22 February 2016

A Caffeinated Tour of Portland with Third Wave Coffee Tours

One of the main reasons I wanted to visit Portland was to explore its extensive coffee scene. But with only three days in the city, there were only so many coffee spots even a chronic caffeine-addict like me could fit in. A good friend, who travelled to Portland with her husband last year, recommended I check out Third Wave Coffee Tours, founded by "second-generation Oregonian and third-wave coffee lover" Lora Woodruff. Lora and her team of guides run several different three-hour walking tours, which visit various combinations of Portland coffee shops.

As I was only in town for a few days, only one of the tours was available — A Streetcar Named Delicious, which runs on Sundays at 10 am — but as it is the only tour to take in cafes and roasters on both sides of the Willamette River, I was very happy. Before the tour, I asked Lora for a list of the shops we would be visiting to make sure I didn't double up on my first day in the city. She provided this and her map of Portland micro-roasters and cafes, many of which I had pre-identified but which was really useful.

Despite warnings about Portland's damp climate, it was mild, bright and sunny for my entire trip, including during my coffee tour. We met at the first coffee stop, Case Study Coffee, in the downtown area and settled into the reserved area at the back of the large cafe. There were seven of us on the tour — a mix of locals and travellers, coffee lovers and the coffee curious. Lora began with an introduction to the history of coffee and its production process. Then she gave us some more detailed information about the different 'waves' of coffee culture in the US, the first being home brewing, the second being the introduction of Italian, espresso-based drinks and the third being the move towards producing high-quality, artisanal coffee.

Lora also told us a bit more about the history of Portland's coffee scene: the city had the US's fourth Starbucks (the first three being in Seattle), but is now home to almost 900 coffee shops (about a quarter of these are Starbucks, sadly). Case Study itself was one of Portland's first micro-roasters to open up, in 2010, and its cafe is beautiful, bright space on SW 10th Avenue with seats around the large, round coffee bar.

We then enjoyed a brew-method demonstration from Ethan, a barista from Case Study, who showed us how to prepare the same coffee variety in three different ways — with a French press, a Chemex and a Kalita dripper — and encouraged us to consider how each brew method produced coffee with contrasting appearances and tastes, and explained the importance of controlling different varios (water-coffee ratio, temperature, etc). I had tried all of these methods before, of course, but I still learnt a lot and am always looking for tips on improving my brewing and fine-tuning my taste buds.

After leaving Case Study, we hopped on our first streetcar of the tour — Portland has two modern streetcar routes that run in opposite directions in a large loop around the city centre, on both sides of the river. We weren't going far: our next stop was Christopher David, a gorgeous interior-design store and florist with a cafe that serves coffee from Water Avenue roasters. Christopher David is based in a neighbourhood called the Pearl District, once filled with warehouses, but now a home to numerous cool restaurants, cafes, design stores and expensive apartments.

One of the great things about Third Wave tours is that you don't just go to five cafes and drink the same coffees at each, and at Christopher David, we got to try the cafe's signature drink, the Cafe di Nini. This consists of a shot of single-origin espresso and a shot of vanilla syrup layered over rice milk. You throw it back like a slammer to allow the contrasting flavours, textures and temperatures mingle and merge. I was dubious, but it was actually rather good. We browsed the shop for a few minutes and I managed to avoid the temptation of buying any of the beautiful interiors pieces (I needed to save room in my suitcase for coffee!).

Next, we took the streetcar again, venturing east across the river to Cup & Bar, which as its name may suggest, specialises in artisanal coffee (from Trailhead roasters) and chocolate (from Ranger Chocolate). Trailhead used to exist only as a roaster — the delivery bike they use was hanging out near the roaster when we visited — but teamed up with Ranger to open up a cafe in an industrial area of the city that now has a number of hip cafes and shops. Trailhead also try to source their coffees from women-only coops, where possible.

We watched one of the Cup & Bar team overseeing a coffee roasting, watching the beans changing colour and listening out for the first and second 'cracks' as the coffee structure begins to change. I don't normally like to mix coffee and chocolate, but I couldn't turn down Cup & Bar's signature Dirty Charlie (named for Trailhead's owner): a chocolatey macchiato, with espresso poured over cacao nib ice cream and topped with foam and shaved Ranger chocolate. It was delicious and put all powdered-chocolate coffee toppings to shame. We also snacked on some sourdough toast with jam — Lora mentioned that Cup & Bar's avo toast was the best in town, but sadly, I didn't have time to try it.

Just a couple of blocks east of Cup & Bar was one of the branches of Ristretto Roasters, our fourth stop. This time, our goal was to master the art of cupping, the process of smelling, tasting and describing the different notes of a coffee. Cupping is actually rather challenging — I always find that I am way too suggestible to the provided descriptions of a coffee. Our barista was great, though, and he helped us to relax and enjoy the process. We 'cupped' three different Ristretto coffees, one from Colombia (my favourite, natch), one from Guatemala and one from Brazil. With hindsight, I really wish I had bought a bag of their beans!

Our final destination gave us the chance to sample Portland's extensive and growing food-truck scene. We took the streetcar back across the river to the downtown area and walked over to Ole Latte's coffee truck among the collection, or pod, of food carts on Alder Street (between 9th and 11th St). Of all of the shops we visited, Ole Latte might be the most 'Portland'. First, they have a pay-it-forward system, where you can pay for an extra coffee when you buy yours and write it up on the 'suspend coffees' board; if you want a free coffee, you can just cross it off the board and tell the staff. Second, we tried a mini-version of the current signature drink: the Portland Pine latte, made with syrup of the Douglas Fir, Portland's state plant.

Flavoured lattes aren't really my thing, but it was nice to try something different and it was great to chat to the friendly barista. They even sell beautiful ceramic mugs, which are made by one of the other baristas. By then, unfortunately, we had reached the end of our tour. Lora gave us all a few suggestions for lunch and brunch, including Nong's (an award-winning food cart just down from Ole Latte, which I went back to the following day) and Veritable Quandary (where I went for brunch).

I highly recommend Third Wave Coffee tours for anyone who loves coffee or would like to learn more about it, or to anyone who enjoys spending time in cafes in the company of a real local expert. Lora's passion for coffee and her pride in her city really came through in the tour, and she has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Portland and especially its coffee scene. She is also friendly, funny and great fun! Third Wave tours cost $40 and you can book them online — advance booking is recommended, particularly in the spring and summer.

For more Portland coffee tips, check out my guide.

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