Best of the Best Portland Coffee

(This article is a bit dated. You’ll find newer, expanded articles here.)
By Sonia – Portland has so much going for it food wise, that it becomes hard to keep track. A fantastic new restaurant/bar/cart seems to open every other day, and we’re all scrambling to keep up with which places are good and which places are great. Well, let me introduce you to your map of Coffee City, USA. (aka Portland, OR)

Barista

Billy Wilson, award-winning former Albina Press barista, imagined a place where multiple coffees from world-renowned roasters would be coaxed into stunningly perfect drinks by expert baristas. He opened Barista in February of this year, and yes, the coffee and the barista take center stage.

Located in the tiny lobby of a condo in the Pearl District, Barista features Stumptown’s Hairbender blend, and puts two other coffees up on an alternating two month rotation. This ensures that each featured coffee will be available for two months and a new coffee will appear every month. What’s most significant in Wilson’s coffeehouse is that it is not just the coffee that is well-respected, it is also the preparation. Even the most perfectly roasted coffee can turn into a horribly prepared drink if the barista is not at the top of their game. The baristas at Wilson’s shop are well-respected and will stand ready to answer any questions you have about coffee.

Do not look for a list of specialty drink concoctions or large selection of juices, smoothies and the like. This is place about the coffee and the coffee-maker. This is a unique and experimental operation, and it is yet to be determined whether it is a tenable way to run a coffee business in a world where people still expect to get flavored syrup-whip creamed 16oz. blended “coffee drinks.” But if Wilson’s model of the coffeehouse of the future can be successful, it will change the way we view the service of coffee.

  • Address: 539 NW 13th ave, Portland, OR.
  • Hours: Open daily, 7am to 6pm
  • Website: BaristaPDX.com

Spella:

If you are like me and work an 8-5 job that is not located in downtown, then you may live your entire life and never have the chance to experience Caffeè Spella. The three-year old coffee cart located at the corner of SW 9th and Alder in one of Portland’s prized food cart lots, has got to have the worst hours of any coffeehouse in town. Only open from 9am-4pm, Monday through Friday, and taking only cash, it is difficult to get their prized espresso drink.

But even if you have to call in sick, make a date to meet Andrea Spella and his staff down at Caffeè Spella. The coffee here is served with all the Italian authenticity that is lost among the Americanized versions of lattes and mochas that are sold by the thousands every morning in Portland.

Caffeè Spella is both the cart and the coffee. Andrea Spella has been roasting coffee for many years. The coffee is pulled via a lever espresso machine, meaning the barista must know the exact pressure and timing to perform the task of making your coffee.

Caffeè Spella’s lattes are finely balanced to produce a strong meld of coffee and milk. The macchiatos are served in the traditional Italian style, meaning no milk is dropped in the shot below the “mark” of foam that floats the drink. In addition to coffee, Caffe Spella hand crafts a chai that takes a few minutes to prepare but will be far and away better than any store-bought chai you could imagine.

If it’s a post-lunch dessert you are after, the affogato here is amazing. With a few different flavors to choose from, Caffeè Spella will pour an espresso shot over the gelato and the combination will send you into a tailspin. It’s the perfect meld of velvety smooth coffee, cream and sugar for an afternoon pick-me-up.

  • Address: SW 9th & Alder, Portland OR.
  • Hours: Mon-Fri 9am-4pm
  • Website: SpellaCaffeè.com

Coffeehouse Northwest/Sterling Coffee
Had your fill of the same old espresso and milk? Well then, perched on the precipice of E. Burnside and Trinity, in a narrow shop beneath an apartment building, Coffeehouse Northwest is tinkering away at the science of coffee extraction.

Like Billy Wilson, owner Adam McGovern believes he can peer into the future of coffee and what he sees may surprise you. While working with Portland’s preeminent-selling coffee roaster, Stumptown Coffee, McGovern has set up his bar to include six different brew methods. Six! You can get the French press, espresso, Chemex, Eva Solo, Melitta, or moka pot. Many of these coffee-brewing methods are best suited for a particular Stumptown roast, but the baristas stand ready to guide you through the process of matching a coffee to an extraction method that will ensure the best of each coffee comes through.

If you go for the traditional espresso shot, then you must try a Coffeehouse Northwest cappuccino. Coffeehouse Northwest is known for pouring their cappuccinos with a milk blend of Organic Valley and Sunshine Dairy milks. The extra smooth and clean organic milk adds a special something to the drink.

