My quest to find good coffee took me outside the city limits the other day. I traveled up the I-5 corridor from a city who’s catchphrase is “Keep Portland weird!” to a city that likes to say “Keep Vancouver normal.” While the cultures of the two cities are very different, one thing they share (besides the rain) is good coffee. Before any Portlanders reading this get upset, I want to make it clear that I’m not implying the two are coffee equals. So far, Portland has a clear lead. In fact, until the other day I didn’t even know that Vancouver was competitive.
However, yesterday a friend of mine from Vancouver, Tim Downing, introduced me to Nor’West Coffee and I found that there are a few coffee experts in the state to our north as well. Nor’West is a café that has been around for nearly three years. After roasting his own coffee for about seven years, Mike McGinness, the owner, began roasting commercially three years ago under the name Compass Coffee. The company has three retail outlets—one in downtown Vancouver (Compass Coffee), one in North Vancouver (Nor’West) and one in Beaverton (Java Nation) that it acquired three months ago.
The North Vancouver store, where we went, has been the company’s roasting headquarters for two years, and has been a retail outlet for nine months. They call it the Tasting Lab/Education Center, so it’s a good place to go if you want to learn about coffee. With a large roll-up door, the building looks like it should be an auto shop. Step inside, however, and you will find Mike, Bryan and Ryan, your guides to (in Mike’s words) your “coffee Nirvana.”
Tim and I showed up on a Friday afternoon, and they were roasting coffee when we arrived. We started talking to the guys, and I mentioned that I was writing about my quest to become a coffee expert. They seemed excited to hear that, then they warned us about the batch they were roasting.
“This one is almost ready, and when we open it up, you’d better look out,” said Mike, pointing at the roaster. “It’s a dark one.”
“Look outside, you’ll see what I mean.” He pointed towards the street. I looked out the window and saw a thick white cloud of smoke billowing out of the building towards traffic.
Oh. Wow! Was the coffee on fire? Mike opened the door on his roaster to dump the coffee into the cooling bin, and more white smoke poured out into the café. I could see why the roll-up door was open, and I wondered: doesn’t a roast this dark kill all of the subtle flavors in the coffee? Don’t all of the volatile compounds that make the coffee unique literally go up in smoke? Doesn’t that go against everything a coffee lover believes in?
“This is a coffee roasted especially for our customers in Beaverton,” Mike explained. “We just bought the Java Nation Coffeehouse, and they have a super dark, high caffeine blend called King Cobra that they’ve been serving there for fifteen years. It’s not our most interesting coffee, but we want to keep our customers happy.”
That’s certainly understandable. I can imagine what I might do if I were accustomed to drinking the (very) smoky King Cobra every day, then suddenly one day someone served me something that tasted more like fruit juice. I’d probably look to get my fix somewhere else.
After the smoke cleared, I asked what espressos they had. There were three available (a sign that the café cared about coffee): a house blend called Delirium, an Ethiopian coffee and one from Kenya. The Kenya was described as having “incredible balance for a Kenyan coffee. Clean with sweet, juicy fruit flavors,” so I chose the Kenya. Tim ordered the Delirium.
As he handed it to me, Ryan (the barista), said the shots had pulled a little tight. I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant, but when I tried it, instead of the sweetness I was expecting, the coffee tasted much like a plum that was weeks from being ripe. It was sour, and when I told him that, he made me another one. The second one was better. It was slightly sweet, and the fruitiness did come through.
Tim and I went over to sit down at a table and solve the world’s problems (if you ask me, we nearly succeeded). While we were there, Ryan offered to let us try some brewed coffee (a pour-over, of course), but as I already had six shots in me for the day, I held off. I probably should have accepted—all three guys were very knowledgeable and excited about coffee—because I imagine they would have brewed something very good.
Instead of drinking more coffee, we discussed the Portland area coffee scene with them. Is the Portland coffee the best in the country? I wanted to hear their opinion. Of course, they assured me. Even better than Seattle’s? Ryan weighed in that Seattle is good, but they seem to have lost their edge up there. “They’re content to just have good coffee in Seattle. No one’s pushing the envelope like they are down here.” Interesting. I had heard that from other people in the Portland area too, and I wonder what people from Seattle would say about that. Might be time for a road trip. . .
After three hours at the café, including one long conversation with one of the regulars about life, it was time to go. I was glad that Tim took me to Nor’West. Each time I go to a place, I seem to learn something new about coffee, and the guys at Nor’West were very willing to help me with my coffee education. Just look out when they’re roasting the King Cobra.
Address: 8013 St. Johns Road Suite P, Vancouver, Washington 98665 (map)
Hours: Monday-Friday 7am-5pm
Coffee: Compass (their own retail brand)
Free Wi-Fi? Yes
Recommend it? Yes, when you want to learn about coffee