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11:05 AM / April 10, 2009/ Posted by Victoria von Biel

“Want to wow you hosts with a gift that’s as green as it is delicious? Show up at their weekend house or dinner party with a bag of direct-trade coffee. That’s the term for coffee that’s even more socially conscious than fair-trade. The label “fair-trade” guarantees that the importer has a long-term sales relationship with the farmer and pays prices that add up to a living wage. “…

“Direct-trade coffee purveyors often have higher-than-market pay minimums, as well as quality that exceeds that of their fair-trade brethren.”…


“…Take the two-year-old Ace Hotel, where I stayed for much of my sojourn. This boutique reincarnation of what was once the mildly dingy Clyde Hotel is in the heart of downtown, steps from major public transit stops. It was comfortable beyond what I’m accustomed to, with richly rugged wool blankets from Portland’s Pendleton Woolen Mills on the bed and crushed-pearl-and-charcoal soap-on-a-rope by the sink. And, at $75 a night, it was eminently affordable, although I had to forgo an en suite bathroom and embrace the unexpected thrill of walking down the hall — in nothing but my Adidas and my Ace hooded bathrobe — to the sparkling shared (but private) showers.

But it was the freebies that seduced me. Stacks of of-the-moment magazines — Frank, Color, Tokion, ReadyMade — lay about to read on lobby couches or take to your room. Elegant Jorg & Olif bicycles were available free to hotel guests. At the adjacent Stumptown Coffee, powerful French press brews were free Monday mornings till Tax Day. Rarely do I really like to hang around hotels, but like a cosmopolitan version of an all-inclusive Caribean resort (the kind you swear to resent but wind up in a codependent relationship with), the Ace kept me in its warm, value-added embrace longer than I thought possible.


…Businesses are catching on, say entrepreneurs like Funk, because there is a sense in both cities that inspiration and financial reward are not mutually exclusive. Matt Lounsbury, head of operations for Portland’s hometown java empire, Stumptown Coffee, says this word — inspiration — comes up often in his dealings with clients in Brooklyn, where the company recently opened a roasting plant in the sparse industrial neighborhood of Red Hook, and where a dozen or so local restaurants and retailers are serving and selling Stumptown’s coveted fair-trade brews.

“Manhattan is the big city; Brooklyn has that neat indie feel that we’re all about,” says Lounsbury. “People in Brooklyn ‘get’ Portland. There is definitely a mutual admiration.”


Steve Kirbach, head roaster at Stumptown Coffee, reminds me of a fireman on an old steam locomotive as he tends the valves, temperature gauges, timer and the fire under the spinning drum of the 15-kilo Probat roasting machine in the Stumptown on Southeast Division Street. He talks about guiding the beans’ “travel” on their noisy 13-minute journey from their starting point as blue-green seeds (still alive enough to germinate) to their final stop as dark, aromatic pellets with the flavor and texture profile he’s trying to deliver to Stumptown: orange, toffee and chocolate flavors with balanced sweetness, acidity and body.

I’m thinking about my own experience with these flavors in macchiatos: toffee, yes; chocolate, yes; orange? I’m not sure about that one, and as I begin to wonder about these deficiencies of my palate, Jim Kelso, Stumptown’s head of quality control, brings over a cup of lightly roasted Ethiopian Wondo to sample. It’s light, floral, almost tea-like, with none of the assertive, roasty, macho macchiato-bravado that I’m used to. And it has surprising flavors I’ve never noticed in a macchiato. One of them is a definite grapefruity note – close enough to orange for me to pass the cup to Steve and ask him if he can detect the same thing I do. He sips and nods his head: “definitely citrusy.”

Beans destined for espresso travel farther, and darker, in the roaster that coffee meant for brewing in hot water. Flavor qualities particular to the bean are more evident in lightly roasted destined for brewed coffee. These begin to fade as the roast gets darker, at which point flavors are more connected roasting begin to dominate.

Think of the flavor transition between raw almonds and roasted ones for some idea of these changes in roasting coffee. Aleco Chigounis, Stumptown’s green coffee buyer, reminds me that “coffee is a fruit. It has the same organic compounds that some fruits have, and that flowers have as well.” Professional coffee cuppers use fruity words — plum, apricot, citric, malic (a green-apple flavor) – as well as brown sugar and caramel to describe brewed coffee flavors. For the roastier beans meant for espresso, besides toffee and chocolate, there are spice flavors: clove, allspice, cinnamon.

If your barista is having difficulty adjusting sour or bitter from a batch of beans, the problem could be coming from basic issues in the roast: under-roasting (hence underdevelopment of sugars from the bean’s starches) will produce an unlikable sourness that’s hard for the barista to overcome. Bitterness, an otherwise great asset to a balanced espresso drink, can be overdone in the bean by over-roasting. Too much roasting over-carbonizes the bean’s sugars and produces a number of other harsh bitter compounds in the very complex cascade of chemical reactions that go on inside the bean during the roast. One interesting recent bit of food science has dispelled the old idea that bitterness in coffee comes from caffeine. Caffeine is bitter, but it’s not concentrated enough in coffee to taste.