Thursday, July 26, 2007

Coffeehouse Northwest, Portland

Portland’s coffee culture is serious, and Stumptown Coffee Roasters is its mainstay. Stumptown operates a handful of Dwell­ified cafés and roasts its own beans which have won awards from such wonky outfits as Roast Magazine. By contrast, Starbucks shops are present in the high-rent, high-traffic corridors, but appear to serve only Portland’s small population of automatons.

I visited the newest Stumptown branch, near the famous Powell’s bookshop. For all of Portland’s alleged progressivism, a labor union was striking in the rain against Stumptown’s landlord for what it alleged were poor wages and benefits, but inside, with Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man on the sound system, the customers offered only impolite jokes and indifference while awaiting their latte art. I didn’t expect anyone to march in the rain, but at least feign some interest. (My own excuse is that I am a heinous sell-out reduced to seeking $2 fancy coffee and then blogging about it.)

There must be at least one independent café on every commercial block in Portland, and those with any pretense to quality use the Stumptown beans, which the locals prize as much as they do their Willamette Valley pinot noir. Among this bunch is Coffeehouse Northwest, located on Burnside Street between the 21st/23rd avenue corridors and downtown.

Coffeehouse Northwest is a small café in a charming old brick building and has coffeeshop-brown wood floors and bad local art on the walls with comfortable, but not too cozy chairs and tables conducive to conversation, reading, and writing. The sound system, administered by its highly tattooed employees-cum-aspiring musicians, is vintage rock 'n' roll.

The baristas at Coffeehouse Northwest might strike Al Yeganeh as anal. They will not serve a shot of espresso unless they have tasted one first due to the pernicious threat of minute interior atmospheric change on the grind which they treat as so constant and subtle as to be Heisenbergian in nature. The manager even commented that after serving consistent, great espresso on a recent Tuesday morning, the atmosphere abruptly changed at 10:30, rendering the grind imperfect and him on the verge of tears.

Coffeehouse Northwest serves fresh Stumptown beans. The lead barista explained that the beans are best on the fourth and fifth days after roasting, with contrasting flavors on each day. After that, the espresso tends, with some exceptions, not to be potable.

I fortuitously visited on the fourth day after roasting and the barista served up one of the more unorthodox espressos I have ever seen. A neat, dime-sized circle of espresso shimmered from the center of the cup, surrounded by the coffee's crema, a concentric circle of dark cappuccino-style foam around the perimeter. (Usually, the crema covers the entire contents of the cup.)

This fourth-day espresso was browner than it was black and had a soft delicious taste that, in the Coffeehouse Northwest spectrum (and lexicon), was closer to caramel or a tawny port than chocolate. I returned the next day of course to sample the fifth day espresso, which was blacker in color and had the same peculiar crema but much more of the darker “chocolate” flavor. It was just as delicious, but I have to say, if given the choice between the four or the five, I’d take the four.

Coffeehouse Northwest
1951 West Burnside Street


(503) 248-2133

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