The New, Joyful Face of Portland Coffee

Goodbye, coffee cool kids' club. Portland’s modern cafe scene has evolved into a multiverse of ideas, destinations, and self-expression.

By Jordan Michelman April 5, 2023

Ryan Jie Jiang, the owner of Less and More Coffee.

Coffee and Portland are simpatico, synonymous, a tale as old as time. This city has been home to one of the country’s leading coffee scenes for decades, from dens of late-twentieth century bohemia to world-shaking name brands turned global megacorps to infamously snobby culinary exhibitions of third-wave attitude.

Roughly one million years ago (you know, the late aughts) you really had to know where to look to find this stuff in cities like Los Angeles and New York. Meanwhile, in Portland, there was fancy coffee in just about every neighborhood. But while coffee culture in Portland grew strong and fast, it also often looked the same. There was an inherent paradox—a bunch of rule-breaking nonconformists who often looked and acted eerily similar, unignorable in their exclusionary posture and monolithic expression. The end result felt like a flattening of coffee’s possibilities: the same snobby barista looking down at the same mocha over a loud blast of the same indie rock. Like how all bands on a record label (remember those?) end up sounding alike.   

How quickly times change. Today’s Portland coffee scene is a multiverse, a maximalist, inclusive pleasure dome of forms and versions of cafe culture, offering something for literally everyone, with modifications and self-expression expressly encouraged. Coffee in Portland today looks like a purist shot of espresso on state-of-the-art technology, a sneaker cafe that doubles as a living art gallery, and an outrageously good cà phê sữa dá made from coffee grown in Vietnam. There’s a duality to this thing now, like both lobes of the brain, genuinely earnest, heart-on-sleeve roasters seeking to educate about the true cost of coffee production to none-too-serious coffee lounges with gorgeous interior design, shaking matcha lattes and roasted fig cappuccinos with style and grace. Often, you’ll find both in the same place.

Portland coffee in 2023 is home to a glorious set of influences and contradictions, from utterly personal owner-operated coffee bars to striving mini-chains making delicious coffee at scale alongside fully realized food programs. There are cafes expressing coffee culture from Korea, Mexico, China, Vietnam, Holland, and Japan, to name just a few, and yet each of these feels indelibly connected to Portland, of the Portland coffee moment, the sort of place that feels uniquely tethered to here.  

Decentralization and self-expression abound. Nearly every small cafe in Portland is a roaster now, thanks to increased access to small-scale roasting technology and the work of collaborative roasting hubs, where even the smallest company can rent time and buy coffee as they hone their skills. The city’s coffee scene looks very different today from those early famous days, and I think that’s something to celebrate as a consumer, a coffee fanatic, someone who loves coffee deeply (and happens to also write about it professionally). I’m tired of telling those same old stories, and I think the city is tired of drinking them, too—which is why our citizens are so ready to support new ideas, new cafes, new versions of a modern Portland coffee scene. Today you could go to a different cafe every day in Portland for a hundred days and not drink the same cup of drip, or have the same exact style of latte, or stare at the same food menu, or hear the same songs. What could possibly be better?  

And so we offer a guide as multifaceted and many-splendored as the city’s cafe scene itself, with coffees from every corner of the world and cafes to suit any vibe. It is joyfully unrecognizable in many ways from the old days, with new leaders and destinations that have rewritten the script with stirring results. Sometimes the reboot is even better than the original. To that we say, long live the new wave of Portland coffee.  

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