Four hours in downtown Portland

Today I had to do something I promised I will never do.

During the last couple of years I frequently had to travel and, by the end of 2012, I reached the "Gold frequent flier" status with United Airlines. With the status comes a lot of little perks: shorter lines at the airport check-in, upgrades to economy plus, upgrades to first or business class, access to the lounges on international flights, etc.   In order to keep this status one must keep a minimum number of miles per year, otherwise by the end of the year you go back to reality.

It’s amazing how fast one can get used to good things. This year when I found myself short 1,000 miles to retain the status, I panicked. I didn’t want to lose it. What was the solution? Taking a one day trip to anywhere that was cheap and could give me the necessary miles. I finally became one of these obsessed frequent fliers that do whatever it takes to collect miles: last minute flights, unnecessary connections, getting the airline’s credit card, etc.

So, today I woke-up at 3:40AM to go to the airport and take a flight to Portland, OR. Why Portland? 1,200 miles round trip is the answer.  I faced one important decision: what should I do once I landed: stay at the airport and sleep or work in one bench or try to find a couple of good cafes in downtown Portland and write about it. Obviously the later was more appealing.

Doing some research I found that Voodoo Doughnut is a famous place in downtown(22 SW 3rd Avenue.) This became my first stop. One of their most famous donuts has bacon on it, not very appealing to me. I got one of the house specialties, but I didn't buy my coffee there.
Please don't eat me!

If a place is a good sandwich place buy sandwiches in there; if a place is a good pizza place buy pizza in there; but whatever you do, not buy sandwiches at the pizza place. Same goes for Cafés.  Don’t buy a coffee in a “Café” that makes sandwiches or soups. Most likely you will be disappointed. Coffee should be bought at places that…well specialize in coffee.

I took my doughnut with me and went to “Barista” a 5 minutes’ walk on the same street(529 SW 3rd Ave Unit 110.)  There I had for breakfast the exact combination I wanted.
Overall these are the pros and cons from this place:


  • Baristas are good and the place is nice and clean with a big window to watch people pass by on 3rd street. 
  • This was probably my fault since I was not specific enough, but they gave me my coffee on a paper cup
  • I ordered a double shot latte but overall it felt very mild. I talked to the barista and he indicated they used Coava Coffee on my espresso, locally roasted in Portland, OR
  • They don’t have power outlets to connect your laptop and I couldn’t find their wifi, which is a shame since I wanted to stay longer to do some work.
  • Indoor seating is limited to a bar and stools which is also bad if you are planning to do some work.
  • They do not have restrooms
  • With all of the above, it seems that they don’t want you to stay for long. This is similar to what one might expect on a café on Italy, but I believe in the US, where espressos are not the norm, people tend to stay longer at a café.

The weather this time of the year (late December) in Portland seems perfect for coffee: rainy, cloudy and cold. It makes you want to have a warm cup in your hands while you contemplate the River Willamette.

After some sightseeing in the rain I made my second stop: Stumptown coffee.

A lot more industrial looking than Barista, with more indoor seating, tattooed baristas and LP records playing on the background. Definitively a must if you want to sit down and relax.

  • Good baristas, Wifi, power outlets and plenty of indoor tables
  • I slightly like the coffee more than at Baristas. I felt it slightly stronger.
  • They have restrooms
  • Not that I can think about

Although I only went to two places on this trip, it seems that Portland has many options in terms of roasting companies and cafes. I definitively would love to have more time to explore more on another trip. If I had to decide to which one of the two places I visited this time I would return, I would have to say Stumptown. The overall ambiance of the place is what I enjoy when I go out for coffee. Sometimes, laziness or comfort prevent us from doing what we like. If life gives you the opportunity to do something you love (to travel and drink coffee in my case) don't think it twice and take the opportunity!

Dark and caramelly roast? Not for me

Today my wife and I experienced some unexpected coffee tasting that showed us how immensely different two different types of coffee beans can be.

Everything started last Friday when we had a gathering with some friends at our apartment. Since we ran out of coffee and it was already late, I did a last minute run to Target to get a bag of Dark Espresso Roast from Starbucks. That night, we all had a great time but we ended having no coffee.

The next morning, to help me lessen the slight hangover I had, I prepared my usual latte with a double shot using the beans I just bought. When I took the first sip, I noticed a very strong burnt, bitter flavor that I did not like. I thought that maybe I did something wrong while preparing it. Did I put too much coffee? Did I press down too much while tampering it? However, I didn’t pay too much attention to this. On Sunday morning, once again, I prepared my latte but with only one shot each this time. To my surprise, I noticed again a strong burnt flavor and by now I was sure it was because of the beans. 
Double shot latte with Starbucks Espresso Dark Roast
Later that day, I bought a bag of San Francisco’s Sight Glass coffee and as soon as I got home I gave it a try.  As soon as I opened the bag, I knew that something great was about to happen. When I ground the beans, the whole apartment was filled with its delicious aroma.  With the exact same preparation as before, I got cup of coffee that I loved and that I would describe as sweet and with hints of chocolate.
Single shot latte with Sight Glass' Espresso Owl's Howl
This unexpected tasting where I got to try the two coffee beans on the same day, using the exact same setting, with the same machine, the same milk and the same barista (me) made me perceive differences that I was not able to perceived before. This is a very recommendable experiment. By comparing the two of them side by side you can clearly identify which side is more appealing for you.

