The Art of Espresso Machines – the Van Der Westen Spirit

There´s the art of espresso, and then there's the art of the espresso machine. I stopped in at Heart last week and saw this sitting on the bar:

The machine, called the Spirit, was manufactured by Kees Van Der Westen, a Dutch industrial designer who spent several years building espresso machines in his spare time before working at La Marzocco, where he helped develop the Mistral. The barista said the look was patterned after the cockpit of a World War II bomber. It catches your eye in the same way walking by a chromed out Harley-Davidson, and it complements Heart’s minimal, early industrial space well.

This is what it looks like from the barista’s perspective (photo from manufacturer's website - click to see more): 

Packed with technology, the machine also pulls consistently good shots.

Very cool. 

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? 

You serve what? (a lesson in expectation management)

Most cafés hang a sign in the window near the door telling customers what brand of coffee they sell, but not all. The other day I visited an unfamiliar shop in Downtown Portland that was tight-lipped about its coffee.  

“What kind of espresso do you have?” I asked the barista.

You would have thought I asked her for her phone number. She shot me a look that told me not to ask stupid questions. “It’s store-bought,” she replied, curtly.

Now it was my turn to give her a look—a puzzled one. In all the cafés I have visited, this was the first time someone said an espresso was “store-bought.”

Confused, I sputtered, “Any…particular store?”

She looked at me coolly and said, “It’s from Cash and Carry. Do you want one shot or two?”

“One, thank you.”

Inwardly, I dreaded the first sip of the espresso, but to my surprise, it was drinkable. While the coffee would not stand out in a tasting competition, it did not have any off-flavors or obvious defects. Considering the circumstances, I was satisfied. Never underestimate the power of low expectations.

Coffee alchemy – the shakerato

Today, after a quick lunch at Pizza Nostra (Northeast 48th and Fremont – I highly recommend the pepperoni), I pedaled down through the morass of construction on Sandy Boulevard and stopped in at Case Study.

Unsure of what to order and feeling adventurous, I asked Ricky, the barista, for a recommendation. Case Study always has lots of interesting things going on – they bring in a wide variety of different coffees, some of which are very high-end. They like to experiment with different beverages and presentations too. One time they served me an espresso paired with slices of green apple and a small vial of honey. As a barista competition judge, I appreciate the creativity.

For this visit, Ricky recommended a “shakerato.”

“A what?” I asked.

“A shakerato. It’s espresso and a little bit of sugar, shaken with ice in a cocktail shaker. The result is…magical,” he assured me.

Espresso on ice? Not something I would normally order, but why not? It is summer after all (though it has often felt like Junuary) and I’ve had plenty of cold-brew lately.

The shakerato had several characteristics of a quality beverage. First, it was visually interesting. In the clear glass, I could see a thick caramel foam resting heavily on the  espresso beneath. It looked like a sampler of freshly-poured Guinness, though the taste was nothing like the famous Irish stout. The beverage was sweet and fruity, reminding me of white grape juice. The coffee flavor was fairly muted and the foam’s texture was light and silky. Overall, the beverage was very unique.  There is also a latte version of the shakerato that sounds interesting, but that will have to wait for another day.


Shake it...In addition to the shakerato, this summer Case Study is also cold-brewing a Geisha varietal from Colombia that is tasty. Like I said, they are always trying out new beverages, in addition to their traditional coffee lineup. When construction on Sandy ends, which should be soon, you will be able to roll in on the smooth new street and indulge your inner coffee adventurer.

Sterling Coffee moved! (but not too far)

Trader Joe’s decision to expand in Northwest Portland was good news for fans of the quirky supermarket, but the expansion pushed Sterling Coffee out of its space. Fortunately for fans of the coffee kiosk, Adam McGovern and Aric Miller, Sterling’s owners, found a new spot to set up shop. This week, Sterling moved around the corner from its original location into M Bar, a petite public house on Northwest 21st.

M Bar aficionados need not fret. M Bar did not disappear. Rather, the two beverage purveyors are joining forces. The space will be Sterling in the mornings and afternoons, and M Bar in the evenings. Sterling redecorated the bar to reflect its 19th century style. The new location gives customers a place to sit and enjoy—dare I say it?—“sterling” coffee without facing the traffic or the rain*. In a new twist, Sterling’s sharply-dressed baristas serve espressos in shapely snifters that send coffee aromas directly to your olfactory receptors. This is common in barista competitions, but it is the first time I’ve seen it in a café setting. Could coffee cocktails be next? We’ll have to wait and see.

Elegant espresso

Upcoming Event

On Sunday, June 17th, Sterling and M Bar are celebrating their new partnership with a public party billed as “the marriage of Sterling Coffee Roasters & M Bar.” Coffeehouse Northwest will be closed so that all Sterling Coffee family and friends can gather and witness the event. A live band playing Cuban music is scheduled for the reception. The party, open to everyone, runs from 8am-4:30pm.


Location: 417 NW 21st Ave, Portland, OR  97210
Hours: 7am-4:30pm Monday-Friday

*just because you dare, doesn’t mean you should