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Micro-roasters give coffee a shot of artistry

Bread and Brew
by: JAIME VALDEZ, Customers line up to purchase a coffee drink at Sterling Coffee Roasters, located next to Sammy's Flower Shop and Trader Joe’s in Northwest Portland.

This year’s micro-trend is micro-roasting. Portland has been obsessed with coffee for a long time, but in the wake of Stumptown Coffee’s success, a new generation of even smaller roasters has been evolving. In the past few months, the pace has been accelerating. I’ve been zipping around town, checking out some of the newest retail spots and sipping espresso along the way. As befits a mini-micro-roasting operation, Sterling Coffee Roasters (2120 N.W. Glisan St., daily 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.) is really just a stylish permanent kiosk, across from the flower display outside the Nob Hill Trader Joe’s. The place is a spin-off of the well-loved Coffeehouse Northwest, which mostly serves Stumptown coffee but is starting to serve the Sterling roasts as well. In the cool open air, friendly and nattily dressed baristas pull powerful shots, discussing the coffee as they use hot water to draw out its essence. I ordered an espresso made with Ethiopian Yirgacheffe that had a mighty tang and a fruity, exotic punch. The texture was dense, almost syrupy, and it practically blew the top of my head off — in a good way. I stood with one elbow on the counter, sipping from my little cup, and was on my way in no time. I had a similarly tangy, mouth-filling, almost head-filling shot of espresso across town at Heart Coffee and Roasting (7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, 2211 E. Burnside St.). Coffee roasting is literally the heart of this business: The roasting machine sits in the middle of the café, with its shiny pipes rising up to the ceiling. This is a large, spare space, where people hang out, working on laptops. One woman was painting, using a small portable easel-and-palette kit. As at Sterling, the barista pulled and tasted a shot before making one for me. It sort of makes me wonder how much coffee these people are drinking — especially because they tend to be extremely outgoing and chatty. Everywhere I went, the people behind the counter were more than eager to talk about the coffee they were serving. It’s part of the micro-roasting experience to get the back story: where the coffee beans come from, what makes them different from other beans, and how the roasting process brings out that uniqueness. For Andrea Spella, the goal is an Italian-style espresso, which means a medium roast of mostly Brazilian coffee beans. From his cart, Spella Caffè, he’s been selling some of the most well-respected espresso in Portland since 2006. In December 2009, Spella opened a tiny storefront on Southwest Fifth Avenue (520 S.W. Fifth Ave., 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Friday). Mirrors and marble counters make this cubby-hole feel elegant and European. Spella pours a cocktail glass of sparkling water from a gleaming tap to go along with a shot in an adorable blue espresso cup. At the start, this espresso comes across as more traditionally coffee-like, a little more bitter and chocolately than the others I’ve been tasting, with more of a fruity tang at the finish. Spella says he designs his roast specifically to drink as espresso, and not to be blended with milk. Just up the street is Public Domain (6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday, 603 S.W. Broadway), a much bigger operation with a lot going on. There’s a cupping (coffee tasting event) every day at 1 p.m., and when you order espresso, you choose from three different varieties. I chose the Peruvian San Ignacio, a large shot that was served with a shot glass of sparkling water. I sort of wandered off after ordering my drink, and the barista, rather than let my coffee sit on the counter, drank it down and made me a fresh shot when I reappeared. Public Domain is a project of Coffee Bean International, a large, local coffee roasting company that you’re probably never heard of. That’s because their business, until now, has been based on roasting specialty coffees on contract, to be sold under the brand names of their various clients. Their foray into micro-roasting is one indication of what a big deal this is. The Seattle roasting company Caffe Vitta is also planning to expand to Portland this year. They join a crowded local field that also includes established roasters newcomers including Oblique Coffee Roasters (3039 S.E. Stark St.), Nossa Familia in the Ethos Music Center (2 N. Killingsworth St.) and Water Avenue Coffee (1028 S.E. Water Ave.), operating in a temporary space across the street from Clarklewis. It would be easy to blame caffeine for all this frenetic activity, but as Andrea Spella pointed out to me, it’s really part of a bigger picture: Portland’s still-growing enthusiasm for good food, good drink, intense flavors and artisanal products. That is why, he says, “There’s more than enough business for all of us.” This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.