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Stumptowns blend

Like the beans, growers, workers and patrons get plenty of attention
by: JIM CLARK, Stumptown roaster Joel Pollock cools a batch of coffee beans, which come from all over the world.

Stumptown Coffee Roasters wants to do something that's never been done before - and the city of Portland wants to help.

The city's Office of Sustainable Development recently selected the coffee roasting company to receive grant money from the Green Investment Fund. The money will go toward finding a way to capture and use the huge amount of heat released during the roasting process.

Joel Pollock is Stumptown's head roaster. He has recently returned from a tasting and buying trip to Honduras, but usually he spends all day, every day, roasting coffee beans. He pours green beans into a metal tun, subjecting them to 500-degree heat, sniffing them carefully as they toast, caramelize and crack, and then pouring them out in a cascade onto a cooling carousel.

The roasting of coffee creates quite a bit of smoke and byproducts - too much to be released into the air, according to clean air laws. So a second, even more powerful burner sits behind the roaster, blasting the waste products with heat of 1,000 degrees or more. That requires a lot of natural gas, and it creates a lot of hot air. It's what all coffee roasters must do, though, and what they have been doing for a long time.

It's also what Stumptown's Matt Lounsbury calls 'our greatest opportunity.' Lounsbury recently visited a coffee farm in Rwanda. He's a sales rep for Stumptown, which includes responsibilities not usually associated with a sales job. Along with an endless enthusiasm for the product, Lounsbury brings a background in 'green' building practices to the company, where he has worked since 2003. Part of his job is interfacing with Stumptown's wholesale clients, but part of it is finding ways to make Stumptown more sustainable. 'We want to be the most innovative roasting plant in the world,' he says.

Innovation means finding a better way to do what you're already doing.

Sometimes it means looking to the past, like using cast-iron roasters from the 1960s, which allow more ways for an expert coffee roaster to make adjustments as the beans roast. And sometimes it means looking far into the future, making more expensive choices now that may pay off eight or 10 years down the road.

Practices earn praise

Of course, it's nice to get a little support and recognition along the way. Stumptown was recently named 2006 Roaster of the Year by Roast magazine, a trade publication for the coffee roasting industry.

Stumptown also won a BEST award from the city of Portland's Office of Sustainable Development. BEST stands for Businesses for an Environmentally Sustainable Tomorrow, and the award was for overall sustainable business practices for a medium-size company.

Roast magazine is impressed with Stumptown's relationships with coffee farmers and consumers. Since founding the company in 1999, Stumptown owner Duane Sorenson has become a globe-trotter. He travels the world in search of the best coffee beans, but when he finds them, he doesn't just snatch them and move on. He establishes long-term relationships with farmers - finding something good, and working with them to make it better - and in the process frequently sets records for the highest prices paid for green beans. This is significant in a world market where prices are often so low as to be exploitive.

Educating consumers helps struggling coffee farmers, and it builds up the coffee industry as a whole. When people realize how good coffee can be, Lounsbury explains, they are willing to pay more for it. To this end, in addition to its three Portland area cafes, Stumptown recently opened a unique tasting room called the Annex (3352 S.E. Belmont St.). Here, customers can compare different types of coffee, learn about their regions of origin, and purchase rare, high-end varietal and heirloom coffee beans.

Naturally, a business that works this hard to take care of its suppliers and its customers also takes good care of its employees. Wages at Stumptown are the highest in the industry, and all employees receive full health coverage. This was a major consideration for the judging of the BEST awards, which take into account social contributions as well as environmental ones. BEST also praises Stumptown for its recycling program, the conversion of its fleet of delivery trucks to biodiesel, and its participation in a city-sponsored composting program. (Paper coffee cups can't be recycled, but they can be composted.)

Project could pave the way

Amy Stork, the communications specialist for the Office of Sustainable Development, calls Stumptown 'a shining example.' When it comes to sustainability, she says of coffee roasters, 'they're doing it, and they're helping us get the word out to other businesses.'

The Office of Sustainable Development itself is a pioneer; it was the first of its kind when it was founded five years ago. It pursues a wide range of projects, all with the goal of reducing waste.

So Stumptown's heat-capture proposal was an obvious choice when it came time to choose recipients for Green Investment Fund grants. As Stork explains, the judges look for what they hope will be demonstration projects, blueprints that others can adopt. The idea is to offer a financial incentive at the beginning, for new systems that will become cheaper once the initial research and trial and error have been conducted.

Spending more at the outset for a better product down the line is what Stumptown is all about. 'There are a lot of people that are looking at us in our industry,' Lounsbury says. It's not just because of the way they do things; it's because, in the end, the meticulous care that goes in, every single step of the way, leads to a fantastic cup of coffee.