Matt Higgins graduated from an illustrious line-up at the original Albina Press coffee bar in north Portland and founded Coava Coffee Roasters in 2009. He opened in an industrial area in the city’s near Southeast neighborhood, sharing space with Bamboo Revolution, which handled the unique buildout. We met Higgins on April 22 at SCAA, and he shared insights that hinted at why he’s been successful in Portland’s competitive specialty coffee market.
Was it a given that you’d work with coffee for a living, or did you consider other careers?
No, I definitely considered other careers. This is my 13th year in coffee, as a barista and everything. I’ve been roasting for seven years and been buying green coffee now for three years, but when I first started, I was a barista while doing my undergrad. I graduated from the University of Oregon in 2003 with a German major and Business minor and moved overseas to be a translator, and I was translating for an eco-friendly agricultural company called Neudorff. I just realized I really did not enjoy what I went to school for, and I realized that in high school, and through college, I’d been a barista. And I really love coffee. This is a product I believe in and it’s my passion. I flew back to the United States and found a shop that had a roaster. At the time it was Pacific Bay Coffee Company. They’ve since changed owners and it’s a completely different program. I purposefully sought them out, came out board and would come in on all my days off and just stand next to the roaster. John Laird was the owner. And eventually I started apprentice roasting, became their roaster, and knew that I wanted to take coffee as a career path then.
What was the very first day like that you were on bar while you were in school, and where was that at?
1999, and I think it was a shop at the University of Oregon, on the University of Oregon payroll, so their food service ran it, and it was called Common Grounds.
What do you remember about that very first shift?
First of all, I didn’t know how to make coffee very well at all, so I was quite stressed out. Coffee has changed in so many ways in the last number of years in the specialty movement, considerably. At that time, what I thought made a good beverage – for example, I remember an experience where a young woman came in and she wanted a mocha. I’m like, “I’m going to make you the best mocha.” I wanted to be a good barista, so I’m like, extra, extra chocolate in there, whipped cream all over the place. I’m like drizzling the whipped cream. I didn’t know at that time what coffee was going to turn into or really be, so that being my first or second shift when that happened, it’s just a funny memory.
What’s your favorite aspect of operating a coffee roastery and cafe?
Interpretation of the product. Coffee is traded second only to oil as a commodity, and specialty, it’s very hard to assign a number or percentage to distribution or supply chain of specialty coffee. Arbitrarily, let’s say under 15% of the total commodity. My favorite part is being able to – now having been a barista trainer for X amount of years, and having been in the industry for 13 years, I’ve judged six or seven Regionals, a National Competition, been around it a lot – what is most exciting for me to relay all that through my program at Coava. I’m the one who dials in our coffee on our espresso bar, I’m the one who assigns all of our profiles, I’m the one who does the training. The most exciting part is bringing in a coffee that someone has never tasted before, a separation that’s maybe never been separated before, a farmer who’s never had his or her name mentioned ever, because their coffee’s been routinely blended away. The most exciting thing for me is to find that coffee, bring it in and pay homage to what they’re doing in our bar, and make certain that we’re preparing it expertly. That’s the perfect thing for me.
Does it make your job easier or harder to have so many other specialty coffeehouses and roasters in Portland?