On the way up to the Northwest Barista Championships in Tacoma, Brandon Arends and I left Portland about 7am, giving us time to stop for coffee somewhere. Brandon said he knew of a good place along the way, so we didn’t stop at one of the cafés in Portland before leaving town. About a half hour after leaving SE Portland, we pulled off of I-5 at exit 14 near Ridgefield, Washington in search of a morning wake-up.
Despite knowing that Brandon had high standards, I was still a little skeptical when he pulled into the parking lot of a small strip mall out in the middle of nowhere (check this map to see what I mean). There didn’t seem to be much of anything nearby—no houses (unless you count the RV park that you could see in the distance), a few stores and zero foot traffic. The lack of people made me wonder how a cafe so far away from anything could stay in business. My previous experiences with similar out-of-the-way shops have rarely been great, and have sometimes been disastrous, so I was less than enthusiastic.
As we parked in front of the Lava Java sign, Brandon told me that he knew the owner of the café, Phuong Tran. He also said that she won the 2005 US Barista Championships. Oh. That changed my perception of the café rather quickly.
When we got inside, Brandon greeted Phuong, who remembered working with him at the 2009 NWRBC in Portland. He told her we were headed up to Tacoma to volunteer and she welcomed us and invited us to try some coffee.
Lava Java had two espressos on grind that morning. Lava Java is a Stumptown café, so one of the espressos available was Hair Bender. The other was a single-origin, organic Bolivia Buenavista that they were serving for the first time that day. We ordered the Buenavista and took a look at the coffee’s name card.
One thing that always impresses me about Stumptown is the completeness of the descriptions on their coffee labels. They tell quite a story. The card for the Buenavista gave the coffee farm’s latitude and longitude coordinates (15°39’53”S x 67°31’59”W), the elevation at which the coffee was grown (1600-1830m), varieties (Caturra and Typica) and my favorite part, the flavors (“Invitingly sweet cacao aromatics transition into syrupy sweet and complex flavors of raw honey, cherry and blackberry warmed by toasted almond notes in the finish”). The back of the card gives a description of where and how the coffee was processed.
While we waited for our drinks, Phuong told us her coffee story. Her eyes lit up as she told us how she became a café owner and barista champion.
In 2003, Phuong was tired of her job and looking to start a business. She wasn’t sure exactly what type of business—she was thinking about a boutique of some type—when she came to the strip mall to meet with the developer about a space that was opening up.
As it turns out, the owner of the development was also the owner of a coffee shop (Lava Java) in the development, and he was looking to sell it. He offered the café to her, and even though she didn’t have any experience with coffee or with running her own business, Phuong decided to buy the café.
At first, she didn’t shake things up too much. She kept all of the previous staff in place and set about trying to figure out how to make the café better. She met with several roasters around the area, looking for the right coffee supplier. She said that when she went to a cupping at Stumptown with Duane Sorenson (in 2003, he was still doing the cuppings), she knew she wanted to use the company’s coffee. Duane told her that she was going to have to make some investments in training and equipment if she wanted to use Stumptown coffee. Not one to do anything half-heartedly, Phuong bought a new La Marzocco espresso machine and set about learning how to use it.
In order to improve her barista skills (and the skills of the staff), Phuong decided that the Barista Championship standards would be the guidelines for her baristas to emulate. One of her baristas at the time, Billy Wilson (yes, that Billy Wilson—multiple-time regional barista champion and owner of Barista) was as enthusiastic as she was, and they dove into perfecting their techniques and performances.
It didn’t take long for Phuong to become a highly-skilled barista. In 2004, Phuong made it to the US Barista Championships and finished second. Pretty good for someone who had only been in coffee for a year. She wasn’t finished, though, and at the 2005 USBC, Phuong brought home the top trophy. Both the first and second-place trophies are on display in the café.
These days, Phuong does not compete, but she stays involved with the Barista championships by judging the competitions. She plans to become a head judge soon. In addition to judging the competitions, Phuong also teaches classes for the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) in the US and abroad. She has taught in Japan, Greece and Dubai, and may go to China soon. If that weren’t enough, Phuong does some coffee consulting too, traveling around the world to train managers and barista trainers. She teaches café owners and barista trainers about how to create standards manuals for their own café and how to improve workflows, higher-level thinking that she figured out as she built the business.
We had a good meeting with Phuong and Tabitha, the barista who made us our drinks. Speaking of the drinks, the espresso was slightly fruity (I could imagine why the card said blackberries) and as a cappuccino, the Buenavista did a pretty good job of standing up to the milk.
If you’re taking a drive from Portland to Seattle and have a few extra minutes, stop off at exit 14 and visit Lava Java. Don’t worry about the bland exterior. Inside you will find some baristas who know what they’re doing (and have the trophies to prove it).
Address: 109 S 65th Ave # 108, Ridgefield, WA 98642-3409 (map)
Hours: Tuesday-Friday 6:30am-6pm
Coffee: StumptownFree Wi-Fi? No
Recommend it? Yes, if you're on the road between PDX and SEA