June 4, 2014

Where coffee reigns supreme

Originally published in the Portland Phoenix on May 21, 2014

Coffee By Design's new spot in East Bayside 
Portland makes it onto many lists for its food and drink scene; some of the accolades are noteworthy (like Bon App√©tit’s “foodiest small town” in 2009), while others are forgettable (namely the ones comparing our Portland to the other Portland). But the results of a Men’s Health study recently made us take notice: Portland is the number one coffee-loving city in the United States. To create these rankings, the study surveyed households in 100 major metropolitan areas, considering the number that own coffeemakers and buy coffee; the amount spent on coffee; the number of coffee shops per capita; and the number of individuals that drink five or more cups a day. Though that last number may be less important than you’d think — according to Maine author Murray Carpenter in his recent book Caffeinated, as a country, we’re drinking less coffee today than our grandparents were.

Rather, the recent proliferation of coffee houses and roasters in Portland points to a growing appreciation for a quality cup of coffee rather than a high quantity of it. Recently, the coffee industry has entered what is described as its “third wave;” the first wave being the introduction of widespread consumption of coffee in our country in the 1950s and ’60s. First wave coffee companies sought to maximize profits, in part by creating demand for their product as part of a daily ritual. Second wave coffee is the movement most of us are familiar with and saw the rise of differing roast levels, publicized countries of origin, and espresso drinks.

Coffee houses embracing a third wave philosophy now pay close attention to every step of coffee production, from growing to harvesting to roasting to brewing. Vien Dobui, Tandem Coffee’s wholesale accounts manager, explains that producers have only started growing coffee with an eye towards quality in the last 10 years. Much like wine, coffee grown in different parts of the world expresses different characteristics based on the climate and soil. Coffee roasters are now paying more attention to these flavor subtleties and roasting beans accordingly.

The way coffee professionals evaluate the quality of coffee beans is a standardized smelling and tasting ritual called ‘cupping.’ Cuppings help coffee wholesalers determine if beans are worth buying and coffee roasters determine to what degree to roast coffee beans, among other things. The cupping process aims to control as many variables as possible, so one tastes only the flavors inherent in the coffee beans, rather than those imparted by the roasting process. Tandem Coffee offers cuppings to the public to help coffee aficionados (or wannabes) learn more about coffee flavors.

I attended a cupping at Tandem Coffee in an attempt to expand my limited knowledge of my own coffee preferences. While I always brew coffee at home and enjoy several cups throughout the morning, I don’t pay much attention to the pedigree. Beyond rejecting a very dark roast, I had no inkling whether I’d prefer a Kenyan coffee to a Columbian. The day I attended Tandem’s cupping, Vien Dobui prepared four samples for us to try. Two were roasted by Tandem’s owner Will Pratt: a Costa Rican and an Ethiopian coffee. Another Ethiopian varietal was sent to Tandem as a sample, and the fourth was a natural Ethiopian coffee from Seattle-based Slate Coffee Roasters.

The cupping was attended by a small group of regulars, both young and old. I was graciously welcomed into the group and shown the routine. First, we sniffed the dry coffee grounds. Dobui then meticulously poured hot water over the grounds, allowing them to steep. We rotated around the table, bending to sniff the brewing coffee. After it was steeped, we selected silver-plated spoons to “break the crust,” or swipe our spoons through the floating coffee grounds to release the aromas trapped beneath. After the second round of smelling, Dobui removed the floating grounds and the tasting began.

We were encouraged to violently slurp up our coffee (Dobui demonstrated with the most vehement of sips) to aspirate the coffee over all of our taste buds. Because I was concerned with choking on hot coffee in front of strangers, I stuck with a more modest slurp. For about 20 minutes, we circled the table, taking repeated sips of coffee. Different flavors become more pronounced as the coffee cools, so an extended tasting allows you to experience a range of aroma and taste.

While sipping the four samples, my thoughts went like this: “Hmm, tastes like coffee... also tastes like coffee... yup, coffee again... Woah!” The fourth coffee tasted radically different due to the processing method. The Ethiopian coffee from Slate was naturally processed, meaning the fruits of the coffee plant, called “cherries” (inside of which you’ll find the “bean” or seed), are dried in the sun rather than mechanically pulped and then dried. The resulting coffee frequently is full of berry flavors; this one tasted like someone had infused it with blueberry syrup.

After our tasting had concluded, we then shared our thoughts on the various flavors we detected. Tasting descriptors are notoriously wacky, but the ones I heard were relatively tame. Many found the Costa Rican roasted by Tandem to contain caramel flavors; Dobui explained caramelized sugar flavors are created by a darker roast. Other descriptors pertained to the acidity of the coffee (typically fruit flavors), the body (any flavor other than fruit), and the mouth-feel.

Determined to continue my coffee flavor education, I headed to the Speckled Ax on Congress Street and ordered two different kinds of coffee to taste side-by-side. When I explained my project to the barista, she exclaimed, “Oooh, you’re one of us!” which made me laugh. She selected a Kenyan and a Columbian coffee, described as tasting of, among other things, “cola” and “pineapple,” respectively. I detected neither, but did taste a noticeable difference between the two. The Kenyan coffee had a tomato-like acidity, while the Colombian expressed a pleasing sweetness as it cooled. The baristas continued to check in with me at my perch at the bar to discuss the coffees’ characteristics.

Coffee By Design’s new space on Diamond Street in East Bayside offers plenty of room to sit and contemplate the flavors in your mug. The staff plans to offer regularly scheduled public cuppings this summer; in the meantime, their attentive staff is happy to recommend a coffee for your palate. The barista recommended a sweeter, nuttier-tasting Peruvian coffee, because I drink my coffee with cream. I tried it straight up first and appreciated the lighter roast, what CBD calls their “peak” roast. This light roasting style allows the flavors of the coffee to shine, rather than being dominated by a darker French or Italian roast. This new location is a mecca for coffee geeks, with multiple high-tech brewing methods and a station for creating your own blend of coffee beans for home use.

At Bard Coffee, store manager Brittany Feltovic prepared me two Kenyan coffees: one naturally processed and one washed. The natural coffee tasted very different than the one I’d experienced at Tandem Coffee, but I couldn’t quite articulate how. Feltovic coached me, saying she tasted “juicy lime,” rather than the more common berry flavors, but no matter how hard I thought of a key lime pie or a margarita, I didn’t quite get there.

Unlike wine, coffee’s flavor differences are subtle. When drank side-by-side, coffees certainly taste different, but identifying those fruity, buttery, and smoky flavors requires an experienced palate. The cuppings at Tandem Coffee provide the perfect environment for training your taste buds, while Portland’s many coffee houses offer ever-expanding options for finding your favorite flavors. Look for a second location from Tandem Coffee this summer at 742 Congress Street in the West End.

Tandem Coffee Roasters cuppings | 122 Anderson St, Portland | Fridays at 12 pm | 207.899.0235