Tuesday was a day that a coffee connoisseur would have enjoyed. I ended up at three different Portland cafés—Public Domain, Water Avenue Coffee and Coava Coffee—not quite the original plan, but it worked out well.
After participating in a webinar about social media, I had to hustle to catch the bus to downtown. I arrived at the #19 stop just as the bus did. The ride took about 35 minutes and dropped me off at Pioneer Square. I crossed the square and headed toward Public Domain. Located on Broadway and Alder, Public Domain is a café owned by Coffee Bean International, one of Portland's larger specialty roasters. You might not know much about the company, since much of what CBI does is produce private label coffee for other companies. CBI’s own brands are Panache, Public Domain, Café Tierra and Un Momento.
I walked into the brightly-lit shop and looked around for a minute. I asked the barista about the available espressos. He pointed me to a sign on the counter. There were two available: an El Salvador single-origin from Sterling and CBI’s own Prometheus blend. I chose the Prometheus and went to sit down.
As I walked to my seat by the window, I noticed that the customer who had come in just before me was talking to the other barista and that they were discussing the Slayer espresso machine. The Slayer, which I plan to profile someday, is an espresso machine made in Seattle by some former engineers for La Marzocco. It’s a pricey machine (about $18,000) that is new to the market in the last two years. According to the barista who was using it, one of the benefits of the Slayer is that it has such a “soft pre-infusion.” What that means is that the steam from the machine enters the coffee at less than full pressure, moistening the ground coffee and letting the flavors come out more fully before they are pushed through the filter and into the cup. The barista can also control the amount of pressure throughout the extraction, allowing the development of a better flavor profile.
I watched the barista pull his shot on the Slayer and then sat there listening to the two talk about espresso and technology. It was clear that the customer was excited about coffee and that he already knew a fair amount about the Portland coffee scene. When I overheard him ask what other cafés in Portland he ought to visit, I couldn’t help but jump into the conversation. Normally, it’s not my nature to step in, but if anyone should have a recommendation or two about Portland cafés, it ought to be me.
The customer introduced himself as Sam. He was an assistant roaster at Gigante, a coffee company located in Melbourne, Australia. He was traveling in Portland to visit some of the specialty roasters that the city has become known for, apparently as far away as Australia.
We sat there discussing coffee and Portland’s reputation and pretty soon, Jon, the barista who had been explaining the Slayer, sat down on his lunch break to talk coffee and answer any questions we had. Jon has been working in coffee for about four years. Before he came to Portland, he was the lead barista and trainer at PT’s Coffee in Topeka, Kansas, where the company is pioneering the city’s specialty coffee culture. He liked being in Portland because it has such a strong community of specialty roasters that are pushing to advance coffee as an industry. He was complimentary of some of the other cafés in town and said that when he’s not drinking Public Domain, he likes to patronize Sterling and Coffeehouse Northwest, both because he lives in that neighborhood (Northwest), but mostly because they have great coffee. I mentioned that it seemed like Portland coffee companies were not trying to create rivalries with each other. He agreed and said that people mostly just want to elevate coffee and not tear each other down..
After discussing coffee with Jon and Sam for a while, it was time to move on. I told Sam I was planning to head over to Water Avenue Coffee and he asked if he could come with me. I said sure, it would be great to have someone along who was interested in coffee. I usually travel alone, and it would be a nice change to have someone with me. It turned out that his presence would make the trip much more rewarding.