Can you grow bigger while staying small in vibe and attention to detail? That’s the $10,000 question for Sterling Coffee Roaster owners Adam McGovern and Aric Miller (and for longtime customers like myself). In June, Eat Beat reported that Northwest Portland’s icon of coffee shop intimacy (8 seats, 200 square feet, flawless drinks) was headed to bigger digs a few blocks away at 518 NW 21st Avenue. Now, the numbers are in on the just-opened space: 950 square feet, 26 seats, two skylights, a hidden communal table, a well-stocked cold case, and one very large ficus tree. That may not sound like much, but for Sterling, originally a 50-foot food cart roasting beans on the street in front of nearby Trader Joe’s, it’s a Montana ranch.
The coffee menu hasn’t changed: beautiful espresso served in scotch glasses, dialed-in lattes, cortados, and lovely mochas fashioned with a special Cacao chocolate blend. The signature Blendo Stupendo was created specifically for milk drinks (Sterling’s biggest seller), and tailored for people who love nutty chocolate notes. “I hate the elitism of coffee purists,” says Miller, of the shops that favor unadulterated black coffee. “I just want a good cup of coffee in the morning. We’re not going to insist that people revere it.” (That said, Sterling also roasts, sells and serves an edgier espresso aimed at coffee nerd culture.)
Fortunately, Sterling’s caramel apple cider also made the trip to the new space. A quiet burst of bright-tart fruit flavor hits you first. Then comes a wave of soft caramel (the shop makes its own), and lots of warm creaminess. It’s a seasonal special, so get it while it lasts.
Some of the adorable details of the old space will be missed: white tablecloths, a gratis copy of the New York Times, pretty flowers, and other impractical things on every table. But roomier digs means we don’t have to scrunch into a yoga pose to for a seat at the world’s tiniest tables; now it’s possible to go to Sterling with a posse! With a real display space, the collection of Bakeshop pastries is now full-blown. Meanwhile, the new five-tier “merch” shelves hold their own surprises, from coffee blossom honey from Guatemalan coffee farmers to handsome navy caps designed by Miller, an artist and painter.
And while space is still tweaking the details (the front entrance needs some help), the new iteration of Sterling already feels lived in: alive, cozy, and super personal. Look around: there are small things in this big package.