Coffee isn’t just a beverage in Oregon. It’s a culture. That much is clear by the more than 200 specialty coffee shops and micro-roasters throughout the state, including 80 roasters in Portland alone.
Great coffee shops are nothing new, but what has sprung up in the past two decades or so is what’s known as the “third-wave” movement: viewing coffee not as a commodity but as an artisan product, like wine. For baristas, tastemakers and enthusiasts, it’s been a renaissance of innovation in sourcing, roasting and blending methods as they strive for the highest quality flavor, variety and sustainable labor practices.
What’s driven the third wave? Sarah Allen, editor and cofounder of the Portland-based Barista Magazine, says the coffee industry mirrors the rise of the state’s food culture and exceptional dining.
Compared to other West Coast cities in the early 2000s, Portland “was one of the few places you could afford to take a risk, lease property, try something that might seem crazy,” Allen says. “The really good coffee people are all foodies — they hang out with bartenders and chefs; they’re part of the same tribe.”
Much the same way as Oregon’s wine and craft brewing industry, the state’s expertise in specialty coffee spread thanks to the culture of collaboration and support, more than competition.
So says Matt Milletto, who runs the Portland-based American Barista & Coffee School with his father, and mentors young entrepreneurs in everything from roasting to sourcing. “We’ve been helping people open coffee bars for 20 years,” he says.
In 2009, Milletto founded Water Avenue Coffee, which started differentiating itself by focusing on their employees. They receive profit shares, health insurance, competitive wages and after a year’s work get to travel to the company’s direct-trade coffee farms — mostly in Central America — to see the impact on those communities.
Now, part of the appeal to specialty coffee drinkers is the pride they take in knowing that in most cases, they’re paying more for their cup of coffee to support fair labor practices in their local economy and at the farms abroad.
“Oregon has truly pioneered specialty coffee [in the U.S.],” Milletto says. “It’s been very organic, authentic growth … There are lots of great Oregon coffee companies old and new that have taken a lot of pride in their integrity and transparency.”
The industry created the Oregon Coffee Board in 2014 to help unite the industry and celebrate the great coffee throughout the state. In the meantime, here are a few places to find a great cup:
Sip your way through the scene with Third Wave Coffee Tours — which offers several tours including “A Streetcar Named Delicious,” a three-hour walking tour through downtown, the Pearl District and the Central Eastside that includes visits to five micro-roasters to learn about the brewing methods and ends with a cupping (tasting) experience. The company also offers a donut and coffee tour, and a 5-mile running tour that ends with a well-earned cup of coffee. While in Portland, don’t miss stopping at Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Coava Coffee, Nossa Familia Coffee, Ristretto Roasters, and Dapper & Wise.
Mt. Hood & Columbia River Gorge
For the team at Stoked Roasters in Hood River, coffee is life. The company launched in 2014 with a team of competitive athletes and outdoor enthusiasts — ultra-runners, ultra-cyclists, triathletes, mountain bikers, climbers, kiteboarders, skiiers, snowboarders and more. Their goal is to bring their high-quality organic coffee — including a house-blend espresso, single-origin espressos, seasonal blends (FallStoked, WinterStoked, etc.) and travel pack (Smoked Stix) — to the masses for fueling up on outdoor adventures. Other caffeine stops in Hood River include Doppio and Ground. From there, it’s worth driving some distance on the Mt. Hood Scenic Byway for a cup from Mt. Hood Roasters in Rhododendron.
Red Horse Coffee Traders in downtown Joseph is a family-owned roaster and cafe with organic, fair-trade beans and a strong commitment to their local community. They’re a one-stop shop with a full breakfast and lunch menu made with local organic ingredients, as well as an extensive tea menu, beer and wine. Sip your espresso with a scone on the outdoor patio with a glorious view of the creek, right outside.
On the Coast, Sleepy Monk Coffee Roasters in Cannon Beach is a well-known, longtime hotspot for fair-trade, organic single-origin roasts. The Adirondacks outside this cozy bungalow cafe — filled with recycled decor — are a perfect outpost for storm watching, sunset gazing and newspaper reading with your favorite latte in hand. Sleepy Monk also collaborates with local artisans, as with the recent release of Sleepy Monk Coffee Brown Ale by Public Coast Brewing, just a mile away.
In Ashland, visit Noble Coffee Roasting, which landed an impressive feat: two of their Ethiopian roasts are finalists in the 2016 Good Food Awards, a national contest with entries selected for their tastiness and commitment to sustainability. Noble’s founders launched the company as a way to experiment with coffee, study its complexities and break it down into approachable ideas for coffee lovers everywhere.
In Eugene, coffee geek and Oregon Duck Brian Sung launched Tailored Coffee Roasters while running another cafe, Brails Espresso — a spin-off of his family’s longtime diner, Brails, in uptown Eugene. While the espresso stand was in the Brails parking lot, he wanted a space large enough to roast small batches of beans on site, in the same place customers could enjoy it. Like most third-wave roasters, he wanted to focus on Scandinavian-style light roasts, which he describes as “sweet, juicy” high-quality coffee. Another Eugene mainstay, The Wandering Goat, honors sustainable practices and serves fresh roasts from its funky cafe in the Whiteaker district. Up north, Caravan Coffee in Newberg offers intimate cupping classes right next to where the ethically sourced beans are roasted.
You may have heard of Sisters Coffee Company — they’ve been around since 1989, when owners Winfield and Joy Durham converted an old cabin into a small coffee roasting business with their first 2-pound roaster and homemade baked goods. In 2005 they rebuilt the cabin into their new building, and in 2011 they opened the sleek two-story Sisters Coffee in Portland’s Pearl District, serving up the same rustic charm. They maintain direct relationships with their farmers in Central America, celebrate the beauty of the Sisters region and sell to more than 200 retailers statewide.