Thinking about a West Coast coffee tour? Here’s your guide.

If you want to experience the best coffee the West Coast has to offer, but aren’t sure where to start, check out Left Coast Roast: A Guide to the Best Coffee And Roasters from San Francisco to Seattle, by Hanna Neuschwander. The book profiles fifty-five coffee roasters in Washington, Oregon and California and contains a coffee education section packed with tips about how to navigate specialty coffee.

Neuschwander sat down with me to talk coffee and tell her story. Her eyes flickered with enthusiasm as she recounted her research.

Originally from Spokane, Washington, Neuschwander moved to the other Washington (D.C.) when she was eight years old. She returned to the Pacific Northwest in 2006, following a six-month road trip around North America that doubled as a search for a new home. When she arrived in Portland, Neuschwander was working as a freelance editor for a non-profit publisher, but tired of being alone at home all day, she soon found a job as a barista at Extracto, a then-new micro-roaster on Northeast Killingsworth Avenue.

“It was just the right environment for me to learn about coffee. I didn’t know anything about it at that point,” Neuschwander recalled. “It’s a family business, and I very much felt like I was part of that family.”

When Neuschwander left Extracto for her current position as director of communications for the graduate school of education and counseling at Lewis and Clark College, she did not want to leave coffee completely, so she started writing about it.

“Writing about coffee became a way for me to stay connected to both the community and also the world of ideas about coffee,” she said. Neuschwander’s articles have appeared in several publications, including Barista, Roast, Willamette Week and MIX Magazine. When Timber Press approached her to write a guide to coffee roasters on the West Coast, Neuschwander took the opportunity. After negotiating the structure and layout with the Portland-based publisher, she spent six months researching and writing the book.

Her travels increased her enthusiasm for coffee and brought some of the differences between cities into focus. There is not just one “West Coast” style in coffee.

“One thing that Seattle continues to do well that San Francisco and Portland don’t do that well is that it’s an espresso town. Espresso Vivace is a perfect example of this,” explained Neuschwander. “David Schomer has spent thirty years perfecting one flavor profile and just doing it right. It’s amazing—they have the most loyal customer base of any coffee company I have ever seen. It’s insane. There’s lines out the door every single morning.”

Neuschwander would not say who had the best coffee, although she did mention several Portland roasters when I asked her about it.

“People ask me all the time what’s my favorite place,” she said. “I’m not being disingenuous when I say I don’t have a favorite. What’s exciting to me is the fact that you can go to Spella  and get a traditional Italian espresso served on a lever machine, and they’ve got affogato. And you can go to the Stumptown Annex and pick from one of thirty pretty amazing single-origins. You can go to Heart and they’re going to have some crazy single-origin espressos. That’s what exciting.”

Neuschwander still marvels at the speed at which the specialty coffee industry is growing.

“I was in San Francisco a couple weeks ago, and over the course of the two days I was there, seven new roasters in Oakland started up. The roasters are very small, but things are happening. There’s something kind of special that’s still happening on the West Coast that’s different than the East Coast.”

Left Coast Roast takes some of the mystery—but not the mystique—out of specialty coffee. With friendly prose and an abundance of illustrations, Neuschwander gently and clearly educates her readers on sourcing, roasting, brewing and, of course,  searching out better coffee. She successfully makes the beverage more accessible to both the average coffee drinker and to those who want a deeper understanding of “that little marvel in your cup.”


[Side note: Hanna and I met for our conversation at Cascade Barrel House, a brewery in Southeast Portland famous for its lambic (sour) beers. A few minutes into the interview, Cascade’s owner rang a bell to get everyone’s attention. He announced he was going to break into a new barrel, which called for a celebration. The brew master for this particular barrel had the honor of pounding the tap into the barrel with a large wooden mallet, similar to the kind you might see at a carnival’s high striker (test of strength).

Being a taste aficionado but not much of a beer drinker, it was interesting to hear the owner talk about his product. He boasted of the new ale’s  “creamy bitterness, candied marzipan and maraschino cherry” flavors that were “off the charts.” The similarity to coffee was apparent, and I couldn’t help but think that, like coffee people, beer people are excited about what they’re doing.]

