Portland - Coffee

While I'm sure that some folks (especially those in Seattle and in Chicago) would argue, I think most of us would agree that Portland has had a special role in the high end of (what I'd call artisan) coffee in the US.

Many of us would argue that Portland was the driving force for artisan coffee over the past 5 or more years.

I've always wondered, "why Portland?"
I mean.... it's kind of weird for such an obscure town to have such an out-of-scale impact.
I've run through all sorts of theories - but in retrospect I think I was simply too close to the situation to see the realities.
Now that I've been gone from Portland and gone from coffee for a while - I think I have more perspective. And a recent trip up there (I think) has kind of proven the point.
I think I'm starting to figure it out.

So... why Portland.

To explain I'm going to tell a couple of stories first.

The first night I was there we were wrapping up late dinner at Biwa and it was suggest we go check out Tommy Habetz' new place Bunk Bar. Tommy is a bad-ass cook and chef who's run a couple of my favorite kitchens in Portland. He's the kind of guy who pretty much could be cooking anywhere and doing anything. When I asked a little more about Bunk Bar I was told that it's a bar where they have a walk up window that sells sandwiches. A little confused but intrigued I said this sounded good and off we went. Late night, bar, waterfront, packed with a mix of hipsters and folks just out drinking... you can imagine the scene. And sure enough, walk up window with a sandwich menu. But OMFG the sandwich. Pork Belly Lettuce and Tomato. The sort of BLT that the gods eat when they're hanging out on Mt Olympus. A sort of Elizabethan ideal of the BLT.

The second day I was there we decided to grab a beer after lunch and went by Apex. Apex is a beer bar. And that's all. It's clean and airy and open. Their beer menu is insane - some sort of madman is curating that list because it's just not normal. Your average person (someone who is not a beer fanatic) would be entirely confused and might not even realize that the place was serving beer. There were beers from everywhere - including a beer from the Bay Area that I can't find on tap here. In San Francisco. The lines were clean, the bartender knowledgable - and the beer was about 2/3 or 1/2 what I'd pay for it here.

These are both successful businesses.
As are other places in Portland like Pok Pok (incredible thai food without the usual standards like Pad Thai and with half the seating outside in a shed) and Le Pigeon (where they're likely to play Ramones in the dining room and serve the best beef bourguignon in the US).

These are places that do things that seem crazy at a business level. That make no sense. That violate some of the things we assume are business rules. And yet they're successful.

It's clear there is a pattern here.
Things are working in Portland that we all think shouldn't work.

So the question becomes... is Portland just different? Do the rules not apply to Portland? Or are we wrong about the rules?

This last trip made me realize something.
Some of these crazy ideas fail - even in Portland.
But Portland is the kind of safe place where you can still try the crazy ideas. Portland is the place that says "rules are bullshit - do what you want to."
The people in Portland don't judge if the idea is crazy - they just try it and see if they like it. They've got a sort of indy / DIY thing going on that's deeply embedded in the culture there.
So there is a kind of "why the fuck not" attitude there that allows (and even encourages) people to try crazy shit.

Plus... it's cheap there so there isn't so much financial risk.

But... none of this says that the rules simply don't apply to Portland.
It's simply that Portland is a really great petri dish.

So from this - it's hard not to conclude that, in fact, the rules do apply to Portland and Portland is where we're figuring out that some of what we think are rules are lies.

And that is why Portland is so important to coffee in the US. Because 10 years ago all of us in coffee were following the rules. And the rules were 75% lies. But we didn't know that. We were blind. But there were some crazy people in Portland who either didn't know the rules or didn't care about the rules. And now we all know that most of those rules were bullshit. And freed from those rules - coffee in the US has exploded.

It's no shock that the paid shills for traditional coffee are out in force saying that what we're all doing is wrong (and evil). Just as it's no shock that we're angry at them for lying to us for so long.

And for that... we own a debt of gratitude not just for all the people who've ignored these rules - but also to that crazy petri dish that we call Portland for allowing us to experiment and discover.

Personally... I can't wait to see what Portland spits out next!!!


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jeremybb said...


No doubt about it, Portland has something special that you can see in their coffee, their beer, and their food. I suspect you're closer to the mark when you say "culture" and the attitude towards rules, than something like cheapness (or we'd see it start in Omaha NE).

I found this essay a couple of years ago. It makes some really interesting observations about the different characters that have emerged in different world cities, and speculates on the reasons why. I don't recall it mentioning Portland, but it probably should for the reasons you describe:


Just Jenn said...

Please don't forget it rains here... a lot. We're indoors, and what's better to do indoors for nine months out of the year but eat, drink and be merry? Plus - coffee is an anti-depressent and rain clouds can be a serious depressant. If you're going to imbibe that much caffeine it should be fantastic tasting. So yeah, there's the whole rule breaking thing but there's so much more to it too.

Thompson Owen said...

Nice post, and helps me understand the Portland dynamic a bit. One thing that rings true in my mind, knowing as little as I do about Portland -- well, friends and family live there but -- "Plus... it's cheap there so there isn't so much financial risk." I mean, you need the idea, and you need the collective will of people to try out your idea once you put it out there. But cost in places like the Bay Area have made ideas a do or die deal - you can't just "try something out" without doing serious financial harm to yourself and your family and everyone else who chips in, and that doesn't go away in a year or two after an idea fails. The 70s in SF seemed like the time. Now it is somewhat of a miracle anything happens at all. It does, thankfully.

chris said...

I think it's the synergy of the financial realities and the tight-knit and supportive community. Just one wouldn't be enough (you could always open a coffee business in Detroit... it's cheaper than Portland).