Speaking of ancestry...

After visiting Lighthouse, I lumbered down the road a mile or so to Milstead & Co., a café that sits quietly beneath the towering concrete pylons of the Aurora Bridge. Milstead is more like what I am used to when I think of a specialty café. Admittedly, the coffee selections had something to do with that. At the bar, the coffee signs hanging on the espresso grinders said….Coava and Stumptown.

“Do you have anything from Seattle?” I asked.

“The only coffees we carry that are roasted in Seattle are from Stumptown,” the barista told me.

Stumptown doesn’t count, and while it would have been a fun experiment to see how a Seattle café works with Portland coffees, I decided to try a brewed coffee instead, where there were more options. I chose a Rwandan coffee from Intelligentsia and watched as the “brewista” set up the AeroPress on a scale, taking care to weigh both coffee and water to the nearest gram.

She must have done everything right, because the coffee was very, very tasty. It was slightly sweet, savory, had a mellow acidity and a big, satisfying body. The complexity and depth of flavors reminded me of a good marinara sauce, where the tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and white wine fuse together to make something that each alone could never be.

Milstead is an relaxing space, with calming grays and tans around the café. The tables, framed with welded rectangular tube steel and topped with chunks of reclaimed 2x10s, sit sturdily on a polished concrete floor. The café was quiet enough you could hear the soft music playing in the background, but not so quiet you would feel awkward having a conversation. Several people were working on their laptops, but a few people were chatting. The space was large enough to accommodate both.

Between the stellar coffee and the appealing, modern space, I would say that Milstead & Co. looked like the offspring of Portland’s Water Avenue and Barista cafés, with a bit of Ristretto thrown in for good measure. It’s definitely worth a stop if you are in Seattle.


Milstead & Co
Address: 770 North 34th Street, Seattle, WA 98103 (map)
Phone: 206-979-0010
Hours: Monday-Friday 6am-6pm
            Saturday-Sunday 7am-6pm
Wi-Fi? Yes
Recommendation? A West Coast coffee flight
Website: www.milsteadandco.com 


Stumptown’s Seattle heritage - a trip to Lighthouse

The 2013 Northwest Regional Barista Championship was held this past weekend in Seattle (Coava’s Devin Chapman won, defending his title from last year). Judging in last year’s NWRBC and USBC was so much fun that I volunteered to do it again this year. After going through judges calibration and certification Thursday, a scheduling quirk left me all day Friday to explore Seattle under sunny(-ish) skies. Naturally, I went looking for coffee.

My first destination was Lighthouse Roasters, in the Fremont neighborhood northwest of downtown. Visiting Lighthouse was a type of pilgrimage (minus the religious connotations) to one of the headwaters of Portland’s specialty coffee industry. If you have read much about Stumptown Coffee, you might recognize the Lighthouse name. Lighthouse is where Stumptown’s Duane Sorenson learned to roast, under the tutelage of Ed Leebrick. Going to Lighthouse was a chance to see the environment in which Sorenson forged his coffee skills.

Hopping off the bus at the corner of 43rd and Phinney, I first noticed how quiet the neighborhood was. Single-family houses and small apartment buildings lined the streets. Few cars passed by. Had it not been on such a large hill, the neighborhood could have been Southeast Portland.

Inside, Lighthouse’s décor was simple. The floor was a sage and pale green-gray linoleum, durable and functional. The wooden tables were sturdy, but plain. A short partition separated the back third of the shop, carving out the roasting area from the seating area. The other side of the low wall was crowded with jute bags of green coffee and stacks of large plastic tubs for roasted beans. Most prominently, a Gothot roasting machine whirred, its gas burner rumbling while beans swished and swashed around inside the drum. From time to time, the roaster opened the door and dark brown coffee beans cascaded onto the cooling table, crackling and popping vigorously.

Unlike the neighborhood, the interior of the café was loud and boisterous. In addition to the roaster, customers contributed a lot of noise too. Several people sat around the coffee bar on round stools, talking to the roaster and to the baristas. The majority of people who came in were actually there to converse. Surprisingly, no one was sitting in front of a laptop, a rarity in most cafés these days. Since I already stood out a stranger, I left mine in my backpack and jotted down a few notes on paper.

Sitting at my table, I couldn’t help but think of the similarities between Lighthouse and Stumptown Division. Between the quiet residential neighborhoods, the simple furnishings, the lively atmospheres (Stumptown attracts a lot of Laptopistanis, but makes up for their silence with loud music), and the roasting machines sitting at the front of both cafés, you could see many parallels between the two shops. I felt like I had gained a small insight into Stumptown’s origins.

