Some general thoughts on Portland and the SCAA/USBC will follow here. I got down on Thursday morning, after an Amtrak trip from Seattle that took me through some lovely scenery worthy of a Bruce Springsteen song. Kåre Hultén, brother of Da Matteo roaster Torkel, hosted me and my guest for the whole weekend, generously taking us on tours at various breweries, restaurants and roasteries.
To us coffee people, Portland might be some sort of a coffee Mekka, but really it’s just second nature here. Main focus in general in this small haven for foodies, is local produce and the best available of whatever you’re producing. We went to a number of breweries. Some worth mentioning are Upright and Cascade. Kåre also took me to a small destillery, having me taste the most amazing bourbon I’ve ever had, at the Bull Run Destillery.
We also found that in Portland, there might be coffee geeks, but one late night ordering the most amazing coctail at the Teardrop Coctail Lounge, then sneaking in to the bathroom, I come back to the bar finding all the guys mesmerized by the bartenders in depth talk on ice. On a molecular level. For anyone interested in food (I’ve had some amazing Mexican here), drinks and the good life in general, Portland is like dying and go to heaven.
Saying that, the actual SCAA event left me rather underwhelmed in the shadow of this amazing city. Though naturally, I got a few insights during my visit there as well. One of them is how young this industry is. The “star barista” syndrome is really showing this I think, how the industry has its own fix stars in the bold and the beautiful, the twitterati and the high fivers living life in all its glamour. Interesting to watch, but like any subculture the invironment is highly uninviting for anyone else. This I think showed most obvious when looking at the discussions that has been frequently online, regarding gender in coffee.
I’d say, with a rough estimate, that most baristi I saw working the machine in any given shop, were women. The World Aeropress Champion and the runner up were both women, as well as the US Barista Champion. The majority of people at the parties, in the competitions and at the exhibitions, were white. This was an eye opener, cause I haven’t really thought about it up until that very moment. The community talks a lot about its closeness to Farms, to Origin and about its openness. However, there were a huge miss on minorities in the community. Yes, I know, this was a branch event and not necessarily of great interest for the people coming from the producing countries (and maybe they have little interest in the commonwealth habits of clubbing and bar hopping?), however I saw very few people within the community of any other background than white (and possibly lower middle class).
I’m not pointing fingers here, but I find it very interesting that a community that speaks highly of itself as integrating, is very homogenous in its demographic belonging. And its not just America or at the SCAA. I’d say, with the exceptions of Asians (whom I consider maybe to be a minority in the west, but from possibly a first world background), that even the Swedish Barista community would have a wider spread in its background from other cultures.
Another interesting feature at the event was the possibility to cup coffees. I participated in a Indian robusta cupping that I was invited to by Andrew Hetzel who works closely with the farmers in the region. Robusta is challenging in many ways. When some coffee royalty entered the room, it seemed as if some of the cuppers were embarrased to be there. Personally, I’ve cupped some Robusta before, and I’ve never seen people as afraid of robusta as in Australia (there is literally no robusta to be found in Perth, unless you look at the supermarket shelf). My perception of it changed a bit from working with 100% arabica, and coming back to Sweden found me on that other side of the spectrum where a lot of home roasters and home baristi would actually crave it. I’ve sort of come to terms with it though, and I am rather indifferent to it as a product on its own, and rather see it as a filler and its potential in the future to offer a cheaper way to sell espresso blends. Some of these coffees were decent, clean and even fruity (a natural robusta). Also on the table was a liberica, which was vile. If I understood this correct though, liberica is sometimes grown in the outskirts of the plantation for some protective reason (not sure what this would mean, but I will hopefully find out more about this if I get to go to India).
Coffee in Portland was great value. We set foot at legendary places, such as the first Stumptown café, and the restaurant in the same building (The Woodsman), however opted for Mexican for lunch instead, where the owner of the establishment tweeted: “Swedes can drink. Just had a contingent here for the barista competition put their Viking heritage to the test. All big time foodies.”
We visited several smaller operations, all very interesting, but most interesting were Heart Roasters and Coava, not only because of its international renommé and being obvious magnets for the events participants to see Portlands finest, but because they offered something beyond the coffee; an obvious aura of taking the lifestyle of the café and its function as a “third room” to another level. Coava with its bamboo design, Heart with its homely feel and good collection of vinyl records to played on less busy days. At several places we later saw that the cafés apologized to their regulars that they were so busy over the weekend, which I think is a very nice gesture.
Other places we visited was Water Avenue, which hosted one of the parties at their barista academy/show room (and where we found out that Gallianos Ristretto blend has an awful lot of robusta in it) as well as a multiple roaster shop called Barista. Personally I enjoy these kind of multiple roaster venues, since it for me as a customer offers a variety to chose from. We had brought some coffees here, however ten days old seemed too old for these gentlemen. No rest in Portland, apparently. They appreciated the gesture though, since several were acquainted with Torkel.
On a personal note, I found it rather interesting to see the friendliness of the people in Portland. Sitting down for dinner at El Gaucho, the waiter overhears us being from Sweden, and asks me if I know about these (metal) bands. Since I have a past in the metal scene, I did, and the waiter asked if it was ok for the chef to come out and have a chat with me? Turns out he was going on tour with some people I was in touch with some 20 years ago. The next day, at Cascade Brewery, I stand in line for the bathrooms, when I start talking to a guy in a Dismember shirt. Turns out he’s done some gig in Stockholm at Kafé 44, and plays in a band called Tragedy. Not that I know of them, but later talking to friends at home, they’re apparently a big deal in the crust scene! Funny enough, he recalled our bands name from the Swedish Death Metal book. Small world indeed.
But speaking of celebrities and stardome, the one espresso served to me by legend David Schomer at the Synesso stand is probably the ultimate experience of the trip. Slightly starstruck, I hear his voice call to me once I’ve finished it: “Hey boss, how was your shot?” That still echoes with me, long after I’ve gotten home…
NP Journey Separate Ways (Worlds Apart) (known to the people in Portland as my favorite song).
*I’ve previously posted on Portland here.