In 2010, Adamn McGovern started Sterling Coffee Roasters, on the side of Trader Joe’s Market in NW Portland. Sterling specializes in micro-roasting, which is done on site. This allows them tight control, and lots of room for experimentation in roasting. Outdoor seating only.

  • Address: 1951 W. Burnside, Portland, OR. Sterling Coffee Roasters is at 2120 NW Glisan, Portland.
  • Hours: Mon-Fri 6:30am-8pm, Sat-Sun 7am-8pm
  • Website: CoffeehouseNorthwest.com

Coffeehouse Five
You don’t have to travel to the west-side of Portland to enjoy a premium coffee drink. The east-side is home to some fantastic coffee and outstanding roasters, starting with Coffeehouse-Five. Serving Coava Coffee Roasters, Coffeehouse-Five is a young business that has taken to the art of making coffee very quickly. Both Coffeehouse-Five and Coava are new to the trade of coffee, but both have shown extreme promise at producing high quality coffee.

Matt Higgins, formerly of Albina Press, has been putting a lot of heart and soul into his coffee roasting. Higgins is all about the details of where the coffee is coming from and where he can take it. You really can taste the artistry in the drink.

What’s most exciting about Coffeehouse-Five is their weekend cuppings. Once on Saturday and Sunday, Coffeehouse-Five hosts free cuppings on their large wooden table. Baristas will take you through the sniffing and slurping of several different roasts and really open your eyes to the nuances of flavor and aroma.

Taking a cue from Coffeehouse Northwest and BARISTA, Coffeehouse-Five is open to having many different local roasters visit their shop and set up a cupping. Look for all of Portland’s best beans to be showcased at Coffeehouse-Five in the future.

Ristretto Roasters:

Roasting a little outside of the box, Ristretto Roasters’ coffee is an acquired taste for some. Seven varietals of mostly single-origin coffee beans are roasted on-site by owner Din Johnson. While most roasters in Portland churn out a lot of milk-chocolatey or balanced citrus-type flavors, Ristretto’s coffees tend more toward the very dark cherry, raisin and almost smoky aromas and flavors.

Serving espresso, French press and Melitta coffee at their original Fremont location, (no Melitta at the N. Williams spot), Ristretto Roasters serves their house blend or a featured single origin for your choosing. Pushing the traditional boundaries of how you should enjoy coffee, Ristretto once tried out a coffee and cheese pairing event. Nothing is off limits for this business so keep your eye on them for more interesting developments in coffee. Ristretto also focuses on education, with twice monthly events on the first and last Sunday of the month. Recent classes have included cuppings,  pairing chocolate and coffee with Elizabeth Montes of Sahagun, cheese pairing with Tami Parr of the Northwest Cheese Blog, how to use french press at home, how to use home espresso makers, talks by coffee farmers from Brazil, etc.

  • Address: 3520 NE 42nd Ave, Portland, OR and 3807 N Williams Ave, Portland, OR.
  • Hours: 6am-6pm, and 6:30am-7pm respectively
  • Website: RistrettoRoasters.com

Albina Press & The Fresh Pot:

If you’re in NE Portland, you can’t do much better for Stumptown coffee than Albina Press and The Fresh Pot. Located within a few blocks of each other on N. Albina and N. Mississippi, these two shops occasionally get a bad rap for being a little stuck-up, but when you make excellent coffee for as many years as they have, can you help it if people are little jealous of you?

Both of these businesses are pioneers of the Portland coffee scene, and have been known to churn out many Barista Championship finalists. You can be sure that the drinks they serve are of an elite caliber, and worth a trip across town to experience.

If you are not in NE Portland, do not worry; both of these coffeehouses have second locations on SE Hawthorne as well.

Albina Press:

  • Address: 4637 North Albina Ave, Portland, Or. & 5012 SE Hawthorne Blvd, Portland.
  • Hours: Daily 6am-8pm
  • Website: none

The Fresh Pot:

  • Address: 3729 SE Hawthorne blvd & 4001 n Mississippi ave.
  • Hawthorne: Mon-Thurs 6:30am-10pm, Fri 6:30am-11pm, Sat 7am-11pm, Sun 7am-9pm.
  • Mississippi: Mon-Fri 6:30am-7pm, Sat-Sun 7am-7pm
  • Website: TheFreshPot.com

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. says

    sabernar, the Albina Press SE Hawthorne location, as in SE Portland, is listed.

    Interesting that the author did not include Stumptown or Crema in this list though. Hmmm…downright curious omissions, especially Stumptown since they provide the coffee to many of the above listed coffeehouses.

