Water Avenue Coffee: Walking the Caffeinated Walk in Portland

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Two Millettos and roaster Brandon Smyth opened Water Avenue Coffee near the Willamette River.

Running the American Barista & Coffee School and Barista Exchange somehow wasn’t enough for Matt Milletto and father Bruce, so they teamed with roaster Brandon Smyth on Water Avenue Coffee in 2010, opening down the hall from ABC and a short walk from the city’s natural dividing line, the Willamette River. As coffee pro Matt Milletto said in our interview, “It was kind of a natural progression, partly to diversify, but also to really walk the walk of what we teach for people looking to open retail coffee businesses, and micro-roasters.”

This modern coffeehouse featured a neon blue COFFEE sign above the bar, alongside a blackboard menu. The Millettos have amassed quite the collection of demitasse cups, and they now fill six shelves on Water Avenue’s west wall. The space features a reclaimed Douglas fir bar and tables, a high-top communal table near the entrance, and a counter facing the roasting area.

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Smyth was in the midst of roasting during my visit and had some perspective on direct trade and operating in Portland’s competitive specialty coffee market.

“We live in one of the most competitive coffees in the world,” Smyth said, “so it not only has to be unusual, it has to be perfect, or at least really, really good.” I don’t buy into the concept of perfection, but did enjoy the product of his efforts.

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Smyth regularly harnesses the power of a 1700-pound French roaster, made entirely of cast iron. The 20-kilo machine dates to 1974 and they found it in Switzerland.

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Water Avenue Coffee also houses a Probatino Sample Roaster off to the side, close to the counter.

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A barista named Bo pulled me a shot of single origin espresso ($2.50) on the two-group Synesso, pulp natural El Salvador Manzano beans with good acidity and minimal bitterness.

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I’m not sure if Bo competed in the weekend’s United States Barista Championship, but he made his Cappuccino ($3) with care, and even chose a heart to represent his vision.

Drinks are all reasonably priced, and Water Avenue Coffee also offers the option to get an espresso sidecar with any drink for only $1 more, which was a new idea to us.

I continued my caffeinated journey with a cup of pourover Colombian Las Margaritas, Geisha varietal, for only $3.50, which displayed tea-like tasting notes.

Water Avenue Coffee’s owners were willing to face criticism by entering a fierce coffee market. If they’re going to teach and preach coffee, they should be able to back up their lessons, and based on my coffee beverages, they seem to be doing just that. During my visit, dozens of SCAA coffee pros from around the world shuttled into the space to test Water Avenue Coffee’s capabilities. Given the interest they’ve managed to generate, and what I experienced in each cup, the grand experiment seems to be working.


Joshua Lurie

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

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