For most people these days, their first exposure to coffee comes from one of the mass-market chains such as Starbucks. Starbucks gives them that first addiction, the ‘need’ to get coffee every day. Then one day they are exposed to a better brew. Maybe a friend drags them to a small coffee house. After a few episodes of shock, “Gee, this coffee isn’t sweet and full of caramel”, it suddenly hits them: This isn’t just coffee — It has a wonderful nose, terrific body, subtle nuances, amazing depth; why, it is almost like wine!
Starbucks fuels the initial need. Eventually, many of their disciples graduate and move on to better coffee. This drives smaller cafes and assures them of continued business. How can we complain about that?
Anyone can make an average cup of coffee. A lot of people can make a decent cup. Making perfect coffee takes an artist. Portland is full of coffee houses. There are quite a few places like Stumptown that get into the science and make a pretty darn good cup. They care about the product, make sure to use good quality beans, do regular cupping, know how to make decent foam, and take a bit of time, so everything comes together right. I like to think of them as coffee scientists. Then there are the artists. Passionate about coffee, everything has to be just right. Not only do they care about the beans, but also they care about where it was harvested and how much the pickers were paid. It must be tamped perfectly; the puck must be just right. If the pull, the temperature, or the crema is not perfect, they’ll dump the shot and start over. The fanatics even bring their own tampers from job to job.
At one time there were only a few true coffee artists in the Northwest, and many of them worked at Albina Coffee Press. Opened in 2004, it was the coffee geek heaven, where you’d generally come as close as you can get, to perfection in coffee every time. Time has passed, and coffee devotees have spread across the city, but Albina Press is one of the places that started it all, and they should get credit for that.
I’m drinking a cappuccino. The mouthfeel is rich and buttery with a nearly perfect body. Every so often little gas bubbles burst through the top. The latte art is perfect – an apple of white and tan accents, floating on a perfectly smooth brown crema. I don’t want to give the impression that I think cup art makes coffee better – I’d rather have a good cup of coffee with no art than a bad cup that looks beautiful. It is nice though and shows the barista takes pride in his drinks.
At most serious coffee houses, if you order hot chocolate, you’ll get it with a bit of attitude. Here it may come with a perfect rosette. Conversation at the counter stopped one morning as we all watched the barista take the extra time to create an incredible chocolate flower to adorn the milk. The Albina Press Café Americano made with Stumptown’s Harar looks like brown glass and has great depth of taste. French press is done with just the right grind to minimize leftover sediment. Want an espresso? If they aren’t slammed, be ready to discuss whether you want Hairbender, Stumptown, or Harar, but relax – they’ll help you through it. The baristas know what they are doing, so I always leave it up to them. Either way, when you get your cup, the crema will be perfect, and the brew is complex with lots of subtle nuances. Pay attention when you drink and you’ll find the experience a lot like tasting wine. Once you get used to it, you won’t want sugar anymore.
Albina Press is just past the up-and-coming Mississippi area where Mississippi turns the corner and becomes Albina Street. The interior is rather unremarkable, pretty much your typical laid-back coffeehouse. Still, it is a spacious place to while away a rainy afternoon with the paper. There’s a bar area next to the windows so you can stare out on a rainy day and contemplate life. Plenty of regular tables are scattered around, and there are two areas with soft couches to dive into. Free Wi-Fi is available, with a surprising number of electrical outlets to plug in your laptop if need be. The mix of customers runs the gamut, from neighborhood regulars to coffee geeks who come from a distance. College students make up the bulk of the crowd; still, anyone can feel comfortable here.
It may be a bit off the beaten path, but on a lazy afternoon, drop by. Explore the unique shops along Mississippi and walk down the street for your brew. It’s a great local option. As you take your first sip, pay attention to the taste and give silent thanks to Starbucks.
They also have Tao of Tea with 14 blends available. Pastries are a bit different in variety than the usual coffee shop fare, with a step up in quality and size. The music is pretty mellow and not blasting.
- Phone: (503) 282-5214