Making it big in Beijing

It is always a pleasure to read a book that resonates with me in some way, and last night, I read a book that did just that. The book was Big in China: My unlikely adventures raising a family, playing the blues, and becoming a star in Beijing, by Alan Paul. In 2005, Paul’s wife, an editor for the Wall Street Journal, gets a job as the paper’s bureau chief in China. Looking for an adventure and hoping to give their kids some international exposure, the couple decides to move their family of five to Beijing for a while. Paul, a freelance writer for Guitar World and Slam! (a magazine about basketball), is excited about the prospect of starting a new life in a new country, even if it is just for a few years.

When they get to Beijing, the family is put up in a gated expat community, but Paul and his wife Rebecca want to experience the “real” China, so they spend as much time outside the community walls as they do inside it. Aggressively traveling around China, the family visits many places that most foreigners never dare to venture. Paul records most of their adventures and shares them with the world on his blog for the Wall Street Journal. Both spouses eventually manage to get their drivers licenses and they buy a car, giving them an extra degree of freedom to explore.

The family has many of the normal challenges of adjusting to life in a new country. Paul writes about culture shock, about struggles learning the Chinese language, and about watching the transformation of his kids from reluctant participants to adventurers themselves. They all grow to love their new home, and Paul is surprised when the family travels back to the US and finds himself longing to go back “home” to China.

Life is not always wonderful inside the expat community, and Paul’s family must deal with some real heartbreak while they are in Beijing. The wife of one of the couple’s new expat friends becomes ill, and after some inconclusive medical exams returns to the US, where she is diagnosed with late-stage cancer. The speed at which the cancer takes the woman’s life is shocking. Meanwhile, Paul’s own father discovers he has cancer (not life-threatening), and Paul is struck by the realization that life continues to move forward in the states, even when he is not there.

Despite some difficult times, the family’s time in China is a positive experience. One of Paul’s observations is that it feels natural to reinvent oneself in a place that is changing as rapidly as China. In fact, it is necessary to change in order to feel like you fit in. In Paul’s case, he reinvents himself through music.

An amateur musician who is reluctant to play music in front of people, Paul is determined to overcome his fears while he is in China. He has an urge to get up on stage and play, to see what he can really do. The opportunity arises when an expat who owns a bar asks him to host an open mic night. Paul agrees to do it as soon as he can find a partner to play with.

Paul eventually finds someone to play with, though not in a conventional way. On one trip back to the United States, he purchases a new guitar to take to China with him. He carefully packs it in its case and checks it as baggage, but when he arrives at his house in Beijing, Paul opens the guitar case to find that the head is no longer attached to the rest of the guitar. This misfortune would profoundly change the rest of Paul’s time in China.

Paul ends up contacting Woodie Wu, a Chinese guitarist who also has an instrument repair business. When Paul brings him the broken guitar, the two discover they share a deep appreciation for American blues/roots music. Wu probes Paul for stories from all of the guitar players he has interviewed over the years, and the two become fast friends. They get together for a jam session and soon the pair starts playing gigs at local bars. Their band grows to include an American sax player (who also works for the US treasury department) and two Chinese musicians—a bassist and a drummer.

At first, the group is just out to have fun, but Wu challenges Paul to practice harder because he sees that they have potential. Paul agrees. He is nervous about going for it, but at the same time he feels like he could do great things if he would just let his inhibitions go. The effort to improve pays off. The band develops a camaraderie and rhythm, becoming a cohesive unit that plays great music.

Chinese audiences respond well to the Chinese-American blues band. Woodie Alan, as the band is called, is voted Beijing’s best band, and even does some touring in China. They are successful beyond what Paul thought possible when he began. When his wife receives a promotion that will require them to move back to New Jersey, he is deeply torn about leaving. Paul realizes that the only logical decision is to move back to the States, but it is still difficult.

