Interested in learning how to taste coffee?
Most coffee is a commodity. If you like, you can trade coffee futures, and most of the money in coffee goes to publicly traded transnational companies. And I don’t just mean the first mate of the Pequod. Nestle, Philip Morris/Kraft, Sara Lee, Proctor & Gamble, Dunkin’ Donuts, and McDonalds are all significant players. There’s no craft, little concern for farmers and pickers or the environment, nothing warm-n-fuzzy about this business.
Even in the neighborhood coffee shop, it’s a production environment. Baristas can’t dawdle. In the queue most customers are in transit and don’t want to wait: to or from work, on a break, ferrying the kids to practice. However well-meaning, fancy designs in the foamed milk only barely disguise the interchangeability of the last cup with the next cup. It’s a grind.
So what happens when you stop to smell the grounds?
Late this summer Duane Sorenson of Stumptown Coffee opened the Stumptown Annex in the old Seaplane space two doors down from the SE 34th & Belmont café. It works more like a wine bar and tasting lab than a café. (It’s interesting that concurrently, Cheryl Wakerhauser of Pix Patisserie opened her chocolate lab on NE Williams. Is there a trend here?)
The space isn’t very large – it’s an annex. The bar sits lengthwise directly in front of the door. On the wall behind it are two shelves with glass canisters for the beans, each identified with a small hand-lettered chalkboard sign. In the back is a mysterious old door that looks like the entry to a pre-electric cold room. It’s the pantry storage. Next to it is a flat-screen video display with a silent slide show of coffee and coffee farms. Tucked in underneath a staircase is a brown banquette with five two-tops. On the wall opposite the bar is shallow shelving with some retail items for sale, coffee makers and other accouterments. The shelving and bar look like walnut-stained oak. The wall behind the bar is exposed old brick. The tonal palette is coffee, the style is modern – a nice nod to the Aalto Lounge next door.
The Annex clearly has a retail role. If you don’t need an espresso drink with your beans, you can visit the Annex instead of the main Belmont café. It has the entire range of Stumptown’s beans for sale, and at least at present it’s a much calmer place to buy beans than the cafes. The Annex is staffed by self-proclaimed coffee geeks, and they are happy to talk about the beans, about coffee making, and about anything coffee related. If you don’t know what beans you want, you can buy a single cup of coffee from any of the beans. It’s great to see “try before you buy” in coffee.
More than this, if you go at 11am or 3pm, you can participate in a free “cupping,” the coffee world’s version of a wine flight and sensory evaluation. This is the secret sauce.
The lead cupper selects 4 or 5 different coffees, grinds three samples of each and places the grinds in small white porcelain cups. Behind each set of samples, he or she places a tray of whole beans with the name of the coffee and Duane’s own cupping notes. Cuppers go around sniffing the ground coffee, and occasionally one cup is rejected as having a “stinker” bean or as otherwise non-representative and flawed. Hot water is poured and the beans steep for a few minutes. Spoons are issued to each cupper, and after the beans have steeped appropriately, cuppers break the crust that has formed on each cup. This is the most perfumed moment: Breaking the crust releases a rush of volatile essential oils and other aroma-bearing compounds. The differences between coffees really become apparent.
After breaking the crust, cuppers start to take spoonfuls of coffee, slurping them loudly, aerating them just like wine tasters (“retronasal olfaction” they call it!), and then swallowing or spitting. Just as with wine, spitting’s a good idea: Caffeine too has effects, and you’d be surprised how much you get after multiple spoonfuls. On the palate each coffee is evaluated for length, clarity, acidity, complexity, and even tannins. I like high-acid wines like Riesling, Loire Chenin Blanc, and Piedmont Barbera, and my coffee preferences are similar: Of the current Stumptown coffees, my favorites are Ethiopian Yrgacheffe, Kenya AA, and most wonderful of all, a single-estate coffee from Panama grown from an Ethiopian heirloom cultivar. It’s got this citrusy brightness sometimes like bergamot (think Earl Grey tea), other times more like tangerine and a little peachy to me. Other cuppers prefer the more integrated smoothness of some of the other Latin American coffees. The Sumatra reminded me of an ultra-ripe, very woody, California Cab – nectar to some, less interesting to others. Truly, there was a coffee for almost every taste.
Stumptown’s roasts are much lighter than what you find at Peet’s or Starbucks coffee or most other places. They use an old German Probot cast iron drum-roaster. When I’ve been able to compare air-roasted and drum-roasted coffees, I’ve found the difference something like that between onions sautéed quickly in hot oil and onions slowly caramelized at a lower temp (though I don’t think there’s an actual difference in the coffee roasting temperatures). The one is crisper and retains more vegetal qualities; the other is sweet and rich, and hardly seems possible that it came from a plant. Duane says the drum-roasting permits greater flavor development. The intense torrefaction of dark roasts seems to efface flavor and the differences between coffees. It’s easier to create a uniform cup, and for large chains this uniformity is a benefit, rather than liability.
