The Portland-NY coffee connection (and love affair, apparently)

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This past week, Portlandia filmed outside my office, Willamette Week featured an article on how Brooklyn wants to be like Portland, and a reader from Philly left a comment on my blog looking for a Portland coffeehouse he and his wife visited more than a decade ago.

All this, at the same time I was drafting a review of NY coffeehouse RBCNYC from a recent trip back East and my flight back with two forty-something Portlandia tourists. Serendipity or just coincidence, I love when that happens.

First, a quick story on my fellow travelers. During this year’s tragic tornado season, what should have been a routine flight from La Guardia to PDX turned into a 17-hour journey to get home. Like many other travelers heading West, it took hours to get out of NY, only to be foiled again in Chicago. At the gate, I sat next to a down-to-earth couple about my age, whom I decided by their clothes and look were from Portland. Thus, I was surprised when the wife turned to me and asked: Are you from Portland?…and told me she and her husband were from New Jersey.

They were on the first trip away from the kids for a long weekend in Portland. Huge Decemberist fans (and more recently, Portlandia), they had dreamed of visiting Portland for years and proudly shared their planned itinerary, which included a show at the Doug Fir, nights at both the Kennedy School and Ace Hotel, a walk through the Alberta Street Fair and dinner at Paleys, where they hoped to find out the origins (and possibly name) of their free-range chicken.

I offered some suggestions for coffee (Ristretto) and pie (Random Order), and mentioned my visit the day before to RBCNYC in the heart of Wall Street, where one of the roasts they were serving was none other thanPortland’s Heart Coffee.

Where’s that, they asked? Granted, if you don’t work in downtown Manhattan, RBC’s a little out of the way. But since the husband of the Portlandia couple did work a couple blocks away from the RBC shop at71 Worth Street, I gave him the scoop, possibly inspiring a new customer of the independent coffeehouse for a Portland coffee fix.

Notes on RBCNYC…

Location: I was referred to RBC on the recommendation of Project Latte, a social media project mapping the independent cafes of NY. The folks at Project Latte actually first suggested I head to Brooklyn (how ironic!), but I was short on time and wasn’t able to venture out of Manhattan, so they kindly referred me to RBC on Worth Street in downtown. In the evening, when I stopped by, the area was totally dead and void of the hustle and bustle of Wall Street. But RBC stays open, perhaps for the law students from the school just around the corner or the other lone customer I saw, a young guy in a suit with a book and calculator.

Coffee: Like PDX’s own Barista, RBCNYC serves up a variety of other independently roasted coffees from around the U.S. What a fun surprise to walk in and see Portland’s Heart Coffee as the day’s “guest espresso,” complete with a chalkboard-written recommendation to try Heart’s “Wallego” without milk. Since I actually do prefer milk with my espresso, I ordered San Francisco-based Ritual’s “Spring Break” blend. It was tangy and slightly acidic, but a nice pick-me-up to combat my jetlag. Other coffees on offer that day included Barismo from Massachusetts and Klatch from California.

Cool stuff: RBC is tucked into a small space in what appears to be an old bank building. Exposed, dusty brick walls and metal imprinted ceilings combine with modern wood furniture and accents. Hip-hop music and young hipster baristas counter the stuffiness of Wall Street.

Not so cool: It’s possible to almost miss RBCNYC as it inhabits a desolate block marked by imposing columns.

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Coffee run at 3 a.m.? Look no further than 24-hour Southeast Grind

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Twice in the past year, my job has led me to do a 3 a.m. coffee run for an early-morning appointment with the East Coast. Both times, I’ve found coffee salvation at Southeast Grind, Portland’s only 24-hour coffee shop. The first time, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect as I drove down an eerily empty Powell Boulevard looking for the coffee shop on the corner of SE Powell and 12th. But inside, it was cozy and warmly lit with three or four night owls hunkered down with books, laptops and big mugs of coffee.

