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Legit Coffee

The quest for enlightenment through coffee.

Tag Archives: stumptown

NathanSome years ago Starbucks had become such a behemoth that competing locations opened across the street from each other in lower Manhattan, and so it was that an older couple from a foreign country that escapes memory started “Mud Street Coffee” with the aim of taking back coffee from the Behemoth from the Upper Left. (By which I mean Starbucks, which is from the Northwest.)

Too bad street coffee sucks.

Last week found me in New York for work — and lots of “more please I’m jet lagged” espresso. I took the opportunity to investigate what appears to be a successful Northwest reinvasion, albeit a more understated, high quality type kind of reinvasion, featuring Seattle’s Caffe Vita and Portland’s Stumptown Coffee Roasters.

Day one had me headed to the Stumptown at the Ace Hotel (another new Portland institution) at 29th and Broadway, partly as a practical matter. My hotel was in midtown, and not having been in the city in ten years, I didn’t feel like dealing with the subways just yet.

The three-year old shop was a bit of a mixed bag for me, though possibly because the the vibe of the place — a strange blend of midtown suits and Portland hip, all in a bit of a physically awkward space that forced patrons to go into the hotel to sit down — wasn’t for me. On my first endeavor, I had a cappuccino with solid espresso but a thick layer of dense, overly sweet frothiness on top that took me by surprise. Subsequent macchiatos were smooth with a touch of chocolate, as they should be. Readers may be aware that I’m not a huge fan of Stumptown, but for those that are, I think you’ll be reasonably satisfied.

A slightly-out-of-focus Stumptown cappuccino in the lobby of the Ace Hotel.

By day two, I had a jones for some serious Seattle espresso — so much so that I took a cab to the brand-new Caffe Vita in SoHo, effectively paying thirty dollars for a cappuccino. My enthusiasm paid off. Low and behold, I walked in and there were Kelsey and John from Vita’s original Capitol Hill store, along with a roaster in the back of their tiny little shop on Ludlow Street. Kelsey pulled a great shot that to me was classic Vita: sharp, a touch sweet, and pleasantly strong. They’ve got a little bit to work out between the roasting, the new machine, and a spiffy new foaming tip, but they’re off to a good start. (Full disclosure: I got a couple free shots, apparently because Kelsey recognized me from Seattle. Also another barista hugged me. So I may be biased.)

Kelsey preparing espresso at the new SoHo Caffe Vita. Note roaster in the background.

The shop is pretty great, too. It’s tucked away on a side street a few blocks south of Houston Street — New Yorkers can take the M line to Delancey Street — and tiny, but with a cool little bar and a few seats in the window.

The view from Ludlow Street. Who is that strange man slouching in a three-piece suit?

Now, in fairness to Mud, I got it at some shop in the East Village where it had been sitting in a too-hot carafe for a while, and I had just come from Vita, so I was probably pretty predisposed against anything other than my one of my top-three favorite espressos in the world.

So, the Northwest may be taking over again, but before I close, I want to give a shout out to Birch Cafe in midtown, where I had a great latte with lunch Friday, and to the few other new shops that look like they’re giving serious coffee a go in The Big Apple. Keep it up!

P.S. Kelsey reports that the Echo Park, Los Angeles, Caffe Vita is due to open in six months or so! Hurray!

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JaKeEveryone knows that coffee comes from beans. But how many times have you asked yourself where the beans come from? There are crazed coffee wizards who will tell you that beans from different places have distinct flavors and personalities. In fact, we will be discussing that very thing quite soon. Let’s not get too psycho-analytical over the poor coffee beans just yet, though.

(After all, sometimes a “child sized white chocolate mocha frappuccino light blended coffee with an extra shot of espresso, one pump of sugar free raspberry flavoring, and no whipped cream on top” is just a “child sized white chocolate mocha frappuccino light blended coffee with an extra shot of espresso, one pump of sugar free raspberry flavoring, and no whipped cream on top”, Dr. Freud!)

Just like people, the regions coffees come from have a significant impact on how they turn out. What better way to get to know those beans than to study up on where they came from.

The roasters and coffee shamans of Stumptown Coffee have given us a great boon in this endeavor by putting together amazing vignettes about the far off lands where they get their beans and how coffee builds the culture of those areas. So far, they have videos from Kenya and Colombia, with more on the way. Why not take some time and get educated while you enjoy your next cup? It is, afterall, the best way to become a great cupper. (No, that was NOT a Freudian sip!)