Big in China describes the transition of an upper middle class family from New Jersey into a global family with an international perspective. It also tells the story of how one self-conscious American guy broke through his own resistance and grew into the musician he always hoped he was. At times, the book is funny (reporting the follies of trying to adapt to a new culture), serious (discussing the real anxieties of being far away from sick family members) and inspiring (describing Paul’s transformation).  It is an easy and accessible introduction to China, and when you get done reading it, you feel like you need to take your own journey abroad. At least I did.

Brews to Bikes (book review)

When the news about the Stumptown sale to TSG  broke in Portland, the reaction was telling. In a place like San Francisco or Boston, the news would have been greeted with cheers that a local company made it big. In Portland, however, the news was met with many groans and promises to find another source for coffee. Not everyone was upset, of course, but it was a big shock to the city that Stumptown—Stumptown!—would become part of a larger conglomerate, ceding any control to some distant private equity firm.

To understand the reason people were upset, it helps to understand the culture of Portland. Portland is famous for its high quality of life and its weirdness, but not for having a business-friendly culture. The city has even been mocked in the show Portlandia for being a place “where young people go to retire.” Many would say that Portland has an anti-corporate mentality.

While there is some truth behind this image of the city, it is far from complete. Charles Heying, a professor of urban studies at Portland State University, demonstrates this when he takes a closer look at how the creative class is adding to the Portland economy in his new book, Brews to Bikes: Portland’s Artisan Economy. Heying compares Portland’s artisanal economy, where business owners produce unique, high-quality products in small batches or single pieces, with the typical “Fordist” (industrial) economy, where mass production is king and variations in the products are frowned upon. Heying and his team of student researchers describe how Portland’s artisans are making large contributions to the city’s economy, making it unique among cities.

The book takes an in-depth look at more artisan industries than you might have ever known existed in Portland. It describes Portland’s more famous artisan industries—beer, food (farmer’s markets to food carts), fashion (more than just flannel) and bike building, but also looks at other growing industries, like coffee, leather, music, and colored glass.  It also discusses how the artisans fit into the larger economic picture.

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It's time to do the work

Does this ever happen to you? Last night I was so revved up by a book I was reading that I had a hard time sleeping. The book, by Steven Pressfield, was called Do the Work. It is a sequel to his book The Art of Work, which Seth Godin calls “the most important book you’ve never read” (I haven’t read it either).

The main theme of Do the Work is that you can be successful as a creator (entrepreneur, artist, writer, musician, etc.) if you are willing to overcome your own Resistance and—you guessed it—“do the work.” He pushes you to be creative and to do it now.

Pressfield writes about how Resistance holds you back from doing the things you know you should do. Do you ever have the feeling that deep down there is something that you have been holding back, some great project you could do if only you would stop hiding from it? I have that feeling all the time, though I don't like to admit it. Pressman gives that feeling a name—Resistance—and says that it is the most powerful obstacle we face when trying to be successful. He personifies the resistance as an actual force that actively works to hold us back, a dragon we need to slay to gain confidence and earn our freedom from our own minds, minds that we often let bully us into believing we are not good enough or talented enough to do something great.

The book is geared toward authors, screenwriters and others who create art for a living, but it is also appropriate for entrepreneurs and anyone else who wants to improve what they have been doing. Pressfield wants readers to overcome their Resistance to whatever it is they want to do. He wants to give us not only inspiration, but also a strategy for dealing with the Resistance.

Do the Work left me with my mind buzzing. I was left with a sense not of worry or dread, but of opportunity and possibility, two of the most exciting words in the English language. When that happens, it’s hard to get to sleep. Do you know what I mean?

[Do the Work is the first publication produced by the Domino Project, a new publishing venture that Seth Godin has undertaken in order to revolutionize the publishing industry. I am still not exactly sure what the Domino Project is doing that is so unique, but I trust that it is. General Electric sponsored the book. Perhaps this is what makes the Domino Project unique—they find sponsors for books, then give them away for free, at least the Kindle version. If you are interested, you can get the Kindle version for free too by clicking here (if you don’t have a Kindle, you can download free software from Amazon and read it on your computer).]