    • KBSquid says

      Thats because Stumptown has good intentions with their coffee and roasts it well but trains their staff poorly. You can go to Stumptown and get good espresso if you are lucky, or you could go to one of these places and get the same coffee but pulled with more consistency and better training.

  2. nescafe says

    Some very good info but a bit boosterish. In particular, more detail about style would be useful. For example, I love the inky espresso at spella and barista (hairbender is just about the only stumptown blend i can stomach) but the more anemic pulls at ristretto leave me cold.

  3. says

    I would certainly put Crema and Extracto among top coffeehouses in PDX, but I tried to focus on the coffee itself.

    There are dozens of factors that can make a place with just “good” coffee a great coffeehouse.

    Don’t even get me started on “bakeries with coffee” which I think is in a different category altogether!

  4. amy says

    Cartola in NE is not to be missed. Stumptown coffee with a smile (which is never a given elsewhere). Delicious coffee in a very welcoming and interesting space.

    Check it out.

  5. Mike says

    Interesting that Albina Press is characterized as stuck-up in the same article as Ristretto.

    I’ve had the opposite experience over a period of years. The folks at Albina are incredibly friendly to this coffee novice. In contrast, no matter how many trips I’ve made to both Ristretto locations over the years and how many times I say hello to the same baristas who’ve been working there for years, they act like they’ve never seen me before and only offer half-hearted responses to my “hello” greeting.

    I’ve stopped going to Ristretto as a result of that and the $1 premium above Albina that they put on their cold-brewed iced coffee.

  6. Robert says

    Surprised you didn’t list ‘Red E Cafe’ which was the FIRST shop to offer Coava. In my opinion, they are the shop that does the BEST job with it!

  7. Pearl District says

    No Stumptown? You have got to be kidding, especially when most of the coffee shops you mention serve Stumptown products.

  8. says

    @Pearl District It seems unnecessary to talk about Stumptown. This is less of a roaster feature than it is an “independent shop’s rocking it” feature. And the title does read some, meaning not all of the best coffee.

    Folks should be okay with being left out once in a while. It is not necessarily intentional or hurtful. Stumptown does a decent job at their own cafés, but I think most people would argue the shops listed here who serve Stumptown do it better. The Red E may have deserved a mention, but they are relatively new and I’m sure as they continue to operate and serve a great product, the press won’t ignore them. Café Circuit, a group of motorcycle-riding coffee enthusiasts, recently came through town and did a wonderful job visiting and describing their experience here in Portland (including their stop at the Red E). Find their report here: http://www.cafecircuit.com/.

    I think the bottom line is that the coffee culture here in Portland has been improving immensely, and this improvement is not always lead by the most likely suspects.

  9. Eva says

    I agree with the skeptical comments above re Ristretto. I’ve tried and failed to acquire that taste.

    The Albina/Fresh Pot “stuck up” question is an interesting one, because I have found the staff in SE to be *much* friendlier than the staff in NoPo. A few times in the NoPo Albina I felt like I was bothering the baristas when I ordered my drink.

  10. says

    My personal list, I’d bump Barista. Terrible service. Always. Owners and employees are too busy being social to wait on customers. Always agonizing.

    Spella is the opposite of Barista. Superb customer experience.

    For best roast, check out Espresso Giuseppe mobile van at 69th and Belmont, exclusively uses small batch fresh roasted Cardinal Coffee.

    http://www.espressogiuseppe.com http://www.cardinalcoffee.com

    Great product,great service, serving in an underserved area.

  11. Alwasy Looking says

    Tried Barista. Not worth it. As BurgerDogBoy said – too busy to deal with coffee. The coffee was ‘watered-down’ and well …lame. What could have been a good cup wasn’t. Tried a blend and a supposed Honduran. Both may have had potential but they just sat there – tired. Very disappointed. Will look elsewhere.

  12. sensetiveQTPI says

    I think Blue Kangaroo has a great espresso and they roast all their own coffee on site! The Cubano Latte is to die for as well!(It’s in SE)

    • Will says

      I went to Sisters. The location is beautiful, but the espresso is from the 1990s – dark-roasted, not many subtleties. You can go there to hang out, but if you’re looking for the best coffee, I would skip it.

  13. Chris Perry says

    Where is Water Ave on this list??? And by the way- full life nonprofit has an amazing new off-shoot called “Happy Cup”. Rivals Stumptown any day of the week and is roasted and prepared by master roaster trained special needs adults. http://www.happycup.com. Drink something good and help employ hard working underprivileged people!

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