Since the early 1990s the coffeehouse has grown from a niche market into a huge industry that has seen espresso consumption shoot up in popularity.
However the differences in the product being sold have become small, completely ubiquitous lacking in satisfaction.
In Portland, people have come to appreciate the small differences that make one business stand apart from another, one coffee roast better than another, one barista much more talented than the rest. Even so, the landscape of espresso and coffeehouses has become more and more flat, and the competition for consumers' dollars more and more fierce.
Location and branding may be the last two options for a coffeehouse business to set themselves apart from the competition here in Portland. Even quality and knowledge of the beans has been taken for granted in this artisan coffee town.
In taking a close look at two Portland coffeehouses, however, there is a new era in coffee approaching. Portland will be able to watch the evolution of the coffeehouse move from a cookie-cutter beverage industry into an interactive and highly variable coffee experience.
Located on the pedestrian unfriendly strip of W. Burnside, Coffeehouse Northwest is almost frustratingly uncharacteristic.
There is little pretension and pretext, but the coffee just tastes better, the baristas just try harder, and the owner, Adam McGovern, just cares a little bit more about bringing an authentic coffee-tasting experience to every customer.
For example, most coffeehouses in Portland use Stumptown's Hairbender roast with Sunshine Dairy's milk to make their drinks. However, McGovern discovered the superior taste of using Organic Valley milk mixed with Sunshine Dairy and uses it for all cappuccino drinks. Organic Valley is a more expensive milk, but the taste experience was valuable enough to make the switch.
Recently Coffeehouse Northwest made another investment to show they care about their customer's coffee experience.
At Coffeehouse Northwest you are now able to order espresso, french press, Eva Solo, Chemex, Melitta, or moka pot coffee. These are not roasts or brands of coffee, these are brewing methods of making coffee. (If you'd like to learn the differences between these methods, you can ask the baristas at Coffeehouse Northwest and they are more than happy explain the different styles.)
The hope is that there are enough people who also want to be able to make the distinction and once they do, they won't be able to go back to Albina Press or any other coffeehouse in Portland. I think the hope is that they not only will stand apart from the competition, but that they will lead the way in a whole new coffeehouse format.
Where coffeehouses have just one or two ways to enjoy coffee beans, Coffeehouse Northwest now has five.
Imagine walking into a coffeehouse at 7am and instead of hearing customers order "12 oz. latte" or "grande non-fat mocha" you hear "12 oz. Ethopian Eva Solo" or "tall Hairbender moka pot."
Some of these methods take up to four minutes of brew time before you can get your drink. The beans are specially ground for each method, water heated, coffee steeped and then served. And in many cases there are certain roasts that work best with each method, making your options for a morning beverage rise exponentially.
Sounds extremely fussy. Sounds like a gimmick to squeeze more dollars out customers. (a 12 oz. moka pot coffee costs $6) But anything you could say about this new business choice isn't something that wasn't already said about the proliferation of coffee culture across the United States in the early 1990s. And none of us would consider ourselves fussy just because it takes more than three words to describe our favorite drink.
McGovern says they are still working out a good flow to get these drinks prepared and equipment cleaned in a quick manner. There will be a slow education process to get people well-versed in the many options and delicate nuances of what they're doing behind the counter. But Coffeehouse Northwest has too big of a reputation, too much at stake, for anyone to ignore this development.
There is also a hope that this will expand the customer experience of each roast of coffee. Bringing out subtle differences in aroma and flavor and causing customers to want to possibly recreate the experience at home.
It is certainly a new approach to coffee unseen yet in the mainstream prepared coffee market.
(Part II: BARISTA, coming soon)
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