Stumptown and single-origin espressos

Change is not easy (one could call me Mr. Inertia) and it is not always good, but it is inevitable. I had a conversation the other day with a café owner who had purchased an operating café from someone instead of starting a new one from scratch. The café, located in a residential area, came with a solid group of regulars who had patronized the shop for several years. When the new owner took over, he changed a few things, partly for the health of the business, and also because he had his own ideas for how a café should run. When he switched brew methods (to a pourover) and started charging for refills (fifty cents!), long-time customers pushed back. How dare he change their routine! Eventually, the regulars came around, but it took several months.

Since change can be disruptive, I was somewhat surprised when I heard that Stumptown, Portland’s most influential third wave coffee roaster, was now serving single-origin espresso in its cafés. Selling s-o espressos is not a new thing. Third wave cafés have been pulling single-origin espresso shots for years. Many offer an espresso blend alongside a single origin, while others serve strictly s-o espressos. The rise of barista competitions, where baristas highlight the farms and farmers who grow their coffees, helped push s-o espressos into the café setting.

While other cafés (including several Stumptown wholesale accounts) moved into selling single-origin espressos, Stumptown’s own shops only offered Hair Bender, the company’s espresso blend. Hair Bender is one of the company’s biggest success stories. The blend’s unique profile, with distinct lemon and chocolate flavors layered throughout the cup, stood out against the dark-roasted blends so common in the Pacific Northwest and changed perceptions of what espresso should taste like. It formed the foundation for the company to grow on. Without Hair Bender, Stumptown would likely be a much smaller, regional roaster instead of the international brand it is today.

To see how Stumptown would present its new espresso, I went to the original Stumptown café, on Southeast Division, and ordered one. Stumptown’s Costa Rica Montes de Oro, currently on grind, is the first of what is to be a rotating single-origin espresso in its cafés. The first sip seemed like it was going to be sharp, but the texture quickly rounded into something that felt very smooth on the palate. The Montes de Oro had a muted acidity, with notes of cherry and almond and just a hint of lemon. Stumptown’s foray into single-origin espressos was a nice entry into the new space.  

In a way, the addition of single-origin espresso to the menu was coming full circle for Stumptown. The company that pioneered the third wave in Portland was borrowing some tricks from the companies following in its footsteps.  The more success you have, the more you have to lose, so it was refreshing to see Stumptown, one of the most successful Portland coffee companies, try something new. The change was not huge, but it showed that Stumptown is willing to experiment with new things and, when it does, to execute very well.

The question is, what’s next? 

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

The Annex is closing (moving)

I was slightly unnerved the other morning when I heard the Stumptown Annex on Belmont is closing its doors at the end of the year. Was it really true that the best place in Portland for learning about coffee will soon be no more?

The answer is yes, but

Stumptown Annex. Photo courtesy Jinsu LeeThe Annex is indeed closing at the end of the year. Coffee enthusiasts will no longer be able to visit Belmont for the free cuppings offered twice a day, where the Annex employees teach you more than you ever thought you could know about coffee.  Stumptown Belmont’s customers will no longer have an alternative place to sit if the noisy Belmont café next door is full. Sadly, the Annex in its current form is leaving.

But—and here’s the good news—the Annex is not going away, it’s only moving to the new Stumptown headquarters in the inner Southeast Industrial district. The new space is supposed to be ready by the first of the year, if things go as planned.

Liam, who manages the Annex, told me he’s looking forward to the move because it will allow the Annex folks to be closer to where their coffees are roasted. He also hopes to offer tours of the new facility, including the roasting plant. All of the details have not been worked out yet, but employees are planning as seamless a transition as possible. So if you head to Belmont Ave. in the early next year for a cupping and find that the Annex is gone—don’t be alarmed. Just turn around and head back toward downtown.

In other news, Stumptown has a new website. By itself, that probably is not big news, but I did notice the company has added Los Angeles to its list of locations. L.A. is listed as “Coming Soon”, but its presence on the site must mean that the long-rumored roastery is almost ready to go. Portland’s influence in the coffee world continues to grow.

News and Notes from around PDX

[As the café scene is always changing here in Portland, one of my goals is to keep you up to date with what is going on.  Here are a couple quick café notes from today's adventures.]