Overall, there are three things that I would like to highlight:
  1. The importance of freshness. When I ground the Sight Glass beans the aroma spread through the house in seconds. On the other hand, when I ground the Starbucks beans the aroma was not as intense; I could only smell it around the kitchen. I  believe this is related to the freshness of the roasting and one of the reasons that people recommends that coffee beans should be consumed within the first one or two weeks after roasted. I know that the Sight Glass beans were roasted 5 days ago (it says it in the bottom of the bag). The Starbucks beans I have no idea since there’s no date on the bag.
  2. I learn that the smell and flavor of a darker roast is not something that I appreciate. Although I can perceive some sweetness, the closer thing I could use to relate the smell is burnt tobacco. There are obviously a lot of people that enjoy a dark roast. I just learnt that French Roast, Italian Roast and Spanish Roast are three variations of dark. For me, it seems that I am inclined to lighter roasts such as City Roast or Full City Roast. You can click the following link to see pictures on various types of roasts
  3. I think that both companies gave me exactly what I paid for: Starbucks gave me a more affordable (~$7) bag of very dark coffee beans that were not recently roasted, but that was convenient to get at my neighborhood supermarket at 8PM on a Friday night. Sight Glass, on the other hand, gave me a more expensive (~$16) bag of recently roasted coffee beans that were not as dark. The difference is that Sight Glass gave me also a great cup that was aligned to my preferences.
Here’s a picture of both bags and a sample of their beans. By zooming in we can easily appreciate the difference in roasting: The ones in the left are darker and caramelized as it says in the bag “DARK ESPRESSO ROAST, Rich and Caramelly”.

The journey continues...

What do you want in your coffee?

A couple of months ago I watched a  great TED Talk with Malcolm Gladwell’s on “Choice, happiness and spaghetti sauce”(1). He explained that many focus groups fail to get valuable outcomes, because people don’t know what they want and then he paraphrased Howard Moskowitz: “The mind knows not what the tongue wants

I paid particularly attention when he said that when people is asked “What do you want in a coffee? Most of the people is going to answer “I want a dark, rich hearty roast”, but in reality most of the people (~75%) like “milky, weak coffee”, although they don’t like to say this to others.

This got me thinking on what do I want in my coffee. Which are those cups of coffee that I remember as being really good and special? If I have to summarize it in few words I would say milky, strong coffee.  I like a coffee that tastes like coffee, but I love the sweetness that properly steamed milk can provide. Whenever I make coffee at home I prepare a latte. If we go outside I order the same thing. 

I used to talk to one of my coworkers, a fellow coffee aficionado, about the best cafés in the bay area or where you can get the best beans: “Have you tried Blue Bottle or Four Barrel?”,  “Which local cafés roast their own coffee and sell only small batches”.  After watching the TED talk, I started thinking on what I really like from each ones of these cafés and I came to realize that it is not the coffee bean per se, but the baristas abilities what I appreciate.

My theory is that by pouring steamed milk into my coffee I am disguising and changing its flavor, and what I am really distinguishing between one coffee and another are the barista’s skills.

A good café in my book is one where the barista is able to create the right texture on the milk and serves the coffee at the right temperature with some skilled latte art on it.  The place doesn’t need to be fancy. One of my favorite places in San Francisco is located in what used to be a garage where you literally seat in the sidewalk ((Blue Bottle kiosk located at 315 Linden St.)

On the other hand, a bad café for me is one where the barista burns the milk and serves an extra hot latte with just a lot of foam on top or not foam at all (which is often the case in Starbucks). I usually burn my tongue on the first sip and after that it doesn't really matter how it tastes

I truly believe that there are people out there who can really appreciate and differentiate between a espresso that took 25 seconds to extract and one that took 35 seconds. Or even people who can detect is the shot was extracted 2 or 3 degrees below the ideal temperature. However, I am not one of them and I think this might be actually a good thing, as people say:  ignorance is bliss. The less you know the less picky you get on where you buy your beans, or how long it takes to do a perfect extraction.

My recommendation is that in coffee as in wine, the best coffee is the one you like.

Blue Bottle Coffee Co.

Leave a comment with what do you want in coffee and lets see the results!