Photo by Dan Shryock
Coffee in America
The new Starbucks Reserve in Seattle is a roasting palace.
By Sherri Johns
Portland is the coffee hot spot among West Coast hot spots from Vancouver and Seattle to SF and LA. The East Coast is booming with roasters popping up in rural and urban areas of NYC and Brooklyn. Toss in Austin, Tex. and we can map our cross country journey by the coffee we drink.
North America is all about innovation, creativity, and delicious coffee.
Portland is a city of originals which carries over to the café world. Watch the indie absurdist Portlandia TV series for a glimpse. Funky mismatched chairs and tables from thrift stores decorate hipster cafes staffed with attitude-rich baristas and customers who simply stare at their iPhone. Many cafes no longer offer free Wi-Fi to encourage a conversation over coffee.
Design-savvy roasters build their roasting chops on in-store roasters, but also construct parts of their cafes by hand (or at the minimum have a hand in the design).
Cool inspiring elements of nature are detailed and brought inside — reclaimed barn box beams, counter tops of wood from origin countries, white subway tiles on counter facings and backsplash, authentic elements add drama. Simplicity is in. Industrial metals without the sterile feel, open space, polished wood, and rusty beans. Metal and wood play off one another like fire and water.
Serving counters once crammed with equipment are going minimal to be approachable and welcoming. Lower counters afford baristas an opportunity to engage the customer. Open spaces with tall ceilings and a wall of windows, sometimes featuring garage doors are popular. Stairs were once a “no no”, but small lofts are appearing in shops. Coffee shops are loosening their skinny jeans to allow more personality in space.
There is whimsy in the light fixtures, eye catching centerpieces such as pendant lights fashioned of Hario kettles, coffee cups, and cupping spoons. At Portland’s Case Study Coffee where I enjoy a cappuccino there is a crazy light fixture which hangs above the barista. The fixture is either Sputnik or the caffeine molecule with Edison bulbs. I determine it is the caffeine molecule.
Operators are more confident molding their surrounding elements. They are coming from different professions and turning to coffee for fulfilment and bringing their other life’s passions along for the ride. There is a sense of style and freedom in the new designs. No holds barred in the perfect café now, except for high quality coffees.
A Guinness in the morning
Nitro brewed coffee is making appearances on menus everywhere. A little nitro narrative: Take a delicious brewed coffee or toddy and pull it through a tap infusing it with nitrogen to get a rich, dense, effervescent layered appearance and a smack of coffee foam. It is refreshing.
Cold brew toddy without the fizz is still going strong, served over ice in mason jars. Cold brew, in growlers, are available for take away. Craft beer brewers and coffee roasters are getting together in many cities where they have discovered cocktails, coffee and espresso meld well. Check out the Anvil Bar in Austin.
Bottled coffee is now produced in house. You can buy a Cony container, take home a six pack to go, or fill a growler.
Canned and cold coffee is very popular in Japan, last year Ito En introduced Jay Street Coffee in bottles in the states.
Starbucks brought us the Frappuccino, which ultimately led to the carton, bottle, and now growlers of exceptionally fine coffee by the cup.
Tableside, coffee brewed especially for you is a trend. Cafés are offering single origin hand drip by the cup coffees, espresso “SOS” is still going strong with a designer flair representing the personalities of the owners. And why not?
Cascara, made from the sweet dried coffee cherry fruit, served either as a hot beverage or cold concentrate on ice, is a beautiful transparent red hue full of antioxidants and vitamin C. And the best part, this is a byproduct of coffee processing which for years simply found its way back into the soil as compost or as food in the worm beds on coffee farms.
Farm designated coffees, processed designated coffees, transparency and extended relationships resulting in direct trade are growing. Even the “big guys” are getting down to earth with hands on, syphon, craft coffee. Starbucks just paid the highest price ever for the first place Brazil Natural Cup of Excellence coffee at auction. What probably amounts to a drop in the ocean of coffee for Starbucks, is a huge step for them and for the winning Brazil farmer. America’s proximity to Central and South America encourages roasters to band together to visit origin, hook up with their importer, and go climb a coffee mountain.
Slow bar, tasting bars, drip brew are all becoming more sophisticated. There has always been great coffee around, but you had to work to find it. The options are greater now. New cafes not only have a sense of pride but purpose in returning to the community of coffee.
Consider Little Italy in New York and SF initially serving Old World espresso. The 1950s and 1960s brought beat era poetry readings to underground coffee houses in San Francisco.
The 1970s freed home brewing from burnt percolators to drip and French press. A hundred years ago there were roasters in every town. They faded away for 50 years. Now micro roasters abound. The non-profit PDX Roasters (www.pdxroasters.com), as an online service, lists 60 in Portland alone. Street vendors, farmers markets, garages, storerooms, houses, and VW Buses can all serve a V-60 which rocks our world in its simplicity and pureness.
Americans are innovators, no holds barred and will try anything. We are raised without barriers and believe in our hearts anything is possible in life and in coffee. That’s not to say innovation does not come from elsewhere but as North Americans, we are the melting pot and we never say never.
Even auxiliary items of innovation often come from North American ingenuity. In-counter pitcher rinsers, tamper designs, (thank you Reg Barber), blenders, brewers, mixes, syrups.
Someone in Guatemala the other day asked me how we do what we do in coffee, I said “we just do it.”
Then I realized what a cliché that was coming from Portland, home of Nike, and we both laughed.
But I guess it is true.