Notes on Southeast Grind…

Location: Located at 1223 SE Powell, Southeast Grind opened in 2010. While situated on the busy boulevard, daytime and evening coffee-goers can easily walk over from the Clinton neighborhood or Cleveland High School a few blocks up. If you’re driving at night, there’s easy parking on 12th street or in the parking lot behind the cafe.

Coffee: Southeast Grind’s website and reviews say it’s a Stumptown Coffee shop, and I recall drinking a nice, tall cup of Stumptown a year ago at 4 in the morning. But on my most recent morning visit, I noticed a sky-blue coffee pot emblazened with the logo of Batdorf & Bronson coffee roasters out of Olympia. I was too bleary-eyed to inquire about the switch, plus the super-friendly barista was trying to serve me and a motorcyclist while trouble-shooting a cash register problem. The Batdorf & Bronson brew definitely kept me and my colleagues awake but lacked a super-flavorful taste and may have been sitting in the pot a bit too long at that hour of the day. I’d like to give it a try again, given the roaster’s environmentally friendly and organic approach, not to mention cleverly named website — http://www.dancinggoats.com.

Cool stuff: Genuinely friendly staff, even at 3 a.m.; fresh baked goods and a nice selection of Gluten Free and vegetarian options; the feel of a 1960s retro basement, complete with foam-tile drop ceiling and Jetson-like furniture.

Not so cool: While it’s awesome that a coffee shop like Southeast Grind has found a home on such a car-centric boulevard, it is slightly spooky getting there in the middle of the night when there’s not a car or person in sight. Fortunately once inside, Southeast Grind is warm and inviting.

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Best iced-coffee of summer: Alma Chocolate’s cold-press-brewed Spella Coffee

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If summer ever arrives in Portland, there’s one iced coffee drink you cannot miss: the cold-press Spella coffee served over ice at Alma Chocolate. I dropped by the tiny chocolate shop at 140 NE 28th Ave. last weekend to pick up some treats and see some cool photos from a photographer I know well (and am married to…that’s the shameless promotion part), and the woman at the counter enticed me with the iced drink, brewed and steeped 24 hours with Spella Roast Coffee, which I had not yet tried. I am hooked, both on the method and Spella’s amazingly smooth coffee.

I followed up with Alma proprietor Sarah Hart to find out more about this wondrous refreshment. Check out the interview below — and definitely stop by for an iced coffee at Alma this summer or follow Sarah’s at-home instructions.

Q: I’ve heard of cold-press olive oil, but never coffee. Is it a new method and where did you hear about it?

A: I don’t think it is very new. Andrea Spella, who roasts our coffee, suggested we do it for summer drinks and so we did. It is really easy and so flavorful there is no good reason not to, other than the fact that we drink it up ourselves! It is at all the good coffee shops. I think Stumptown is even bottling a cold brew.

Q: Maybe you could give a nuts-and-bolts description of cold-press coffee — what equipment do you need, what kind of coffee, how much time, can you do it at home?

A: We use a cold-press coffee system made by a company called “Toddy” and essentially you just layer ground up coffee with cold water and let it sit for 10 + hours and then strain it. The toddy makes it easy because it comes with filters but you can easily do it at home with mason jars, a sieve and cheese cloth. Here are directions from the smitten kitchen:
http://smittenkitchen.com/2008/08/cold-brewed-iced-coffee/

Q: Is it best served cold over ice? I loved it that way, but was curious if anyone would ever heat it back up?

A: It is great either way. It is a concentrate so you can add super hot water to it for a hot cup. I do that a lot actually.

Q: How has the response been? Do you serve it year-round?

A: We really just do it in the summer. For an iced coffee alternative.

Q: Do you sneak any chocolate into the coffee? (It was so smooth and rich.)

A: No chocolate snuck in there (though it is good with a little dark chocolate on the side…).

Q: Anything else to share?