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NathanFive days, three cities, six-plus shops: Thursday through Monday; Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland; Intelligentsia, Ritual, Four Barrel, Stumptown, and Oblique. In that time, some of the best espresso I’ve had, of the very worst I’ve ever had, and a few really disappointing cups from supposedly reputable cafes. Let’s go!

Warning: I get a bit snarky. Probably a byproduct of the fact I’m reviewing from memory six coffee shops sampled over the course of five days and three (so far) flights up and down the West Coast. Just so you know.

LA and San Francisco, Round One The quest began Thursday with Black Cat latte at Intelligentsia — while some of their offerings aren’t so great in lattes, Black Cat is generally robust enough to satisfy me — and continued with another latte the next morning at Ritual Coffee Roasters in San Francisco. Both were competent, but then things took a turn. I had loaned a laptop charger to someone in need, who later bought me a cup of coffee. She didn’t ask what I wanted, but whatever it was, it was awfully light-bodied, to the point of being thin. Early on it had a pleasant-enough, citrusy taste that I sometimes like, but it went bitter so fast that I had to get rid of it. Not a good sign, Ritual.

Still, the coffee banshees didn’t start screaming until my friend Jim and I went to “it” roaster Four Barrel, residing just blocks from Ritual in San Francisco’s Mission District. Jim and I were horrified to find our macchiatos sour and flat, without any real flavor at all. Four Barrel, you blew it. Badly. I have to actively prevent myself from writing expletives. I’ve had to delete some that I did write down.

Also, your decor. You’re really trying too hard. Mounted boars’ heads? Really?

San Francisco redeemed itself with a late-night trip to Philz, an older-school kind of place with something like 19 coffees on the menu. It being late night, I had their Swiss water decaf: medium bodied, slightly chocolatey sweet, just how I like it. The opposite of the vibe at Four Barrel, too, though perhaps I could do without the 90s-coffee-shop broken furniture thing.

Other San Francisco shops worth considering: Caffe Trieste, the West Coast’s first espresso and famous Beat hangout; Bernie’s; Java Beach.

Portland Things tapered off somewhat by the time we got to my hometown. Theresa and I had Stumptown first at Besaw’s in Northwest and again at the Ace Hotel. Theresa had their chai, which she enjoyed. I had a cup of their Panama single-origin coffee, which like the Ritual cup started well-enough but got bitter. Especially odd considering that it was made via the Chemex method, which in past experience has somehow managed to prevent long-run bitterness. (The earlier cup at Besaw’s faired better, though I found it overly light-bodied.)

Fortunately, this was Coffee Land, and on the way to airport we had a different experience: Oblique Coffee Roasters. We talked to the owner about their Derailleur Blend espresso, and I have to say it was the way to go. Sharp without being bitter, rich, chocolatey, citrusy, a bit sweet, massively full bodied. I’m revealing my Northwest coffee roots (and bias), but it was delicious. A wonderful way to leave Portland. On top of that, Oblique is in a neat old building in Southwest Portland that used to be a grocery store or some such. Neat furniture, too.

Other Portland places worth considering: Urban Grind, Public Domain (great downtown espresso).

San Francisco, Round Two This morning I’m back at Ritual, sampling their Sweet Tooth La Piñona espresso in a macchiato. I find lately that these sorts of lighter-roast espressos actually require a bit of milk to achieve their potential. Without boring you with more chocolatey-ness, it was really quite good.

Later in the day, I’m going to try to get to Blue Bottle, and should that happen, I’ll update you. My previous least-favorite espresso was here, but in fairness I had been warned in advance that it was an odd one. I’ve had decent lattes made from their house blend.

Lessons learned? Coffee variety is good, and even as a fan of darker, fuller-bodied coffees, I like me some light roast. But no amount of tattoos and fancy espresso machines make up for excessively fragile coffees and poorly-monitored espresso shots. I’m on the quest for great coffee and espresso, and I take no prisoners.

Oblique, I’ll be back. You’re up there with the Three Vs of Seattle.

Four Barrel, you’ve got one more shot, and then only if I can get over the hokey decor.

Intelligentsia, you make light roast worthwhile, which is saying a lot from a guy who once declared the approach weak and pointless.

The rest of you, you have my respect, even if you’re not my favorite.

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