Interview with Brandon Arends, a Portland Coffee Enthusiast

In my pursuit of coffee knowledge, I had the most interesting conversation the other day with Brandon Arends, a coffee enthusiast/expert, who is about to get his Master of International Management from Portland State University. In past conversations I’ve had with Brandon, his eyes always lit up whenever the conversation turned to coffee, and I wanted to understand what makes Portland’s coffee so special. Brandon agreed to meet with me and talk about the Portland coffee scene. He told me so much that if one quarter of what we talked about stays with me, I will know more about coffee than 95% of the US population.

We met at Coffeehouse Northwest on Burnside Street in Northwest Portland. When we arrived, I asked Brandon what he usually ordered. He told me that he usually doesn’t go out for coffee because he has a “crazy setup at home”, but when he does, he gets a double cappuccino. Rather, I thought he said a double cappuccino, but he really said a double espresso and a cappuccino. What a way to get going!

Our first stop, Coffeehouse Northwest

Coffeehouse NW had two different espressos available: Hair Bender, from Stumptown and a single-origin Brazilian coffee roasted by Sterling. Since I had drunk a lot of Stumptown in the last week, I opted for the Sterling (as did Brandon) and ordered a double. The barista told us that it had a simple taste profile, with a cinnamon aroma. The shots were slightly tangy, but when I added a little sugar, I tasted coffee, cinnamon and buttery orange rolls. Mmmm.

We sat down and began to talk coffee. I started out by asking him about where he developed his love of coffee. Was he a Portland native who grew up in the coffee culture? No, he’s originally from Austin, Texas. He came to Portland because he had some friends up here, liked the city and was ready to get out of Austin. After studying computer science at UT-Austin for a year, Brandon was also ready to go to a smaller school. He ended up enrolling at Portland State, eventually graduating  in 2008 with a degree in international studies. Immediately after graduation, he enrolled in PSU’s MIM program. He is currently in his last term of the program and is focused on completing his group exit project with Intel. After graduation, Brandon told me he would like to work for an athletic sportswear company like Nike or Adidas.

That explained why Brandon is in Portland, but how did he become so passionate about coffee? Living in Austin, where there is not much of a coffee culture, the drink didn’t really interest him. When he first got to Portland, it took a while before he started drinking coffee. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t one of Portland’s many coffee shops that caught his attention. Instead, he discovered coffee at Portland’s Lebanese restaurants.

Here’s the story: Brandon is a vegetarian and he would frequently go to Lebanese restaurants for their hummus and falafel. After eating Lebanese food, it is typical to drink Turkish coffee—a dark, very sweet coffee made by boiling water, sugar and very finely-ground coffee beans together in the same pot. Brandon found that he liked it and started to regularly order it when he went out for Lebanese food. Said Brandon: “There was this one Lebanese restaurant by PSU and I went there enough that I got to know the owner pretty well One day she let me come back to the kitchen and see how she made the coffee. It was cool.”

The second step in his coffee “journey” came at a car dealership (huh?). “ I had to take my car in to get the wheel worked on, so I was stuck at the dealer for a while. They had a place to get coffee, so I tried some—it was very good. I got to thinking about the coffee culture here, and that there are so many people here into coffee and drinking espresso they can’t all be idiots. So I figured I’d give it a try, beginning at home.”

His first home espresso maker was a cheap one that his father gave to him. “My dad worked for Motorola, and he traveled around a lot and drank a lot of coffee, so he bought himself an espresso maker. He didn’t end up using it much, so he gave it to me.”

Brandon used that machine for a while, then soon decided to upgrade his machine to the next level machine (around $200). He noticed the improvement in the coffee, and soon went looking for a better one. He found an ad on Craigslist for a café close-out sale. Scrolling down through the list of available equipment, he came across a Cimbali DT1, a commercial machine that normally costs around $2,000. Brandon got his for $400, and it came with some extras. “I got a huge tub full of accessories too. They gave me a knock box, a tamper and a bunch of cups that I didn’t even need. It was great.”

The first thing Brandon did was tear the whole machine apart. He wanted to clean it up and make sure everything was running correctly. He found that the machine was in pretty good shape. He cleaned out the calcium deposits and insulated the boiler so that the heater wouldn’t have to cycle so much. Whenever he had questions he asked his neighbor (who happened to be a tech for Stumptown) for advice. “I never had to ask him to come over and help,” said Brandon, “but I was able to go across the street and ask him about what different parts were for and how to make sure they run well.”

Once the machine was ready to go, Brandon began experimenting with different coffees, trying to refine his tastes and techniques. He realized that in order to be able to make great drinks, he needed more practice, so he looked for a job at a café.  “ I could only make so many drinks for myself, and I wasn’t going to make a bunch of drinks and just throw them out. Coffee is expensive. I knew that if I could work at a café, I could make a couple hundred drinks each day and I would get better—fast!”

