I’ve been putting off writing this post on coffee in Portland as it is too much like hard labour. Portland has a population of just 500,000 people but it somehow has as many international level coffee bars as world cities like London, 10 times more than Hong Kong and a million times more than Seoul.
Before I went to Portland I dialed in a list of about 20 coffee shops which I had to visit. I got pretty far down that list but I always knew there was one I had to make whatever happened: Stumptown’s original branch.
Stumptown Coffee Roasters and the city of Stumptown
To me Stumptown Coffee Roasters is synonymous with good coffee and can probably damn well be considered to be one of its modern parents. The London equivalent is probably Monmouth. It changed people’s expectations. So when you go to the original branch way out in SE Portland (45th and Division) which opened in 1999 it feels a bit too unassuming for a bit of third wave coffee history.
I had coffees from a couple of Stumptowns around Portland and they are all pretty pared back neo-American places. The coffees weren’t the best I had but always ranged at the top end of things. To not talk about coffee for one second, what I find interesting is that if I say ‘Stumptown’ to a non-American they, and I, now think of Stumptown Coffee. Apparently Stumptown is actually the nickname for Portland; a bit like Gotham for New York. Which kind of speaks to its influence.
Given the number of coffees I drank and how boring shots of espressos, machiattos and filters are this will only focus on the best of the places we drank at. And there is no debate in my head about the best. It is the one we bought bags and bags of beans from before we came home: Heart Roasters.
Now I think from random discussions with our Portland friends that this is the coffee shop which Portlandia the TV series has taken the piss out of. I have to say I didn’t find it pretentious at all when I walked in there dressed as an East End Pearly King and walking a ferret. I fit right in. For Americans this is what a Pearly King is.
But fuck it. The coffee was great. The roaster was great. The decor was great. The staff happy to talk in off putting detail about coffee. I want.
Barista is semi-famous amongst Portland coffee scene girls apparently for having the hottest baristas. Quite frankly if they can beat the Norwegian/ Swedish guy who used to work at Present in London and rendered women unable to speak I would be surprised.
Still, it was yet another high high level Portland coffee shop. They don’t roast and were using Coava and Stumptown roasts when we visited. And I think they did a better job with them than either Coava or Stumptown.
Water Avenue Coffee Company
I’ve always loved Red Hook in New York and I think Portland’s SE industrial district has a special place in my heart because it reminds me of that. These guys roast and brew and despite us being excessively full and drained when we visited I was pretty impressed.
Coava Coffee Roasters
Now Coava Coffee is the most beautiful place I have drunk coffee ever. It doubles as a showroom for reclaimed or hand-grown bamboo or something. And they have poured bamboo everywhere and then used antique American industrial equipment for tables and chairs. If you were a dot-com millionaire you would live there.
I have to say the coffees we had there were not as wondrous as the decor. But there is another interesting thing about Coava which makes it even more worthwhile visiting: Able Brewing. This is a coffee product manufacturing company which is a spin off from the shop. I’ve currently been experimenting with their metal aerorpress filter disk and can definitely say that it has had no noticeable impact on my ability to make coffee but has contributed an unprecedented amount of shiny new toy joy to my life (for barely any money).
Finally, I think it was the ‘other places’ which impressed us most. Those times I wondered around without a massive DSLR attached to my head in pijamas to grab a quick coffee to wake up rather than trekking across the city to go to somewhere I had read about. They were all good. In every brunch place we went to the base coffee they would serve was a Stumptown brew. Incredible. And I feel lucky if I get a Nespresso out here…