A: Nope, except that if you usually like your iced coffee sweet (I do, though I like hot coffee with just cream), I urge you to taste it unsweetened first. Because it doesn’t have the acids, it is so smooth and good on its own you don’t need sugar so much!

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Stumptown, Coava and Midnight Fuel

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Things have been a little quiet on the Coffeepad front, but not for lack of coffee. If anything, Portland coffee has been making news this month and I have been downing the stuff to get through a summer graduate course while holding down a full-time day job.

First, the news. Stumptown Coffee has sold a majority of its company (90%, according to Willamette Week) to a San Franciso-based investment firm. A barista at my favorite Stumptown shop on SE Belmont assured me the company is still a Portland company, and the move will allow Stumptown to expand to other cities, like Chicago. What it means for Portland? Probably nothing for coffee drinkers who don’t care if their coffee roaster is independent and locally owned. Luckily, for those who do, there are plenty of other options – for which we have Stumptown to thank for blazing the trail starting 12 years ago.

In other news, Coava Coffee, the hot trend-setter in the pour-over coffee movement, has launched a new and improved metal filter – the Kone 2nd Generation – for glass Chemex drip coffee pots, and the reviews have been great. Check out the review on Gizmodo, which calls the new version “a more magical metal Kone for brewing coffee.” Good thing I held off on buying my own Kone filter recently — new model, here we come.

In the meantime, as coffee has fueled some late night studies recently, I’ve conducted a bit of a home-brewed taste test with: Courier, Ristretto, Heart and Caffe Vita. Right now, Courier is in the lead for a nice-tasting, smooth-with-just-a-touch-of tang after-dinner espresso.

Portland Blind Cafe returns June 2-4 with Unseen Beans

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Last fall, I wrote about the Portland Blind Cafe, billed as “mind-bending, heart-opening” dining event in pitch blackness. Designed to show the seeing public what it’s like to be blind and to rely on others, the event is coming back for a third time over the weekend of June 2, 3, and 4 at the Tabor Space, 5441 SE Belmont.

There are a couple things that are intriguing about Portland Blind Cafe 3. One, the idea is not just to raise awareness for the blind, but also to create an experience that brings people together through food and music in total darkness. Second, from a coffee perspective, it’s fascinating that one of the main folks behind the Blind Cafe concept is a blind coffee roaster from Boulder, Colorado, and his Unseen Beans Coffee plays a prominent role in the evening meal. According to the cafe’s website, roaster Gerry Leary travels around the world sharing his personal experience and leading a discussion in the dark with the audience at the events.

To find out more about Portland Blind Cafe 3, purchase tickets or hear first-hand accounts of what it’s like to dine in the dark, visit: http://www.theblindcafe.com/portland-blind-cafe.htm

Caffe Vita roasted-coffee a welcome addition on NE Alberta Street

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I was about 11 years old the first time I ventured from my native Portland north to Seattle. The 1978 King Tut exhibit at the Seattle Center was the occasion, but what remains one of my most vivid memories of the trip was the white-haired lady Sonics fan who got in my face about the Blazer pin I was wearing and her claim that Portland was the inferior city. Happily, I wasn’t scarred by the experience with the rabid fan, as much as puzzled as to why a woman in her 70s would pick on a child, and grew up to enjoy my yearly escapes to the Emerald City.

As might be expected in a coffee-swilling household, our family’s meanderings around Seattle’s neighborhoods include an inordinate amount of time in coffee shops, and a few years back, we discovered one of Seattle’s own independent coffee roasters — Caffe Vita — which we treat ourselves to now on every visit north. Of course, there are plenty of Portland roasters to fill our fair city’s cafes, and many good ones at that, but Caffe Vita’s expansion into Portland has been a welcome addition. Take that, white-haired lady.

Notes on Caffe Vita…

Location: Vita has five locations in Seattle, half of which I’ve had the pleasure of visiting, one in Olympia and a new shop here in Portland on 2909 NE Alberta, which opened in the Fall of 2010 in the old Concordia Coffeehouse. If you aren’t near their branded shop further up the street, Caffe Vita is now the coffee of choice served at Random Order (1800 NE Alberta), and it goes superbly with their award-winning pies.

