Portland’s own “coffee experience”

So, on the recommendation of both locals and online guides, I had to check out Stumptown Coffee Roasters.  Stumptown bills itself as Portland’s answer to Starbucks, a distinctly local, independent-minded coffee chain for the vociferously free-thinking Portlanders.

I stopped by the downtown location at 128 SW 3rd St. for its proximity to Powell’s Books, which I planned on hitting up later in the afternoon.  By coffee shop standards, the place is ginormous.  The front is floor to ceiling windows and the shop extends back in a cavernous expanse of polished concrete floors, exposed brick walls, and 20ft ceilings with open duct work and dangling illuminated globes.  There is a long bar, reminiscent of a mid-century diner (complete with wood veneers and stainless steel top.)  There are actually 7 or 8 bar stools and the staff behind the counter are friendly enough that it would be an acceptable place to enjoy a cup of coffee and conversation on occasion.  Ironically, for such a huge space, there isn’t a ton of seating, just a row of utilitarian tables opposite the bar and two low-slung ikea sofas in the back.  The overall impression is one of excessive amounts of open space, not ugly but somehow underutilized.

Of particular interest to me was a dj booth in the back corner.  There were two turntables and a selection of records on a shelf behind the booth, and I wonder what kind of atmosphere this place has on a Friday or Saturday night.  The shop is only a block and a half off of Stark St, Portland’s center of LGBT life, and I suspect it is a draw for pre-club activities.  Perhaps all the open space is to accommodate larger crowds on the weekends?

The menu here is simple and only slightly pretentious.  Double shots of espresso are served in 8 or 9 different ways, including macchiato, con panna, and free-poured cappucino and lattes.  I witnessed a fair amount of artistry in the free pour; the barista made an effort to “design” hearts or swirls in the foam on his hot drinks.  My request for iced espresso was met with surprise, and there was some question over which type of cup it should be served in.   I realize that iced espresso is a little less than traditional, but it shouldn’t be so foreign as to cause consternation over glassware.  There was also a decent selection of loose leaf teas to choose from, and based on the coffee, I could forsee myself enjoying tea here more often than coffee or espresso.

As for the coffee itself, the espresso was delivered with a very high ratio of crema.  It was so frothy, even iced, that it almost looked like milk had been added.  I am a fan of frothy espresso, so this was a pleasant surprise.  Of course, I think it was also because the barista had a habit of pulling 3/4 shots.  I know that a 3/4 shot is “best” for maintaining the integrity of the espresso flavor, but over the course of four shots, I end up with the equivalent of a triple and not the quad I had ordered.

Besides, this espresso could have used some mellowing.  The flavor was so piquant, it tasted like a lemon had been squeezed into it!  It was beyond the citrus accents of most Latin American coffees; this espresso was downright tangy.  I do like a splash of milk with my espresso to counteract any lingering acidity, but I went for the more heavy-duty cream to bring this roast down to palatable levels.  After my tongue got over the initial shock, I was able to see why this could become an acquired taste.  However, I won’t be doing any acquiring myself.

This is in part because the espresso was not to my taste but more so because Stumptown is a uniquely Portland coffee house, and I just don’t see them expanding far beyond the PDX any time real soon.  Portland is a city that revels in its uniqueness and even demands individuality from both its inhabitants and its businesses.  It’s easy to see why Stumptown has found an audience here: it’s coffee as unusual as the city that drinks it.  However, it may be a little too unusual for the less risque palates of everywhere else.  Besides, if everyone started drinking Stumptown coffee, than it wouldn’t be “Portland’s own” anymore.  Right now, Stumptown is a Portland only creation. . .and that is exactly how Portland likes it.


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