Paper Tiger Coffee (Vancouver, WA)

When you think of great coffee cities, Vancouver, Washington is probably not the first name that comes to mind for Portlanders. Snide PDX residents refer to Vancouver as “Vantucky” (apologies to my relatives in Louisville), implying that the city is somewhat less cultured than its southern neighbor. This is an unfair characterization, however. I live in Southeast Portland and I can assure you it is not more sophisticated than Vancouver.

Fans of Portland coffee can be a bit the same way. Portland has great coffee and it is tempting to look down on our neighbors. However, if you look around some, you can find good coffee outside Portland. You just have to work a little harder to find it.

One way to keep up on what’s going on around the city and in the suburbs is through social networking. Social networking tools like Twitter can be a great source of coffee information. I might never have found Paper Tiger Coffee Roasters in Vancouver, Washington, had they not been on Twitter. Their tweets made it sound like they were coffee enthusiasts, so I went to go see if their coffee was as interesting as their Twitter feed. It was.

(By the way, if you haven’t already done so, be sure to subscribe to my Twitter feed to keep up to date with what is going on at Caffeinated PDX. Click on the icon on the right sidebar).

The tiger roars

If you're just driving by, you might not think much of Paper Tiger. When I pulled up to the corner of Grand and Evergreen on a gray Friday afternoon, I was unimpressed by the cinder block building painted sea foam green. Fortunately, I misjudged the character of the café by its appearance, and was pleasantly surprised when I opened the door and walked in. The café had a very welcoming interior that looked as hip as any PDX café, and the air was charged with a powerful smell of fresh-roasted coffee. It gave me the impression that the owners knew what they were doing.

I walked up to the register and asked the barista on duty what the espresso was like. He explained that it was a “five-bean blend, with two beans from Africa, two from Latin America and one from Asia” that was “fairly sweet with a nice smooth finish.”

“Would you like a double?” he asked.

It seemed a little strange that he knew I wanted a double espresso, but it wasn’t that much of a stretch. I ordered two, one for later, since I was going to be there for a while. [Side note: If you know you’re going to want two drinks and you’re paying by credit or debit card (as I happened to be doing that day), I encourage you to pay for two up front—it’s better for the shop owners, since they only get hit with transaction fees once.]


Shortly after I sat down, the barista brought over the first espresso. It was a “21-gram shot,” which means something to baristas who might be reading this. The espresso was balanced but still fairly juicy—definitely a Northwest-style blend. It was sweet, a little bit citrusy with flavors more like a tangerine than a lemon.

As I sat there close to the bar, the manger pulled out a siphon (vacuum pot) and began training a new barista on how to use it. I couldn’t help but listen in on the conversation. As loyal readers know, a vacuum pot makes great coffee theater, and soon a couple people gathered around to watch the show. I overheard one particularly astute observer exclaim “oh, so it’s like science-based coffee!” Indeed, it was. I don’t think I could say it any better.

The siphon is impossible to ignore

When the show was over, I went back to writing. Pretty soon the barista brought over a small cup. At first, I thought it was my second espresso (which I hadn’t yet asked for), but instead, it was a sample of the siphon coffee.

“Here you go, Will. I thought you’d like a taste of the siphon coffee.”

I raised an eyebrow. How did he know my name?

“I’m Anthony,” he introduced himself. “You write Caffeinated PDX, right?” He glanced at my open laptop. “Are you working on another post?”

I was surprised (and encouraged) that he had recognized me. Anthony told me he spends quite a bit of time online reading about Portland coffee, and three or four times each week he takes the bus from Vancouver to Portland to try out different cafés and their coffees. He had stumbled across Caffeinated PDX looking around on the internet. Social networking works.

Anthony told the owner, Zachary Gray, that I was there. When he finished training the new barista, he came over to sit down and chat for a while. I asked him for the story behind the Paper Tiger. He began his story with a trip to Italy nearly seven years ago.

In 2004, Zachary and his wife Rebecca spent five weeks in Florence, Italy on their honeymoon. While they were there, they got hooked on coffee and the café culture. When they got back to the states, Zachary started working for Moon Monkey Coffee, a small roaster located just south of Chicago.

Looking for a place with a more developed coffee culture, the pair moved to the Portland area after checking out several cities around the US. They really liked Portland and its coffee scene, and felt it was the best fit for them.

Gray started experimenting with doing his own roasting and thought about maybe starting his own company. The defining moment for him—the day that he knew he was going to go for it—was the day he tasted the ’07 Panama Esmeralda. When he tasted the jasmine notes in that coffee, he was completely hooked. After that, Gray worked at home to refine his roasting technique for a couple years before opening up the Paper Tiger in October 2009.

Zachary Gray, the owner of Paper Tiger Coffee, and his US Roasting coffee roaster. Note the flag of Florence in the background, a tribute to the city where he fell in love with coffee

Zachary came across as very enthused about the specialty coffee industry. “It’s not just Intelligentsia and Stumptown who are doing this. It’s not even just Portland or the West Coast. I’ve been to southern Illinois, even to Oklahoma. There are micro-roasters there too. It’s a movement.” From what I’ve seen over the last several months, I agree.

To help create more followers of the movement, Paper Tiger is doing its part to educate customers on what makes great coffee. Every Tuesday, at 3pm and 6pm, they encourage customers to come come in and try out various coffees by hosting free cuppings. If you can’t make it to the cuppings, at least you can try out different brewing methods. Paper Tiger generally prepares all of the house coffees with a French press, but you can also get pour-over or siphon coffee too.

With an enthusiastic, forward-looking owners and baristas, Paper Tiger is a Vancouver café that holds its own in the outstanding Portland coffee scene. If you’re up in Vancouver, check them out. Don’t worry about the outside, either. Paper Tiger has good things going on inside. It might even surprise a few of the Portland sophisticates. If you need a little convincing before you go, follow them @PaperTiger360 on Twitter. You’ll find them interesting enough to want to make the trip up.

Address: 703 Grand Boulevard, Vancouver, Washington 98661 (map)
Phone: 360-553-7900
Hours: Monday-Friday 6:30am-6pm
            Saturday-Sunday 7am-6pm
Coffee: Paper Tiger
Free Wi-Fi? Yes (ask for password)
Recommend it? Yes