Walking through the building of Jonathan Sielaff’s spanish-tiled apartment complex, you are surrounded by palm trees as you pass through an iron gate into a dark hallway with red and gold paisley carpet, and into Jonathan and his wife Heather’s bright and orderly apartment. From the outset it doesn’t feel like you’re in Portland anymore (the complex was used to portray L.A. in an episode of Portlandia) and walking in is like a breath of fresh air, which incidentally, is the same feeling you get when you meet Jonathan himself. Studied and focused but completely approachable, he’ll talk with you with the same intensity about the aromatics and findings of his deeply developed palate as he would about a Tatsuya Nakatani performance or a misty coastal hiking trail flush with Chanterelles.
Sielaff is the coffee educator and retail trainer for Stumptown, and is in charge of advancing the coffee program. When we met, we drank a cup of delicate Panama Esmeralda carefully brewed in an Aeropress, and then on to woody, aromatic Tao of Tea Green Dragon oolong out of heavy cups Sielaff recently made in a ceramics class at Oregon College of Art and Craft.
Later, we went for a woodsy walk in Forest Park (where Jonathan and Heather often go to unearth scents for Heather’s fragrance line OLO) and talked about his upbringing as the oldest of eight children of missionary parents, moving around constantly, stopping in Northern British Colombia, Hawaii, the Cook Islands and China.
Sharing a cup of coffee with him, or watching him perform in his experimental electro-acoustic duo Golden Retriever, where Sielaff plays his grandfather’s bass clarinet through a chain of effects pedals, his halting sincerity and openness shine through on all fronts. We talked with him about his experiences growing up abroad (eating crazy shit!) and how tasting coffee is like playing music.
Where are you from?
I am originally from Miami, but I moved a lot growing up. My parents went into missions when I was 12 and we went all sorts of places after that. Northern British Colombia, Central California, Hawaii, the Cook Islands, China. I was disgruntled with all the moving as a teen, but now I really appreciate all the amazing experiences it gave me - galloping on horses through the Canadian wilderness, spear fishing for octopus in a blue lagoon, traveling on decrepit boats in the South China Sea, eating the craziest shit (dog, pig penis, river algae, cubes of coagulated blood, a horse that died in a field next to a prison, cow lung, cracklins in raw blood sauce, duck tongues, wasps, lots of creatures from the sea and mountains that I could not recognize).
I moved to Portland in 2000, and felt like I was coming home. I feel like I was meant for this region of the country.
How did you get into coffee?
I had always liked coffee, but did not consider it as interesting or sophisticated as tea until I started going to the Stumptown Annex. When it first opened, Jim, Aleco, and Steve were using it for cupping samples and QC. I was so impressed with their knowledge about the coffees and where they were coming from as well as their personal connection to the farmers. I never knew that coffee could have such a range of flavors and aromas. The complexity of the sensual experience of tasting coffees in that context blew me away. I knew I had to work in coffee.
What’s your role at Stumptown?
I am the coffee educator for all of our Portland cafes. I train our baristas in espresso, brewed coffee, seed to cup context, palette development, etc. It is my job to not only train new hires into solid baristas, but to help advance our coffee program in the cafes and move us forward in the industry. I have been in this position for almost six months and love it. I love teaching and I love getting people excited about coffee. Previous to this I was a barista, cafe manager, and then general manager. I am and always will be a barista.
Tell us about the music you make.
Hmmm… emotive, electro-acoustic instrumental music? I play the bass clarinet amplified and effected, Matt Carlson plays modular synth. We both had a lot of background in modern composition, experimental improvised music, jazz, and rock and had a big interest in ethnic musics. We started this project to make music that felt cohesive and natural to us and drew freely from all of those experiences and interests. The overall structures of our pieces are very composed, but the details are fluid and malleable.
How did you come to inherit your grandfather’s clarinet?
My grandfather and father both played all of the woodwinds with a focus on sax and flute. I grew up playing guitar, but began learning clarinet after getting into jazz in my late teens. When my grandfather passed away, we found the vintage Selmer bass clarinet in his closet. I had been getting into Eric Dolphy and a bunch of free-jazz stuff and begged my dad to let me have it. I started taking lessons and never looked back. The instrument feels like an extension of myself. I can hear my grandfather and father in my own playing. I saved a reed that my grandfather used on the instrument and play with it once and a while. It’s old and brittle now, but it reminds me of my heritage. My breath is vibrating the cane that his breath vibrated.
How is playing experimental music like tasting coffee?
For a while I got into playing really quiet, minimalist improvised music. It was about taking a sound and shaping it. Minute variations in texture and volume. How complex could that one sound be? At first it was just a note or textural noise. Then, as you focused in on it, it became this whole little sound universe. There was so much in that little sound to explore and appreciate.
I have that same experience with coffee. It is essentially a roasted seed, ground and steeped in water. But at the same time, if you focus in on it, it is so complex. There is so much going on in that cup!
Both actions allow you to focus in on one thing and enter inside of it. Everything else disappears and you are immersed in this tiny sensory universe. I love that feeling. It’s a type of meditation.
What are you liking right now?
I am really excited to be working with my wife Heather on OLO Fragrance. We typically start with a concept, place, or ingredient that inspires us and try to capture it in a way that is both subtle and complex. She is the artist, I take a more advisory, assistant role. We’ll be walking through a forest, neighborhood, building, the coast, and stop whenever we smell something captivating. We stand there and try to absorb it, describe it, commit it to memory and then re-create it. Often it is impossible, but the process leads you to some really amazing places. There is an element of science and art to it, some intellectual conceptualizing, but there is also an alchemy to fragrance. Something witchy and incredible that can’t be expressed in words.
I have been diving back into tea. Its really hard to fit any more caffeine into my life, but I manage. I’ve been really into oolongs again lately. The aromatics are so captivating and I love the transformations in flavor that happen with each steeping.
Growing up in the tropics, I’ve never thought about clothing as much as I have since moving to the PNW. The winters here demand an attention to shodding and layering that has become really enjoyable to me. Fashion is inextricably intertwined with function. Beautiful boots that keep your feet dry. Intricate patterns on wool that repel water and wind. Shimmering space-age material that does the same.