Then I tried my espresso.

For the record, I do not consider Stumptown’s Hair Bender to be a delicate espresso. Its lemony brightness and chocolaty finish were made to stand out in milk drinks, something it does well. On its own, Hair Bender has a complex taste profile that takes time to get used to.

However, Hair Bender is almost fragile compared to the Lighthouse espresso. Dark-roasted, with a rough, gritty finish, the Lighthouse espresso wanted to force my taste buds into submission instead of befriending them. The profile obviously plays well in that part of Seattle—the traffic in and out the door remained steady throughout my visit—but to my coddled Portland palate (and I admit it’s coddled), the Lighthouse espresso was almost too harsh to drink. Nonetheless, I’m sure it is something you could get used to if you drank it every day.

I found the trip to Lighthouse very informative. These days, as Stumptown grows and changes, the two companies have less in common, but at one point, it appears they were very similar. With humans, descendants never turn out exactly like their ancestors, but they often share a lot of the same traits. Coffee roasters, apparently, can be the same way.


Lighthouse Roasters
Address: 400 North 43rd Street, Seattle, WA 98103 (map)
Phone: 206-634-3140 (café only)
Hours: Monday-Friday 6am-7pm
            Saturday-Sunday 6:30am-7pm
Wi-Fi? I think so
Recommendation? A cappuccino, perhaps
Website: lighthouseroasters.com

Slamming espressos, Seattle style

I was passing through Seattle yesterday and had a couple hours to kill, so over a span of two hours, I did my own mini coffee crawl, hitting three different cafés.

For the record, I really like Seattle. It seems quite a bit larger than Portland, in a good way. The city is so hilly that from lots of the intersections downtown you can see out across Puget Sound and over to the Olympic Peninsula. These views make Seattle seem more open than it otherwise might be.

The first stop of my coffee junket was at Cherry Street Coffee House. Cherry Street has several different cafes in Seattle, but the one I visited was actually on Cherry Street (the original, perhaps?).

Cherry Street Coffee House

One of the reasons that I went to Cherry Street was that I had read that the café’s coffee was roasted by Dillano’s, Roast Magazine’s 2010 Roaster of the Year.  I ordered an espresso and went to sit down.

The café itself has two levels. The coffee bar is at street level, and the seating is down a set of stairs, where the café spreads out under the store next door. It reminded me of an old speakeasy, one of those secret places where people could gather discretely to buck the rules of Prohibition during the 1920s and 1930s.

On one wall, rather, in one wall, a walk-in safe serves as the café’s office, and toward the back of the seating area, a faux fireplace is painted onto the wall. Two old, bright red stuffed chairs sit in front of the fire, welcoming you to sit down. With no windows in the seating area, the café is a bit dark, but it suffices as a place to work and drink coffee.

The espresso was made from the Cherry Street House Blend, and is unique to Cherry Street cafés. The barista told me that it was a medium roast, but if that’s the case, I have to question my understanding of what a medium roast is. The coffee in my cup had a nice thick crema that stuck to the sides of the cup, and the first sip or two, I tasted some strong almond flavors and fittingly enough, cherries. After the nice beginning though, all hints of sweetness and subtleties disappeared off and what was left was very smoky. Perhaps I’m just being oversensitive, but I was disappointed how it finished.

After finishing the espresso, I headed up the street toward Pike Place Market and my favorite store in Seattle, DeLaurenti. DeLaurenti is an Italian food import shop, and it seems like anytime I visit the city, I am drawn to the shelves full of Italian tomatoes, meats, cheeses, olives, pastas and wines. I can spend hours in that store, concocting recipes in my mind and dreaming about getting on a plane to fly to the Mediterranean. If I was going to get some more coffee, though, there was no time to linger, so I grabbed a sandwich and left quickly, to avoid falling prey to the temptations residing deeper within the store.

A must-visit

Originally, I had hoped to go to Stella Caffè for some espresso (I had been thinking about it since my trip to Coffee Fest last October), but to my chagrin, the café that was rumored to have the best Robusta-based espresso in the city is no longer a café. I don’t know the story, but when I called to see what time they closed down the espresso bar, the woman on the other end informed me that they were now a bar and not a café. Foiled again. If anyone knows where I can get some of Stella’s stellar espresso, please let me know.

Instead of going to Stella, I walked up Pike Street to Seattle Coffee Works. Seattle Coffee Works is a small roastery/café located right across the street from the first Starbucks store. The café has a slow coffee bar on one side, with pourovers and vacuum pots, and on the other side it has an espresso bar. I chose the espresso side (surprise, surprise). The barista told me that although they usually had a single-origin espresso available, they had just run out of the Panama and were down to the Space blend, the café’s signature espresso. My impression was that it was just a bit on the tart side, but overall, much better than the espresso I had drunk a few minutes before.

