I probably should preface this whole thing by saying all I really know about coffee is that some of it is good and the rest of it is bad. I completely trust that there’s a lot more going on, and that many people know many things about it.
But for the purposes of my morning with Third Wave Coffee Tours of Portland, I was like a point-and-shoot guy being introduced to master photographers: a simple tourist in the sophisticated world of high-end coffee.
Not that anybody associated with Third Wave did anything to make me feel that way. In fact, from the very beginning, Lora Woodruff, who runs several walking tours of the Portland coffee scene every month, was informative, pleasant, hard-working and charming. And having done a tour with her, I think it’s an excellent way to get introduced to the Serious Coffee Scene as well as some of the interesting characters running around Portland.
So, about the name: Basically the first wave of coffee was the crap our parents grew up on. The second wave hit in the 60s, led by Peets and Starbucks, and it left our landscape cluttered with coffee shops cranking out cappuccinos and flavored lattes and better drip coffee. Now comes the third wave, which is all about being very serious about where the coffee comes from, exactly how it’s raised and roasted, and preparing it just the right way using just the right gear at just the right time, using less syrup and making more latte art. In case you didn’t already know it, there’s a national competition for this sort of thing.
For me, all this education started at Case Study Coffee, where Lora met me. She and Tyree, the barista there, took turns telling me all about the world coffee market, the types of coffee, the amazing growth of coffee in America, and the fact that Portland is the second most-caffeinated city in America, with 28 coffee shops per 100,000 people. If I’m doing my math right, I think that means that we have about 300 coffee shops. All I will say about the most-caffeinated city is that our soccer team kicks their soccer team’s ass.
Eventually, Tyree from Case Study showed me the proper technique for a French press, which I previously thought I knew. I didn’t. You grind the beans just so, leaving them a little coarse. You mix the grounds with water at a 17:1 ratio, thus 84 grams of grounds to a press. You add just a little 205-degree water and let it sit for a minute, with gasses escaping. This is called “letting it bloom.” Then you add the rest of the water and let it sit for three minutes.
He told us that a press “yields a viscous, creamy mouth feel.” I experienced it as “good.”
Next up was what I call a pour-over, which Tyree called the percolation method: V60 for ceramic, Chemex for glass. This time we poured some water to pre-heat the ceramic and wash away bits of filter, then let it bloom for 30 seconds, then poured the rest for two and a half minutes – all of which produced a “crisper, brighter, cleaner” coffee. I experienced it as “better.”
And that was the moment my inner coffee door began to open. I had previously asked Tyree whether he could “actually” tell the difference between pressed coffee and pour-over coffee, and he said absolutely. And then, barely a few minutes later, I could, too. And I knew which one I preferred. I decided to go get me a V60, as well as some Ethiopian Grand Cru, whatever that is.
Leaving Case Study, Lora and I headed off into the streets of downtown. She runs three walking tours: the downtown one I was doing (full disclosure: I didn’t pay for this experience), plus one in Northwest and the Pearl, one in Southeast. There’s also a streetcar version. All the schedules are on their website.
Our next stop was a cart called Ole Latte, where Rachel made us her take on the caramel macchiato. Ole Latte does their own roasting, and comes up with some surprising flavor twists, such as rosemary lemon; pine and tart cranberry; and savory pumpkin. We had one with organic caramel syrup and vanilla, plus a little dollop of chocolate sauce on top. It rocked.
Ole Latte also gets points for this idea: the ability for folks to “pay it forward” via s system of “coffee suspensions.” Basically you put up the money for a drink, get yourself a 10% discount, and somebody gets a freebie later.
It was right around here that you’ll notice my notes drop off a bit. For one thing, there’s a lot of information and entertainment on these tours, what with all that Lora knows about coffee and Portland, and all the cool people you find yourself talking to. But I also had a cup or two at home to get started, then some at Case Study, and now a latte at Ole Latte … my mind was starting to hum.
