Interview: coffee pro Brent Fortune

Coffee Portland

Brent Fortune sold his Portland café and bakery, Crema, but the tireless specialty coffee advocate remains a major player in what’s become a global community. He’s worked on barista championships the world over, co-founded the Coffee Common collective and organized this year’s inaugural World Aeropress Championship. I met Fortune on April 19 at SCAA, and he shared insights that hinted at why he’s found caffeinated success.

At what point did you know that you’d work with coffee for a career?

Wow. Well, I started working in coffee about 12 years ago, and I was consulting at the time and just doing random stuff in retail and tourism consulting work, and a couple of my friends wanted to open a coffee bar. “Yeah, that sounds pretty fun. I don’t know a lot about coffee, but I’d like to learn,” and quickly realized they didn’t know much at all.

Where was this?

This was in San Diego. It became a real good opportunity to learn a whole lot, really fast, and the more I got into it, the more I wanted to know. It was just one of those things where you peel back the layers and realize how much is there. And at the time, specialty coffee and Third Wave was still in the early stages. It was the days when Vivace and Zoka and Stumptown were still small, new, exciting roasters. I went to the SCAA in Anaheim and then went to Boston and saw the first USBC and WBC, and I was like, “Wow, this is really interesting, and these people are a lot of fun.” It was a real passion project, and I just wanted to be a sponge. I couldn’t learn enough.

What was the café?

It was called Urban Grind, and it was in North Park, just a bit north of the San Diego Zoo.

That’s a great neighborhood now. I don’t know what it was like then.

It was a lot of college students, and it was really busy in the evenings. A lot of people would come there and study, between San Diego State, UCSD and the University of San Diego. There were a lot of college people in the area, so it became a great spot to come and hang out at night and meet friends and study. We were open until 12 and we really busy from 7, 8, 9 at night until almost midnight.

Whose coffee were you using?

We were using Café Moto, which is a roaster in San Diego. Then I started buying espresso from Zoka, because I wanted to bring some of the Northwest vibe. Zoka espresso at the time just had nice, big crema. They were really into it, so we started having it shipped down from Seattle a couple times a week.

What brought you to Portland?

Coffee. I sort of gave up on San Diego a little bit and realized it was going to be a really tough sell to make specialty coffee happen there, and I also felt like I was maxing out on people I could learn from. I kept coming to Portland and Seattle to NASCORE, which was a trade show, sort of pre Coffee Fest. Every time I’d come up here, I’d be like, “This is where coffee’s happening right now in America. Stumptown’s here. Zoka’s up here.” I literally packed my stuff in a car and rented a place for two months. Actually, I was sharing an apartment with Billy Wilson. He was living up where Lava Java is, Ridgefield, and he wanted to be down in the city, in Portland, so he rented a place in the Pearl District. He started working for Stumptown, and I just came up here and started looking for spots, to see if I could find a café. Five months, I ended up buying the café that became Crema.

What was it called at the time?

It was called Florio Bakery. It was a really beautiful little café. Stumptown had looked at potentially buying it. It was a Stumptown account, but the coffee was kind of an afterthought. It was really basic batch brew, and it was the totally wrong espresso machine. They started out with Illy, and then Stumptown went in and set up their program. They didn’t really know what they were doing, so they switched all the equipment, put in a four-group Linea, started doing French press coffee. The neighborhood at the time didn’t really have anything else, so I wanted there to be some duality. I never understood why most bakeries, you can get really great, handcrafted baked goods, but the coffee was always really mediocre. I wanted to see if I could create a space where you could get both things, and do both really, really well. It was an established bakery, and they had wholesale business, and the wholesale aspect was kind of interesting to me.

Is there any place that’s doing both well in the city at this point?

I think Nuevre, and Neuvre services a lot of the cafes in town. They sell pastries to Barista and Coava as well. Coava went into their new café last summer and set up their coffee program, so they’re doing a pretty good job.

Have you had any coffee mentors over the years?

Yeah. People like Duane [Sorenson] really inspired me, especially when I first came up here. Stumptown was super supportive. They helped me find the place that was Crema. They looked at buying it. They didn’t want to be in the baking business, so they knew it was for sale. They wanted to make that happen, connected us. I’m inspired by people like Tim Wendelboe and James Hoffmann and people who come through the ranks of competition and have gone on to open their own businesses.

I’m really inspired by Portland’s coffee scene, people like Wille [Yli-Luoma] and Matt Higgins at Coava and Billy [Wilson] as well, and seeing all these guys who used to work at other spots in Portland having their own businesses and starting their own roasteries. That sort of changed the place of specialty coffee, not just in Portland, but also how it connects to other cafes.

Can you imagine opening another café at some point?

Not right now, because I’m too much of a collaborator and I don’t have a lot of desire to do another business by myself. I’m more interested in helping other people do that, and I kind of feel like I’ve done it twice. If it were to do it a third time, I don’t know that there would be enough new-ness in that to keep me engaged very long. I’m totally into helping someone open a place. I have no desire to do that now, not a retail operation.

Do you feel like the Portland specialty coffee market is saturated?



Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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