Portland is considered to have either the best or second best coffee culture in the country, and within the city, certain coffeehouses are known to stand out. Leading up to our trip, well-regarded L.A. baristas frequently mentioned Albina Press and Coffeehouse NW. We visited Albina in the morning and it nudged the needle, but Coffeehouse NW practically jumped off the meter.
Coffeehouse NW owner Adam McGovern was happy to discuss his approach. I told him that barista Ryan Willbur of Intelligentsia L.A. said Coffeehouse NW is the best shop in Portland. Adam said, “He’s right.” He credits lower volume than Stumptown and the attention to detail from true coffee “dorks.”
The Portland coffee scene is so competitive, so Adam said, “We have no choice but to try and go above and beyond in every sense of the word…We were the first Synesso in Portland. We had time to get really familiar with every espresso customer.” They also use “high quality milk, chocolate, sea salt and pastries, which is stupid business wise, because the margins aren’t there for a company not roasting their own coffee.” To try and compete with hot chocolate legends Sahagún and Cacao, they use Michel Cluizel chocolate and sea salt. Adam takes coffee seriously, and it shows in the cup and on the palate.
Adam became interested in coffee because, “It was something my dad had done in college and spoke fondly of it. It wasn’t until I got up here that I saw how good coffee could be.” Adam lived in Sacramento prior to Portland.
Adam hangs Tomasz Karwowski’s Ed Ruscha-like photos on the brick walls. The airy space is glass-fronted on two sides, featuring wood floors and a wood bar. The blackboard menu is simple, with no gimmicky drinks.
Adam considers cappuccino a better representation of a coffeehouse than espresso, saying, “It’s very hard to know what you’re tasting. You could be tasting dose, humidity, bean, etc. Our job is to represent the coffee on a daily basis and Stumptown’s job is to represent the farmer on a seasonal basis.” Adam used to use beans from Portland Roasting Company, but switched to Stumptown because, “I believe Stumptown sources the best coffee available.” They use Hair Bender, Stumptown’s sole espresso blend, for all espresso drinks.
Near the register, I read a note from McGovern that helped to partially explain why his cappuccino was so good, and why Coffeehouse NW is considered to be near the top of the coffee industry. The note read, “The weekend before last, I tried a cappuccino at Ninth Street Espresso in New York City, and it was good. Too good. Turns out they use Organic Valley Whole Milk, which is very expensive but arguably the best milk available. So of course we immediately began making our cappuccino with Organic Valley milk, because our cappuccino must be as good as possible.” Adam is often willing to adapt to deliver a better product, even if it costs more.
Adam makes it clear, “Espresso is the heart of the shop, but we haven’t ignored the periphery.” As a result, we ordered an Americano, which was well balanced, not bitter at all.
For pastries, Coffeehouse NW primarily uses Nuvrei, a wholesale baker out of the Pearl District. “He came in for coffee and got the account,” says Adam. “We pay raw cost on any pastry we don’t sell, he writes it off and donates it to charity.” He’s also a believer in Two Tarts Bakery, who have a booth at the Portland Farmers Market. He gave me a peanut butter cookie sandwich, lashed with chocolate, with luscious peanut butter cream in the middle. Adam says the Tarts also make excellent lemon shortbread.
Coffeehouse NW definitely lived up to the hype, and certainly delivered the best tasting cups of Portland coffee all weekend.