Monday, June 16, 2008

Our Trip to Portland Part I: Coffee

Let the trumpets be sounded, let the clarion call be heard, let us all intone our best primal yell, for the greatest coffee and espresso in the world has been found.
Not only that, but is consumed by thousands of dwellers in Portland, Oregon every single day.
And I hate them for it! (not really, but I'm jealous, that's for sure)
For those of you who are devotees of this blog, you know that coffee and the rituals around it are one of my great passions, so it was truly rewarding to consort with people who not only share this affection, but are highly skilled in the preparation of coffee, espresso, and roasting coffee beans.
Portland seems to be the keeper of all things coffee, and the epicenter of this wonderfully caffeinated place is a series of establishments either called or supplied by Stumptown Roasters.
I shudder to call it a chain, because there can be a negative connotation with that word and coffee (your fault Starbucks), but there are several stores around the city along with a central location where all the roasting happens and whose beans are distributed to several other venues in the city.
These beans are, to be blunt, perfection. Perfection in color, flavor, and roast quality. Just magic, and the baristas hired by these stores are the magicians. Each person takes a particular pride in making the perfect cup of coffee (yes, they make it by the cup, to order, from 13 different varieties at Stumptown Annex, all roasted within the past 4 days) or pulling the highest standard espresso shot. If they don't like their effort, they throw it away and do it again.
I'm totally serious about that.
The drinks they turn out after steaming the milk perfectly, tamping the espresso before putting it on the machine, and making a beautiful pattern in your latte, are just sublime, and nowhere are they better than at Coffeehouse Northwest
From the minute you walk into this place, it is clear that the focus is on coffee and espresso making and nothing else. The menu is spartan, as is the layout. There are only the basic drinks to choose from, no frappes, no blends, and only a few syrups to choose from (but it's sacrilege, darling, just sacrilege).
Our baristas, Daniel and Matt, were not only congenial and interesting, but they made the two single best espresso drinks I've ever had, and spoke all about their love for the craft as they made them. The first, a cappuccino, is below, resting quietly next to my wife's iced toddy, which is the greatest iced coffee since the invention of ice.
Please look closely at the pattern that is formed in my drink. Every barista at all of these stores takes pride in generating a little piece of latte art in every drink they serve.
And oh my goodness those pastries. As I already have enough to focus on here what with tennis, the American Civil War, UCLA sports, coffee, and mixology, I will say only that the pastries at these stores are the very best, and the bakery that makes them literally fills a city block with aromas of sugar, cake, and orange zest.
For my second drink, Daniel and Matt made me an Americano. Simple, delicate, and perfect. Best of all, this sublime beverage was on the house! Find any top flight place that would do that for a customer on their first visit!
Honestly, I could watch that crema separate all day, but there was drinking to be done!
As you can clearly see, coffee drinking was a big part of our visit, and I've got the full Stumptown coffee frequent flyer card to prove it (13 coffees in 4 days, thank you very much!). But we're not done, because there was one more new experience left... cupping! This is the coffee drinkers equivalent to wine tasting, and it's even more rewarding. This process is hosted twice a day at Stumptown Annex and is free to the public. 5 fresh-roasted coffees are put out, and you just need your taste buds.
The 4 steps:
1. the dry smell: dry grounds are inhaled
2. the wet smell: coffee is poured over the grounds, and the steam is inhaled
3. breaking the crust: the layer of grounds on top of the mug is broken with a spoon after 4 minutes of brewing, with inhalation taking place at the moment the spoon breaks the surface
4. tasting: a spoon is dipped into the surface of the coffee, the sample is slurped up, tasted, then spat out (unless you want to get really wired) This final phase is repeated as many times as you like, because the coffee flavor evolves as the beverage cools.
Amidst the sound of hearty slurps filling the store was the occasional WOW! This is a special experience and something for everyone to try. Since I'm able to roast coffee at home, we'll be having a cupping soon, so get ready!
I'm still wired from all this coffee, and it's not from the caffeine. This was a seminal experience to have in the nascency of this hobby of mine. So with a more attuned palate, and fresh-roasted beans at my side, I go forth into the world of coffee drinking!

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