Portland is not famous for coffee. While we proudly proclaim expertise in all things beer, bicycles, and bridges, the coffee-cred falls to our our flashy big brother Seattle, a status that appears to be nationally recognized. What the rest of America may be less aware of, however, is that Portland has a few local treasures up its sleeve. You might've heard of Voodoo Donuts, but do you know about the Grilled Cheese Bus? Monthly roller derby bouts? Did you know Chuck Palahniuk lives here? It is with varying familiarity that visitors are aware of our block-sized bookstore, our 21+ vintage video arcade, science pubs, and our sublime Stumptown Coffee Roasters.
Portlanders love Stumptown. With only four locations, (and new shops for Seattle and NYC), Stumptown is small enough to run an independent, sustainable business. Founder Duane Sorenson parts with many profit dollars to ensure good relationships with his employees (health care, on-site massages, paid vacations) and with international growers (visiting farms, paying sometimes quadruple the market value for quality beans) and of course with customers (twice daily open-door tastings, ample selection, detailed info about bean origin). Sorensen aims to treat coffee like Napa Valley treats wine. But enough with the fancy eco talk. These things are what make Stumptown great, but I will not linger on business. I will tell you about the coffee.
Luscious. Malty. Smooth. Stumptown French-presses all of its house coffee, so even the self-serve airpots (frequently consumed or else changed) pour a hot, earthy drink with the perfect amount of velvety sediment. Compare with a sweet unfiltered apple cider. Contrast with the coal tar served by a certain national chain. Pressed brew is not difficult or costly to make, but it does yield small batches and requires attentive hands, which is why most shops serve from large drip-style machines. A good French press can convince even serious half-and-half addicts to go black, or really, to go more of a rich , opalescent . . . brown.
Fantastic as their house coffee is, Stumptown's espresso is where the excitement is at. Any faults in a bean, roast, or grind cannot hide in espresso. Stumptown's high-quality fresh beans are roasted not more than four miles, or as near as four feet, from where a customer orders. Shops insist on using a burr (rather than a blade) grinder to get an even extraction with low bitterness. Your barista grinds the beans into the portafilter that releases your cup of espresso. And then, the tamp.
The tamp is the magic. Unless you ask them to do otherwise (and that would make you a crazy person) Stumptown coffee-slingers pull all espreso shots "ristretto," or short. The recipe for this is more espresso with a finer grind, less water, and quickly-pulled shots. To pack in all that espresso, they spend a notable amount of time and sheer muscle power jamming the grounds into the portafilter. This indelicate tamping ritual results in a light, fluffy, deliciously caramelly espresso. Have it by itself. Have it over ice with cream and sugar --the airy crema of the ristretto causes it to rest daintily around the ice cubes instead of melting them. Contrast with a toxic watery espresso.
Lattes and cappucinos are always decorated with fern or leaf patterned in the foam, or, if you're lucky, a heart. Of course, have it in a ceramic cup if you plan to stay a while. Enjoy the fresh flowers and watch the roasting. Have free refills of the French Press. Look at the featured art on the walls and pretend to understand what it's supposed to mean. Flirt with the barista who poured you the heart.
While I wouldn't wish for you to fall into the perils of coffee snobbery, having Stumptown might cause to you snub the alternative like my cat snubs generic-brand cat food: prancing away from its shocking inferiority. My inner scientist wants me to remind you that I have not been to all coffee shops. Nor have I tasted under placebo-controlled, double-blind conditions. But every observable detail about Stumptown Coffee Roasters leads me to the likely theory that Stumptown is the best damn coffee that is materially possible.