Coffee: Caffe Vita coffee roasts are exactly how I like them: rich, smooth, hints of varying influencing flavors and not too bitter. They offer several organic, farm direct beans and source their coffee from all over the world. I really have never had a cup of Vita coffee, in Portland, Olympia or Seattle, that I didn’t enjoy.

Cool stuff: I’m not sure if Caffe Vita’s icon is a court jester or not, but whatever it is, it lends a fun, whimsical look to the brand. To kick off the year, Caffe Vita on Alberta ran a fun little promotion called Free Coffee Fridays for a month or two. Hey, it was enough to get me over to check out the new digs and brew, and it attracted the attention of many foodie bloggers and writers in town during the campaign. Founded in 1995, Caffe Vita does a ton of really cool community partnerships, but one of the coolest projects here in Portland is Caffe Vita’s collaboration with p:ear, the homeless youth mentoring organization, to provide an 8-week course in all things “barista.” In fact, they call it the p:ear barista school.

Not so cool: The Portland cafe, while spacious and airy, could use a new couch or two. The last I looked, this orange thing from the previous Concordia shop was still taking up a corner of the shop. Maybe Caffe Vita’s 1005 E. Pike Street location in Capitol Hill can give the new Portland cafe a primer on interior design.

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Time for a new brew at Coffee Time

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I started this blog because I frequent Portland’s coffeehouses and enjoy trying new blends and brews of independently roasted coffee. For the most part, I am a big fan of our city’s coffee scene and the variety of coffees available for consumption. But every once in a blue moon, there’s a cup of Joe that sticks out not because of how great it tastes, but rather the opposite .

Now being more of a coffee-drinking fan than an expert in the art of bean-roasting, I have to admit I don’t know if it’s the roasting or the brewing that ultimately results in a bad cup of coffee. But sadly, on a recent trip to Coffee Time, an-always-bustling coffeehouse that is one of the few, if not the only, cafes to stick around on NW 21st Ave., the coffee was bitter and burnt beyond drinking, an experience that’s not entirely atypical in the years I’ve been stopping by.

Notes on Coffee Time…

Location: Founded in 1994 and according to its website under new ownership since 2005, Coffee Time is located at 712 NW 21st, just a block away from Cinema 21. In fact, that’s how we came to know and love Coffee Time in the late 1990s. Without a TV, our entertainment consisted of the independent and foreign movies playing nightly at Cinema 21. Before or after a show, we’d grab a coffee, which even in those days wasn’t the best in the world but could get you through a late-night showing. Coffee Time is great for early birds and night owls, opening at 6:30 a.m. and closing at 2:30 a.m.

Coffee: In the old days of Coffee Time, I am not sure what brand they sold, but the cappuccinos they served always reminded me of the kind I used to get when teaching English in Eastern Europe — slightly bitter coffee topped with foam and a generous amount of cinnamon. On a visit at the beginning of the year, my coffee arrived so burnt-tasting, it had to be tossed. According to Coffee Time, they serve specially roasted light and dark roasts of the Panache blend, from Portland’s own Coffee Bean International, the folks behind the Public Coffee Domain coffeehouse that has gotten such great reviews and I’m hoping to visit soon. Not sure what’s gone wrong at Coffee Time, but it could be time to check the coffee machine, the beans or something.

Cool stuff: Despite the coffee, Coffee Time is an awesome place to hang out, chat, read and study. The place attracts loads of students, by the looks of the study groups that converge, as well as neighbors and passers-by. On a cool, damp day in Portland, there’s nothing better than getting a warm drink (preferably tea) and sitting outside on the sidewalk under the heated lamps. Or if you like the coziness of a cave, you can find a very private booth in the very private backroom.

Not so cool: ‘Nuff said.

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