Cupping is wonderful, and it’s great to have this opportunity in the city. You get to evaluate the coffees under standard and consistent conditions and you aren’t using a paper filter, (whose flattening effects I noticed variably: some coffees really suffer from flavor loss, some seem more immune). Even if you make coffee at home with a French press, vacuum, or other filterless method, it’s still terrific to taste so many coffees side-by-side. You really get an opportunity to find out what you like and don’t like.
If the pace in cafes is almost always about production, the pace in the Annex is slow – in the very best possible way. The Annex is, in fact, the first coffee establishment I’ve visited that exemplifies the values of Slow Food. There may be others out there, but in conversation with folks, it’s pretty clear they are rare. Even Fair Trade certified coffee still gets slung in a production environment. In that environment there’s still little connection between farm and drink. In part because of the vagaries of economic development, the African and Indonesian coffees generally come from large cooperatives, but an increasing number of Latin American coffees are from single-estates, and it’s exciting to learn about these and to taste the differences. At the Annex, the slides on the video show Duane visiting the farms whose coffees he sells. The Annex is the antithesis of commodity culture. It’s really personal.
Several of the coffees Duane offers are from the Cup of Excellence, a group formed in 1999 to highlight coffees of special excellence, help bring them to market, and inspire industry-wide improvement. It works a little like the German wine auctions. Currently Bolivia, Honduras, Nicaragua, Brazil, and El Salvador participate. Panama has its own Best of Panama event. After several rounds of cuppings, the last by an international jury of coffee experts, the entries go to an internet auction. Last year, the Best of Panama winner, from Hacienda La Esmeralda, stunned the world by selling for $21 a pound (at retail it sold for $42 a pound). Seven retailers in the US split the seven bags, and Stumptown got one of them. This year, the Esmeralda sold for $20.10, but Duane had created a relationship and was able to buy some directly for significantly less. It will be on sale soon. Most of the auction coffees aren’t so expensive. The coffee in the most recent Colombian Cup of Excellence auction sold for an average of $3.66 a pound. With bulk coffee at something like $.50 a pound (though edging up in these days of pricey petroleum) and Fair Trade Coffee at $1.26 a pound, this 3x multiplier over Fair Trade pricing is very meaningful to farmers. It’s possible, in fact, that over time the auctions will have a greater impact than Fair Trade certification, and it seems to be a cheering instance of market pricing promoting increasingly sustainable agriculture.
Right now, it is clearly an annex, an adjunct to the main show. Should it become more popular, there will be some decisions to make. Even now, in some ways I wish the Annex might have made a few more concessions to slick. The slide show is silent and lacks titles. It’s just pictures, some pretty, some with value mainly as illustration, and without context, viewers really have to connect dots on their own. There weren’t many connections I could make. Additionally, I’d like to see maps of the estates, coffee-FAQs, and other self-service educational materials. Right now there’s just the menu with Duane’s cupping notes. Sometimes staff members are deep in conversation with customers, and new people walking in would have things or activities to engage them while they wait. Print or signage also accommodates different learning styles. More color, too. It’s a brown space, and I found myself wishing for accents with bright colors.
Service logistics could also become a bottleneck. The communal feeling of the cuppings is nice, but might be too friendly for some. During one cupping I attended, a woman was visibly uncomfortable with the fact that spoons kept going from mouths to the common cups, even with a detour through what was at one time a 180 degree water bath. It’s possible they need to charge a modest fee for the cuppings and give participants their own personal coffee sample. The dishwasher and drains are in the main café space, and as the Annex becomes popular, the back-n-forth will become tiresome. Traffic flow is a bit awkward; the bar’s end is immediately in front of you when you enter, and the necessary deflection to the left creates a moment of psychological dissonance.
Finally, and in some ways most importantly, I have to wonder what will draw repeat visits. Will they shift bean sales entirely from the Belmont café to the Annex? Once you’ve cupped the line-up, there’s really no need to go back. I see myself visiting when new coffees come in, but not all that frequently. I love this piece of Stumptown’s business, but I have to ask, is it sustainable as a stand-alone business unit? Or will the cafes have to subsidize this fabulous bit of coffee culture and education? Slow Food is great, but it can’t be so slow that it stands still.
- Phone: 503-232-8889.
- Address: 3356 SE Belmont Street, Portland. Regular coffee shops in SE, downtown.
- See Stumptown Website for locations, directions, and hours, which vary from store to store.