Pepper Guide: Portland’s Coffee Scene Isn’t Just for HipstersJune 30, 2016
A few years ago, I took one of those generic online personality tests which would recommend, based on your multiple choice answers, what U.S. city would best suit my personal lifestyle and social preferences. Kaye had just come home from a trip to New York and was eager to confirm (albeit through Buzzfeed or whatever that website was) that we were meant to move together to the concrete jungle where dreams are made of. Instead, I was duly informed that I was meant to live in Portland, Oregon, since I was deemed to be vaguely “not mainstream, introspectively organic, and a little weird.”
So as our plane took off from LAX in the soft morning sunshine and left the glitzy desert metropolis of Los Angeles on our way north up the West Coast, we started to mentally lower our gears for a proper experience of the Pacific Northwest. If Southern California was a glam rock concert, where everything was bright, shiny, and beautiful (even if a bit in-your-face loud), the Pacific Northwest was a communal folk strum-along in a forest grove where everyone spoke in soft murmurs, maybe held hands, and shared their homemade granola mix. At its heart is Portland, and although this city with a thriving food cart culture and with the most total breweries and independent microbreweries of any city in the world has largely been popularized and satirized (see, “Portlandia”) for steadfastly and unabashedly remaining hippie and then hipster, the natives seem happy to embrace it all as just being true to themselves.
It therefore made sense that the third wave coffee scene and the organic lifestyle movement both found themselves cultivated and wholeheartedly supported in this corner of the world. Touching down in the lush, green surroundings of Portland International Airport, we saw stalls selling small-batch homemade gin, backyard-nurtured fruit, and forest-farmed honey. Outside, Kaye’s uncle waited for us in the chilly morning air in his electric-hybrid Prius. You get the idea.
Tree-lined, occasionally overcast and cold, and with a mature community of creatives, artists, chefs, and people just happy to live authentic, Portland seemed to be the place that God specifically created for drinking coffee in. Naturally, we were excited to get back on the trail and explore every back-alley and converted mid-century wood-working warehouse – one never really knows where a coffee shop might be hiding in this coffee-crazy city.
Barista PDX (Nob Hill)
After a quick lunch in the Northwest district of the city, we walked a few blocks through a quiet residential neighborhood past Craftsman and Old Portland-style houses towards to the Nob Hill café of Barista PDX. Located in an unassuming but classy space in the busy commercial NW 23rd Ave., the coffee shop offers a quiet caffeine break from the bustle of nearby clothing stores, ice cream shops, and restaurants. Barista PDX was already half-full of Sunday strollers and regulars and in the warm, inviting space, the familiar, comforting scent of freshly brewed coffee went around like a hug.
Standing at the bar and waiting for your turn to order may feel like a daunting task for Barista’s baristas are skilled, knowledgeable, and (at least while we were there) heavily bearded – like coffee gurus ready to drip knowledge on flavor notes, varietals, and blends for the day. One particular individual took our cortado order and proceeded to swish away in a swish of denim and hair to work the La Marzocco Linea. Moments later, he produced a vibrantly balanced cup using beans from Heart Roasters (more on them below), expertly topped with a latte art heart which tasted as sweet as it looked. The bearded, long-haired guy looked in approval at our satisfied smiles and blessed us with his goodbye: “enjoy your coffee.” It was Easter Sunday and we felt resurrected.
Address: 823 NW 23rd Ave.
Stumptown (Old Town)
Stumptown is a Portland institution and having been established as early as 1999, is credited as having been one of the forebears of the third wave coffee scene. You’re bound to see one of their folksy coffee shops around town if you spend more than a few hours in the city and the name itself is one of the nicknames of Portland – a nod to the pioneering loggers who blazed a trail from east to west through the Oregon wilderness to build a city on the Willamette Valley. So while their cafes retain the corresponding sense and symbols of classic western Americana (painted storefront windows, horseshoes, brick and wood, etc.), they also proudly display vestiges of their current worldwide brand as coffee roasters extraordinaire featuring coffees from as far away as Kenya and Indonesia.
We dropped by Stumptown’s biggest store in downtown Portland on Easter Sunday, a block and a half away from the hour-long lines snaking outside another city favorite, Voodoo Doughnuts in the Old Town district. Having been given the tourists’ privilege of leaving our companions to wait in line for hot sugar pastries, we walked over to Stumptown to get some hot brews to go with our snacks. We ordered a pour-over and sat at the bar while the barista swirled hot water in graceful arcs over a bed of what my tastebuds remembered as an aromatically dense Kenya varietal. The best place to sit however, is on the storefront windows and watch the Portlandians cycle and shuffle around Old Town in their own unhurried way. Looking down the street going back to Voodoo Doughnuts, one can easily make out the famous “Keep Portland Weird” painting in big yellow letters on the side of a low building. If being weird meant having great coffee everyday, then we were all for it.
Address: 128 SW 3rd Avenue
The next day, light rain and all, we set out to see the great natural wonders of the Columbia River Gorge and Multnomah Falls. Conveniently located within a 30 minute drive out of downtown Portland, and with automatic driving views of verdant meadows, the majestic Columbia River, and the spectacular snow-capped Cascades, these outdoor adventures surely worked up appetites that we gratefully gave in to on the way back to North Portland.
After a truly comforting lunch of smoked Texas-style beef brisket in Podnah’s Pit Barbecue, we took a short drive out of the Alberta Arts District to the Albina Press Coffeehouse. Like all of Portland’s premier cafes, Albina Press doesn’t have any of the exterior bells and whistles announcing itself as a place-to-be to any passer or driver-by in the quiet Alberta sidestreets. Instead, with its worn wooden floors, neighborhood posters, hanging plants, mood lighting, and soft leather couches, it welcomes you with the familiarity of an old friend. Familiar and comforting as well was their coffee selection which, as expected, consisted of city favorites Stumptown, Heart, and Coava Roasters. In the mood for something invigorating, we opted for Stumptown’s signature Hair Bender blend (Indonesian, Latin American, and African coffees) pulled into our usual cortado. Outside, there were wooden benches and tables beside colorful murals to enjoy our hot hair-bending chocolate and cherry brew in the chilly sunshine. A perfect place to read a book or two and spend time plotting how to relocate to Portland.
Address: 4637 N Albina Ave
Located in the heart (corny pun intended) of the uber-hip Pearl District and a stone’s throw away from the awesome Portland branch of Ace Hotel and all other impossibly cool, one-off craft mercantile stores and leather goods showrooms (all responsibly and locally-sourced, of course), Heart is a sleek, almost ascetic ideal of what Hemingway previously aspired to as a “clean, well-lighted place.”
The dark exteriors fade away once you enter the door into the muted brightness of the café space, which is stylishly framed with pendant lights, a whitewashed brick wall, and bleached foliage. All very trendy and done in monochromatic, minimalist Scandinavian to probably reduce visual clutter and allow the clients to focus on the coffee – and what coffee it turned out to be. On the bar, Heart was rocking a gleaming, personalized Kees van Der Westen Spirit espresso machine which emitted a slight vibrating hum and soft vapors as it churned out what smelled to be the sweetly seductive notes of an Ethiopian varietal. Having agreed that we missed the clean, fruity, and floral clarity of Ethiopian coffee, we ordered the usual cortado and a pour-over of the same beans to savor the complex bomb of summery flavors on our palates. Such coffees were meant to be paired with overcast afternoons like those when it felt like winter was still unwilling to let go of its grip. We bought a bag for ourselves to brew at home and remind ourselves of the Philippines.
Address: 537 SW 12th Ave