Bikes and Brew at See See Coffee and Motorcycles

If you’re into motorcycles, you have a new place to drink coffee that is geared toward you. If you’re not into motorcycles, well, you still have a new place to drink coffee. See See Coffee and Motorcycles just opened at the intersection of Northeast Sandy and 17th.


The café’s name comes from the motorcycle theme. The engine displacement of a motorcycle is measured in cubic centimeters (cc – sounds like “see-see”).

The shop is spacious and airy, with a polished concrete floor and an abundance of natural light pouring in through the large skylight and the large front windows. The coffee bar in the center of the room is sheathed with plate steel, giving it a shop-like toughness that you would expect in a motorcycle bar. The bar’s freshly-lacquered hardwood gleams under incandescent lights. Hovering on the western wall, a winding rattlesnake mural warns customers against taking more than their fair share of sugar or napkins.

The café is not just for motorcycle enthusiasts. See See is a full-service coffee bar, offering Stumptown coffee, Townshend’s tea and Crema pastries. Gabriel’s provides the bagels. You can order a pourover or grab a quick cup of French press coffee from the air pot. Each table has an outlet next to it, making See See a suitable location for spending time working on your computer.

The café has only been open for a few weeks, and it still smells new.  The adjoining motorcycle shop is scheduled to open in the next week, so if you want to check out the motorcycle shop too, wait a couple days before heading in.

Address: 1642 NE Sandy (map)
Phone: 503-894-9566
Hours: Monday-Friday 7am-8pm
            Saturday-Sunday 8am-6pm
Coffee: Stumptown
Free Wi-Fi? Yes
Recommendations? Go there on your Harley, if you have one

Trailhead Coffee opens its first cafe

Just a few blocks from See See Motorcycles, Trailhead Coffee Roasters has also opened a small café in the last couple weeks. Sharing a space with the roasting machine and coffee warehouse, the café area is very small. It is geared more toward giving the public an opportunity to sample Trailhead coffees than to give them a place to sit down.

One thing that makes Trailhead unique is the company’s strong association with bicycles. A couple years ago, Trailhead Coffee was featured in The Oregonian for supplying coffee for Cycle Oregon. Owner Charlie Wicker rode his 110-lb. cargo bike more than 300 miles, over a course with 6000 feet of elevation change, rising early each day to supply fellow riders with coffee.  Trailhead also delivers all its coffee to the urban core of Portland via bicycle. The goal is to reduce the environmental footprint of the coffee.

Most of Trailhead’s coffee comes from Café Femenino, a non-profit cooperative of women coffee farmers. The company also supports KIVA microfinance through the sales of some of its coffees. Wicker said he was inspired to support women coffee producers by the book Banker to the Poor, by Muhamad Yunus. The programs help grow the economies of villages in developing countries by providing loans and business help to the women.

In addition to selling fresh-roasted coffees, Wicker also sells some of his older inventory at a discount.   If you don’t mind drinking coffee that is a month old, you can pick up a 12-oz. bag of beans for $5. Fresh coffee is better, but I understand that sometimes price matters more than freshness. 

The shop’s featured brew method is the “dual pourover,” a side-by-side comparison of two different coffees brewed fresh at the same time using Hario V60 glass drippers.  You can expand your coffee palate and learn more about the regional differences between coffees. I tried the Colombia Los Naranjos and the Ethiopia Sidama. The Colombia stood out for its cherry and orange flavors and the Ethiopia for its complex, wine-like flavors (it’s a natural-processed coffee).

Address: 1847 E Burnside, Portland, OR (map)
Hours: Monday-Friday 9am-2pm
Wi-Fi? No
Recommendations? Side by side pourovers


Aliviar Coffee moves to Sandy Boulevard

Aliviar Coffee has a new location. The café, serving Batdorf and Bronson coffee, moved from Northeast 42nd to 41st and Sandy, in a space adjacent to the Hollywood Theater.  The new spot has more space (seating approximately 25 people) and a more visible location. The hours have changed some too. The café now stays open until 9pm on Friday and Saturday evenings to catch Portlanders who come to the Hollywood District for the nightlife.


Address:  4128 NE Sandy, Portland, OR (map) 
Hours: Monday-Thursday 6:45am-5pm
            Friday 6:45am-9pm
            Saturday 7:45am-9pm
            Sunday 7:45am-5pm
Recommendations? The multi-grain bagel, toasted with cream cheese, if you’re hungry (as I was when I arrived)
Wi-Fi? Yes