on adopting a roasting equipment sharing program for their fellow micro coffee roasters once their roaster arrives from the Netherlands and once they locate a space to house the fledgling effort. This sort of move won’t surprise those familiar with the city’s resistance to the “go big or go home” mentality. Small businesses are a way of life here. But this sort of city-wide move would allow each roaster to maintain its own identity.

The community even supports a robust coffee education program. Matt Milletto runs coffee community building effort, the American Barista and Coffee School in Portland. Despite his own business interests, Milletto, who also is a partner in micro roaster Water Avenue, insists the school is “a neutral [coffee] community space for the Portland area.” Though the school’s parent company Bellissimo began as a specialty coffee consultancy company nationwide, “people started asking us can if we could come do trainings, and we saw a demand and need for an education facility.” Here, coffee enthusiasts looking to open their own business can take barista and business training—Milletto estimates that about 90 percent of the students aim to become coffee pros. The economic downturn has forced people to rethink their business models. “It is harder for people to find financing or get a loan—but the coffee roaster is the key profit generator for their business. People are not spending less on equipment but being more creative with their concept to keep it within their budget.”

A Perfect Blend of Micro Roasters

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Geeking Out Over Brewing Methods

Just as the Portland scene has grown, so has the diversity within it. Heart Coffee’s retail store exhibits one of the widest ranges of brewing methods: espresso drinks, chemex, pour-over, air press, siphon, and Karlsbader (a German china coffee contraption that works without a filter paper or metal sieve). Additionally, the team still roasts coffee in the store. Owner Willie Yi-Luoma originally wanted to roast in a separate facility but the in-café roaster is something that draws in the coffee nuts, if they don’t mind the noise. “We’re very nerdy about coffee,” he jokes. Yi-Luoma doesn’t come from a professional coffee roasting background. But when his enthusiast roasting equipment started taking over his home, he decided to take the plunge. His view of coffee has shaped the approach the company takes. He views it as “kind of like a chain—farming, processing, storage, exporting, storage, roasting, and barista preparation. If something gets broken in that chain, the coffee doesn’t taste good.”

Stickler for Precision

Coava Coffee’s identity is wrapped up in precision. Here blend is a dirty word. They one-up the single origin folks with single varietal, single farm coffees. And baristas use timers to brew coffee—once the grains have been weighed on a digital scale, that is. Barista and coffee roaster Sam Purvis explains that instead of what he considers to be plugging in gaps in a flavor profile by blending, “we try to taste coffee contextually—a good coffee from Costa Rica or Colombia is heavier on chocolate and can be juicy, for example.”

The Wild Card

For Coffee Roaster Brandon Smyth, the caffeine smarts he learned from Stumptown among other coffee roasters, helped shape his small roaster business Water Avenue Coffee. Knowing the business as well as he does has allowed him to experiment with flavor profiles, whether it’s selecting a bean from a farm with a highly unusual green bell pepper flavor profile or creating a blend for customers who just want a great cup of joe. Despite his business acumen, he has a playful approach that yields drips like his barreled coffee, inspired by the city’s similar barrel-aged cocktail craze (courtesy of 2011 Rising Star Mixologist Jeffrey Morgenthaler).

Going by Instinct

At the two locations of Ristretto Roasters, Owner and Coffee Roaster Din Johnson offers both blends—all of which are direct trade—and single varietal coffees. For him, instinctual roasting is very important. He balances his coffee menu with approachable flavor profiles, such as the dark chocolate of a Colombia Huela Valencia, and less obvious choices, such as the jalapeño-ey Sumatra Lingtong. Thanks to in-house Coffee Educator Natalie Thomas, caffeine-starved customers can brush up on their bean knowledge while imbibing with a good cupping.

Creating Espresso Trends

Cart to brick-and-mortar Spella Caffe from Andrea Spella has built its reputation on hand-pulled, to-order espresso and espresso drinks. Beyond those, they also offer the affogato, the Italian treat that satisfies the sweet tooth by bathing gelato with espresso, and a version of a chilled icy frappuccino, called a shakereto, combining a little sugar, espresso, and ice shaken vigorously to produce a luxurious, velvety texture. Spella Caffe Barista Natasha Riedel may be working her way through med school, but her passion shows that neighborhood-focused coffee shops even entrance coffee pros not looking to java as a long-term career path. “It’s such a part of Portland that it’s kind of impossible not to be immersed in it,” she smiles wryly. We happen to agree.

*Data from Christian Kaylor of Oregon Employment Department