This is also where I began to truly notice how many damn coffee shops there are in downtown Portland! As we walked to our next stop, Lora pointed out two or three places that we wouldn’t be visiting, and by the time we arrive at tiny Courier Coffee, we had probably passed four places and only walked seven blocks.
At Courier, we were greeted by a packed house, the constant sound of shots being pulled, and a sweet little treat called a Canele (CAN-uh-lay) cake – with a cappuccino. I was losing count of the shots I’d consumed at this point.
Courier started as a self-taught roaster doing tiny batches and delivering by bike. They still deliver by bike, and now they have this little shop near Powells. The guy made it clear they don’t do blends, that what we had in our cappuccinos was Columbian, and that after eight days they donate what’s left of the beans to Sisters of the Road and New Avenues for Youth.
Apparently after eight days a roasted bean is past its prime for this level of shop – a fact which would be as obvious to Serious Coffee People as the sun rising in the east. I had no idea, and decided to go home and throw out my Trader Joes can from … whenever I bought it.
I also want to tell you that the Canele cake was ree-dic-ulous, and that their chocolate cookies are made with 72 percent dark chocolate from Ecuador and Guatemalan sea salt.
Okay, we’re hauling ass now, and it’s off to Public Domain on SW Broadway. We had something really good there and learned some more, especially about the local roasting scene and how a lot of people move around from one place to another. Apparently we have quite the roasting scene here in Portland. And dude makes a fine macchiato. Sorry the details were eluding me. What’s that, seven shots now?
Next up: Spella, which used to be a cart and is now a place even smaller than Courier – smaller, as in no tables. At this point, I was starting to really buzz, and the folks in Spella were right there with me. It was like a little three-person comedy show going on in there – which is actually the case most of the times I go on there – and honestly, all I remember was that the barista ladies were cute, the barista dude was a crackup, and they serve something called a Latte Shakerata, the definition of which escaped me. They served us an awesome house-made chai latte.
Okay, now it’s time to get serious: We’re going to Barista on SW 3rd for a cupping. I love Barista, from the days when I rented an office upstairs, but it’s a long way from a comedy scene. Folks are serious about their coffee in there; they are always pulling shots to see if a particular roast is past its prime, or needs little adjustments to things like water temperature or time or whatever. They are also unique in that they pour lots of different roasters.
It’s all way beyond me, but their shots are excellent and served with no attitude at all – unlike one place we visited briefly which I won’t write about here because (A) they get plenty of press, (B) I can’t write about them without bashing their BS aloof attitude, and (C) I only went in there to take a picture of a comical Portland Hipster to send it to my friend in Klamath Falls to show him what we have to deal with up here.
Right, but that isn’t Barista – and we need to settle down, because it’s time for a cupping.
I thought a cupping was basically trying different coffees. Oh hell no. First you grind up about five different kinds of beans and lay them out in the cups, so people can smell them. This is its “fragrance.”
Next you pour the water and let the grounds sit a little.
Now you make another pass and smell again, for its “aroma.”
Next you take a spoon and break the layer of grounds that have floated to the top, and then (apparently this is important) really get in there and smell that.
Then somebody scoops off the top layer of grounds, and then you get to taste the actual coffee. But you spoon off a tiny bit and slurp it. You also make a couple of passes, one when it’s hot and one as it’s cooling, to get the “flavor arc.” Somewhere in here, someone pointed out that sometimes, coffees from Rwanda and Burundi taste like raw potatoes.
At this point, Lora produced some rare coffee from Intelligentsia Coffee, and there was much excitement from the Barista folk about the “Intelli box” and the Chemex they were about to make with it.
But I was done.
I had learned much, had a ton of fun, met cool people, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. But I decided to leave that “Intelli box” to the serious folks.
One the other hand, it must be said that having taken a tour with Third Wave Coffee Tours, I am a little bit more serious about coffee. And I need to eat something.
Find out more about the tours at ThirdWaveCoffeeTours.com.