He found a job working at the Food for Thought Café, a student-run cooperative café in the basement of Smith Hall on the PSU campus. During the job interview he explained his passion for making the best coffee. “I told them that I would probably annoy people by constantly working to improve the quality of the drinks the café sold, and that is basically what I’ve done,” he said.

In his four years at the café, Brandon focused his efforts on improving the training that the baristas receive so that they can make the best drinks. In his efforts to improve the quality of the baristas, Brandon even developed a new barista aptitude test to give to potential hires. “Being a barista, you have to think about so many things at once, and you have to do it quickly. I was taking [PSU professor] Sully Taylor’s human resources class and I wanted to apply some of the things we were learning, so I came up with this card game to practice calling and executing drinks. I think it’s been useful, and hope that it has improved the caliber of baristas we have working in the café.”

PSU also provided him with another way to immerse himself in coffee (figuratively). In addition to working at Food for Thought, Brandon also participated in writing a case study about sustainability practices in the coffee industry. The challenging assignment was overseen by PSU’s Center for Global Leadership in Sustainability. The case centered around Portland Roasting Company’s (PRC) sustainability programs, specifically the company’s Farm-Friendly Direct (FFD) program. Four graduate students—three from PSU’s MBA program and one from the MIM program took part in the project. One of Brandon’s assignments was to travel to the 2009 World Barista Championships in Atlanta, where he interviewed many people from the coffee industry, gathering background information for the case study.

As the case study developed, it became clear that the biggest challenge that PRC had was with its marketing efforts. PRC is a leader (probably the leader) when it comes to working towards sustainability in the coffee industry. Focusing on creating long-term relationships directly with growers, PRC gets involved in the communities where it buys coffee. The company has built schools, paid teachers’ salaries and undertaken water improvement projects, all to create a better life for coffee growers while producing good coffee for its customers. All of these efforts, however, do not necessarily translate into increased sales or profits. There are a number of different programs and certifications that deal with sustainability, and it is easy for the FFD program to be obscured by the more famous ones (Fair Trade Certified, for example). Brandon’s group did a great job researching and writing the case, winning the Oikos Global Case Writing Competition in corporate sustainability, crowding out forty competitors.

For Brandon, writing the case was an excellent way for him to learn more about his passion and to develop relationships within the industry. At the Barista competition in Atlanta, he met some of the world’s best baristas, including Michael Philips, who works for Intelligentsia (a Chicago roaster). At the 2009 world championships, Philips finished third, but this year at the championships in London, Philips was crowned world champion.

At some point during the interview, I stopped Brandon and asked him how he could possibly not go into the coffee industry after finishing the MIM program. After all, I had never met anyone as passionate about coffee as he was, and his depth of knowledge and experience impressed me—surely any coffee company would benefit by hiring him. He paused to think for a moment, then agreed that he would probably get into the industry eventually, regardless of whether he started somewhere else.

We spent about an hour and a half at Coffeehouse Northwest, chatting about coffee, then Brandon asked me if I’d ever been to Barista, a coffee shop in the Pearl District. I hadn’t. but was planning to go there later in the week. “Do you want to go now?” he asked. Not one to pass up the opportunity to check it out with a coffee enthusiast, I accepted. We hopped into his car and drove down to the Pearl District.

Brandon inside Barista (notice the three espressos on the board behind him)

Brandon had not been to Barista for a while, and he seemed excited to show me around. “You’ll love this place, especially if you want to learn about coffee. It’s an independent café, so they buy the best coffee from whoever they want to. The baristas know a lot and will talk your ear off if you ask them a question.” On several counts, he was right. Barista is a unique place—it does not have one, or even two, but three different espressos available every day. In addition, the café  has a different coffee available for both the French press and for the iced coffee. If you want, you can also get a vacuum pot of the coffee of your choice.

Brandon ordered first, another double espresso and another cappuccino. Not to be outdone, this time I ordered two double espressos (I thought three would have been a little excessive), one from Spella and one from Sterling. They were very different. The espresso from Spella was very nutty and smooth, and the one from Sterling smelled and tasted like not-quite-ripe blueberries. Brandon and I discussed why.

“More than anything, the origin of the beans is what affects the taste the most,” he said. “Each region, even each farm, has its own flavor characteristics that are typical. It’s very similar to wine.” We also talked about how the processing methods affect flavor. He gave me a short description of the processing of the coffee cherry as it travels from field to cup. Coffee is very labor-intensive and it is pretty amazing that we can get a cup of coffee for as cheaply as we can, especially with the talent and training that baristas have these days.

We talked for a while longer, and when we finished, my head was spinning with all of the new coffee knowledge I had. Brandon promised to show me his “crazy home setup” sometime, so one of these days I’m going to pick up a bag or two of some great Portland coffees and head over to his house to continue my education.