The four-day United States Barista Championship determined the 2009 American coffee champ, but the excitement wasn’t limited to the Oregon Convention Center. Case in point: On March 5 and 6, when first-round action was winding down for the day, a convoy departed from the Convention Center and visited six different coffeehouses. It was the caffeinated equivalent of a pub crawl, only without the potential B.U.I. At each café, we discovered a different Regional Barista Champion pulling espresso shots. To maintain an element of surprise, we didn’t know which Regional Barista Champions we’d find, but considering the available talent pool, it didn’t matter. It was 45 degrees and since it was Portland, we got drenched, but the tour was still one of my all-time favorite coffee experiences.
Bikes to Rwanda executive director Clara Seasholtz organized and sponsored the bike tour. Todd Roll from Pedal Bike Tours provided 20 bikes and helmets each day, at no charge.
Seasholtz’s goal was to spread Bikes to Rwanda’s visibility, highlight Portland’s hip neighborhoods and cafés and showcase coffees normally unavailable in Portland. Duane Sorensen of Stumptown Coffee Roasters founded the organization in October 2006 and recruited Seasholtz to improve the quality of life for Rwandan coffee farmers by providing cargo bicycles.
1. BARISTA – 539 NW 13th Avenue
Danielle Glasky – Octane Coffee – Atlanta, GA (South East)
Glasky made a cappuccino using a single-origin Kenya Thunguri, which she described as having “pomegranate citrus” notes. Given Glasky’s coffee, presentation and demeanor, it seemed like she would place well at the USBC.
It was a big week for BARISTA owner Billy Wilson, who had a baby and opened his coffeehouse. He’s lived in Portland for almost seven years, earning a reputation at Albina Press as one of the nation’s baristas. A real estate broker turned him on to the former Acorn space in the trendy Pearl district.
Wilson is causing waves in Portland by providing coffee from multiple roasters. When asked why Stumptown has such a stranglehold on Portland espresso machines, Wilson said, “That’s how it works. They train you and help you with design and layout. In return you use their machines and beans.” Wilson decided to take a risk and “Look at roasters for what they are, a vendor.” At BARISTA, he carries Stumptown, Intelligentsia and Ecco, and will rotate his selection seasonally.
Wilson offers some dramatic manual extraction methods, including countertop vac pots.
2. Coffeehouse NW – 1951 West Burnside
Clancy Rose – Cuvee Coffee Roasting Company – Spring, TX (South Central)
Prior to opening BARISTA, Wilson logged time behind the bar at Adam McGovern’s Coffeehouse NW. Today, John C. Reilly doppelganger Clancy Rose was behind the bar, pulling shots of Costa Rican Helsar de Cacaero.
Rose pulled a solid shot of espresso, then joined us at the communal table to talk coffee. He described his competition coffee as being “very bright coffee and acidic. It’s got some plumy dark fruits in it, a little bit of spice, like black pepper, and in the back, it’s like macadamia nut and black tea.”
3. Coffee Plant – 724 SW Washington
Jason Silberschlag – Cartel Coffee Lab – Tempe, AZ (South West)
Mike Miller owns two Portland area Coffee Plants, specializing in coffee, baked goods and music.
Silberschlag grew up in Tucson and moved to Phoenix five years ago. He recently opened Cartel Coffee Lab near Arizona State University. To play off the name, he calls his espresso blend Black Market Espresso. It wasn’t his competition blend, but it did involve 85% Brazilian pulp natural and 15% Guatemalan Huehuetenango Finca dia Aire. Silberschlag made me a macchiato that convinced me to visit Cartel on an upcoming trip to Phoenix.
4. Crema Bakery & Cafe – 2728 SE Ankeny
Nick Griffith – Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea – Los Angeles, CA (Western)
When Intelligentsia first opened in Silver Lake, Griffith manned the coffee bar. Now that he’s responsible for sales and wholesale training, I hadn’t seen him behind the bar in over a year, so this was a good opportunity to experience a shot from one of the nation’s best baristas.
For his sweet, citrusy espresso, Griffith used beans from a Guatemalan farm called La Maravilla. During the finals, he described citrus and spice notes up front, a citrus body, and molasses and tannins on the back end.
I chased the espresso with a house-made Hazelnut Rum Ball. Crema owner Brent Fortune has cultivated a solid coffee program using Stumptown beans, and also offers a wide range of baked goods.
5. Albina Press South – 5012 SE Hawthorne Boulevard
Amber Sather – AMS – Brooklyn, NY (North East)
Last June, I visited Kevin Fuller’s original Albina Press in north Portland. It was fine, but seemed kind of worn down. His SE Portland outpost was much more compelling, a former barber shop and office. It was one of the better layouts I’ve seen in a coffeehouse, clean and modern, with a long bar, plenty of windows and natural light.
Unfortunately, Sather wasn’t pulling shots of her competition blend, opting for Stumptown Hair Bender. That was a letdown.
6. Bakery Bar – 1028 SE Water
Greg Lefcourt – Ozo Coffee Company – Boulder, CO (Mountain)
Bar, Mountain Regional Barista Champ Greg Lefcourt of Ozo was pulling shots of his competition blend, which calls Big-Up! – a blend of four organic beans, including a natural Ethiopian Adado, a natural Ethioian Beloya, a pulp-natural Brazilian Nossa Senorha and a washed Ecuadorian Espindola. He made me a cortado, which seemed good, but at this point, I was so over-caffeinated that I couldn’t really enjoy it. Lefcourt was feeling good about Big-Up!, saying it was “just opening up. It will be even better tomorrow.”
If you’re willing to get twitchy, you too can follow my path or schedule a coffee-fueled bike tour with Pedal Bike Tours. You may not find any Regional Barista Champions behind the bars, but these are still some of the better coffeehouses in the Pacific Northwest, so you’re bound to get your money’s worth.