Thoughts from the 2005 USBC - Part Three

And finally, here is the third in my three part series focusing on the 2005 USBC. I figure that I might as well make some general (and specific) comments on the state of espresso in Seattle.

I doubt I’m going to offend anyone with this (which is a relief after the previous two bits). Regardless, please understand that what I’m writing here is not only just my own, personal, opinion on things but that it’s entirely not personal and not directed at any person or people.

Seattle Espresso – tasting notes and opinions

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Seattle drinking coffee in the past. But it’s been a while, so I thought I’d do my best to check out some of the past favorite haunts as well as some other places I’d not been to before. So here we go…

Hines Public Market Coffee – The first night we were in Seattle there was a party thrown by Stumptown and Intelligentsia at Hines. Everyone was there. It was so cool to catch up to folks I’d spent time with in Iceland, others from previous events or visits. People were generally in great spirits, beer was provided by Elysian, there was sushi and shots were flowing from the mighty five group (with it’s newly installed PID system). Super fun – especially after the incredibly high quality tequila made its appearance. I talked to Bronwen for a bit and discovered that she would we working the next morning – so I made immediate plans to be there. Woke up, caught a cab out to Hines.
First… some general thoughts on the feel, vibe… the place that is Hines. I’m sure all of you have a local mellow and laid back coffee bar with thrift store furniture and lots of neighborhood regulars. Well… imagine the ultimate dream version of that experience and you have Hines. It’s just like your neighborhood coffee bar, but with a Probat in the corner and a 5 group Linea and trophies and certificates from competitions on the walls and an amazing collection of demitasses from all over the world. It’s just like your neighborhood coffee bar, but Bronwen is pulling incredibly smooth and sweet shots that have perfect fruit high tones and the intertwined spice to balance it all out. This is not “shock and awe” espresso. It’s complicated. It’s complex. It’s challenging and interesting. It’s not a chocolate bomb, it’s not intense or “extreme.” It’s not a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup in a demitasse. I love it. This is espresso for people who love coffee. And this is a coffee bar for people who love espresso.

Lighthouse Coffee Roasters – The second night, there was a big dinner party with hilarity and revelry aplenty. Part way through the evening (well before the bar hopping or the disco dancing) a plan was hatched to meet the next morning at Lighthouse for a traditional Sunday AM coffee and newspaper session. Needless to say, the next morning it turned out that 75% of those who were planning to join up were still in bed nursing hangovers for the second straight morning. So it was just Bronwen, Valerie and I. Walking into Lighthouse was weird. It was like entering a parallel universe where Stumptown was still just the Division location and I didn’t know anyone there. Like traveling back in time.
Like Hines, this is another neighborhood bar from your dreams. It’s a little less mellow and funky than Hines but still super welcoming and obviously a part of the neighborhood it’s in. The espresso was good, but far less consistent and spot-on than the shots at Hines. Bronwen’s drink was excellent, mine a bit less good and a bit unevenly extracted and Valerie’s was the weakest – just sneaking over the “acceptable” bar. The espresso itself was light and fruity, with some nice spice and a hint of brown sugar in the finish. This was a soft espresso, unthreatening and simple. Sitting here at the bar, drinking espresso and chatting with the baristas while reading the Sunday New York Times – everything felt just right. This is one of those coffee bars that is homey and is about that feeling of belonging.

Espresso Vivace – After leaving Lighthouse we decided to take a run over to Vivace as Valerie had never been there. Our plan was to hit them up and then Victrola, but as it turned out we ran out of time (d’oh) and were not able to get to Victrola (next time – I promise). Vivace is such a class act. David Schomer has built a pretty amazing business there. They’ve replaced their two suped-up Mistrals with two Synesso machines, but otherwise it’s all much the same. Same staff, same layout, same consistently heavy business. Nice. The shots were excellent.
David’s espresso is somewhat controversial. There are people (like me) who really like it, and then there are people (including many who I really respect) who don’t like it at all. On this day the espresso was very very sweet and caramel toned, with a thick and syrupy mouthfeel. There was just the hint of brightness to give it some balance and in the body there was a touch of woodsy funk. To be honest, it tasted exactly like it did from the Mistrals, but that’s another topic. Valerie and Bronwen both had cappuccinos, and while the espresso was just like mine, the milk was a bit under-stretched and as a result not quite sweet enough and created a thinner mouthfeel than one would desire. Still, a great experience again. Valerie felt that this was her favorite space of the three and commented that it was the most European of the three.

We also hit a few other places that will go unnamed and un-reviewed. I feel like I’ve been negative enough of late as it is.

Some final thoughts. I recently made a comment wondering if Portland is replacing Seattle as the nexus for US coffee. This visit brought back the differences to me in a very clear way. First of all – Seattle is a city; Portland is a town – and the coffee businesses in each place reflect this. Seattle has incredible neighborhood coffee bars – many of which roast their own beans. There are far more good coffee bars in Seattle than there are in Portland (which makes sense given their different sizes). For coffee freaks, there is no dominant coffee business in Seattle (and no, for us Starbucks doesn’t count). Everyone has a personal favorite, they all have different styles and flavours, so our choices can match our preferences and tastes. In Portland, it’s all about Stumptown. Of the top 7 coffee bars in Portland, 3 of them are Stumptown locations and the other 4 use Stumptown coffees. In Seattle, there is (mostly friendly) competition that pushes people forward. There is a far larger community. And there is a resulting sense of the role of ‘barista’ that is wonderful. In Portland, Stumptown seems to be really pushing things by themselves. The community is very small and circles around a couple places and people. And there doesn’t seem to be a widespread understanding within the community of the role of ‘barista.’ End of the day… Seattle is still the King, but Portland is the Punk Rock Ace of Spades.

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