Portland Coffee Wars

Though still friendly, the competition heats up.

By Eat Beat Team June 3, 2009

From a glossy spread in Bon Appétit to several articles in the New York Times, Portland’s Stumptown Coffee has become the local darling of the so-called “third wave” coffee movement. Yes, its direct-trade sourcing practices are desirable, its support of micro lots has helped coffee farmers attain record per-pound prices for specialty single-origin beans, and of course, we Portlanders tend to sip a bit easier knowing our Stumptown baristas are treated well and receive full medical benefits—something nearly unheard-of for employees of independent coffee shops. That’s all very important, but the real reason for Stumptown’s success is this: Stumptown Coffee is delicious. It elevated our expectations and forever changed the Portland market.

Ten years since it began, Stumptown is now growing its brand nationally for this same reason. And while Stumptown owner and founder Duane Sorenson and company are experiencing the same type of success in New York City and other large markets, Portland coffee drinkers are discovering out-of-town roasters who’ve set their sights on top independent Portland shops, formerly the exclusive domain of Stumptown .

The most obvious example is former Albina Press front man Billy Wilson’s new shop, Barista. Wilson serves Stumptown’s Hair Bender espresso blend alongside coffee selections from Sonoma County’s Ecco Caffe and Chicago’s Intelligentsia. Across town on N Killingsworth Street and Michigan Avenue, another longtime Albina Press-er recently debuted Red E, which serves Intelligentsia beans along with those by Coava, a burgeoning local roaster.

Two blocks east, on N Albina and Killingsworth, the popular Coffeehouse Five also caters to the Piedmont neighborhood and the PCC crowd, serving coffee by Caffé Vita, one of Seattle’s pioneering independent roasters. Coffeehouse Five (which, incidentally, is located on the site of what once was my great-grandfather’s grocery store) has become perhaps the busiest storefront along N Killingsworth, and is a major success for Vita, which was featured yesterday on a popular New York Times blog.

Local Portland roasters such as Courier, Cellar Door, Spella, Ristretto, and Cherry are becoming more visible, adding a new depth to our local coffee scene. That said, it’s safe to say we’re at the very beginning of a trend that will increase the local influence of larger nationally focused artisan brands like Vita, Intelligentsia, and Counter Culture in Portland shops. According to one local proprietor whose upcoming project will feature an out-of-town roaster (he asked not to be named because his plans are not public), this is happening for two reasons. First, Portland coffee drinkers are becoming far more interested in variety. Second, competition between the roasters in cities like New York and Los Angeles is still friendly but increasingly fierce among large independent roasters.

I promise you, this will get interesting.

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