Seattle Coffee Works

After downing the Space blend, I was feeling up for one more stop. Someone told me that Fonté was a nearby place that was doing good things, and since it was located between Seattle Coffee Works and the train station, it would be  a great place to stop for the third leg of my trifecta.

About five minutes later, I was seated at a table at Fonté, waiting for my cappuccino.

Fonté Coffee and Wine Bar

Fonté has a pretty hip feel to it (like most places I regularly frequent*). In addition to being a coffee shop, it also doubles as a wine bar. It looked like  a great place to spend a happy hour, so I was looking forward to my cappuccino.


The foam on the cappuccino had a nice texture, but the espresso was roasted so dark that it completely overpowered the milk. A cappuccino should be balanced—both the milk and the coffee flavors should come through. In this cappuccino, though, you could not taste any of the natural sweetness of the steamed milk. The coffee dominated. It was too much for me.

Visiting two cafés (out of three) that had super dark roast espressos left me disappointed but wondering, is this type of roast just the traditional “Seattle style?” Perhaps this is due to the influence of Starbucks in the city? Starbucks has a reputation for serving dark-roasted espresso, but its espresso doesn’t have as much of the smokiness as the espressos at Cherry Street, Fonté or Caffè d’Arte (another Seattle-based roaster whose espresso I have had in the past).

Do I have the wrong expectations for what espresso ought to taste like? After all, I live in Portland, where lighter roasts are the norm. Should I learn to appreciate this dark roast for what it is, instead of thinking it should taste like something else, or are the beans being treated without the care they deserve? After yesterday, these questions linger in my mind. . . I would be very interested to hear what someone from Seattle has to say about this.

Here are a couple more pictures of things I saw during my visit:

Century Link Field just won't sound the same

One of the stops I made was at Qwest (soon to be Century Link) Field, which is right next to the Amtrak station in South Seattle. It’s a nice looking stadium and it was humbling to walk right up next to the behemoth and look down on the field inside. I don’t know what it is about being up next to huge objects, but they make you feel small, especially when you’re not in a crowd of people. A stadium like that is a testament to human ingenuity. It doesn’t compare to standing next to Mt. Rainier, but I was still impressed.

A closer look

The city skyline, seen from the steps of the stadium.

The Starbucks mother ship (corporate headquarters). I like the sirens rising out of the tower on top.

This statue was outside the Seattle Art Museum. One of these times I’m going to make it inside to see what treasures reside there.

Overall, I enjoyed my trip to the Emerald City, and would have been content to stay for a little longer (there are several more cafés I want to check out). The train wouldn’t wait for me, though, so at 5:30 sharp, we pulled out of the station and headed south. Until next time, Seattle.

*sarcasm alert

A Taste of Seattle

I was able to sneak out of Coffee Fest last weekend for a few minutes to check out a couple Seattle coffee shops. My first stop was Seattle Coffee Works. Located near Pike Place Market and across the street from the first Starbucks café, Seattle Coffee Works catches your eye with its distinctive sign outside and then it catches your taste buds with its interesting coffees. The café has an espresso bar and a “Slow Bar” for those who are interested in a pour-over or vacuum pot of coffee. A blend of Brazilian and Indonesian beans were “on grind”  along with a direct trade single-origin Guatemala (or El Salvador?).

Seattle Coffee Works

My second stop was Stella (not to be confused with Spella in Portland). I had been told that Stella has a 100% Robusta espresso blend that is the best in the city. Unfortunately, I went there about 5pm and—take note other late-afternoon coffee drinkers—Stella closes down its espresso bar at 4pm. The barista told me to come back Saturday after 10am.

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Coffee Fest Recap Part 1

If you’ve read my last couple posts, you know that I spent this past weekend at Coffee Fest in Seattle. One of the reasons I wanted to go to the show was to see the city itself. It had been a long time (8 years or so) since I visited the Emerald City, and I had forgotten how much bigger Seattle is. Seattle’s downtown area has a lot more people and quite a bit more traffic.

Like Portland, Seattle has a reputation for being rainy, but when the sun is out (as it was on Friday afternoon), it is a beautiful city. On a clear day you can see the Olympic Mountains to the West and Mount Rainier to the East. Located on Puget Sound, Seattle has a number of inlets and lakes that carve up the city.

Nothing but blue sky, at least for one day

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