That’s why I seriously dig this new book called Left Coast Roast, by Portland writer Hanna Neuschwander. It’s subtitled “A Guide to the Best Coffee and Roasters from San Francisco to Seattle.”
It is not a guide to coffee shops. I have been haunted by that suggestion ever since I published Breakfast in Bridgetown. Even for an addict like me, that would be way too much work. Instead, this book is an informative and entertaining guide to 55 companies that roast coffee: who they are, where they are, and what they are about. It will also educate you on the lingo, the geography of the coffee world, the process from bean to mouth, roasting your own, and how to drink the best possible cup at home.
And yes, there’s a page or two of favorite bars, as well as sketches on women in coffee, sustainable coffee, and other gems.
I traded some emails with Hanna, who really knows her stuff. And while you read this, I am off to Barista (featured in the book) for a macchiato.
Who are you and what’s your background?
My interest in coffee started in about 2006, when I got a job working for a then-brand-new Portland café called Extracto. They hired me before the café had even opened—I helped spackle the walls and was standing by as their beautiful Cadillac-blue espresso machine was installed. I didn’t know jack about coffee at the time, but I started learning. It captivated me slowly, in fits in starts. In 2007, right before Extracto began roasting it’s own coffee, I left for a job at Lewis & Clark—I missed the comraderies and physicality of working in coffee immediately and immensely. As a way of staying connected to it, and to feed my growing curiousity about it, I started writing about coffee.
What is this book all about?
Officially, it’s a guidebook to coffee roasters on the west coast. But I hope it’s more than that, too. The first 90 pages are really a guide to appreciating coffee today—much has changed in the world of coffee in the last two decades. The ability to pinpoint where coffee comes from, down to the individual farm level, didn’t exist 30 years ago. That timing coincides with a cultural shift toward paying much more attention to where our food comes from, and to putting a high value on doing simple things well—like making a cup of coffee. Coffee makes a fascinating journey to get to us; there are a lot of stories embodied in that journey. The profiles of coffee roasters in the book collectively make up a history of west coast coffee culture since the 60s. It’s not limited to “artisan” roasters—Starbucks is in there, and Peets. You can’t talk about coffee on the west coast and not talk about the groundwork they laid for what’s happening now—the exciting profusion of high-quality coffees.
What inspired you to write it?
Writing about a topic is an incredibly rewarding excuse to learn more about it. I’ve been fascinated with coffee for a long time—writing a book about it enabled me to go deeper into that interest. I interviewed almost 60 people, most of them coffee roasters with an immense amount of knowledge. Once I started looking, I also couldn’t find resources that collected and described the work being done by coffee roasters today that also contextualized the changes happening in the coffee world. I wanted to write a book about coffee that was smart and fun, but also not judgemental or overwhelming.
How do you hope people will use it?
The idea of someone carrying this book around in their glove compartment on a road trip is honestly more exciting to me than I can say. Maybe it will inspire someone to go a coffee-themed road trip. But folks on the east coast or the midwest are also reading it to discover new roasters or learn more about what’s happening in the world of coffee. The Internet exists—anyone can order great coffees online now, and I do hear about people using it as a way of helping them find new roasters to try.
What are a couple of really cool discoveries you made in your research?
I didn’t realize until I dug into research how continuously coffee has been a big deal on the west coast. Here in Portland, the Boyds family has been roasting coffee since 1900. Fred Meyer, now one of our biggest grocery store chains, started as a horse-and-buggy coffee operation in the early 1900s, delivering beans to the logging encampments just outside the city. In San Francisco, there are roasters that have been in continuous operation since the late 1800s. Folgers started there. All of that history is important, even though some of the young folks in coffee like to imagine what they’re doing is somehow completely new, anti-historical. But that sense of newness is exciting and something I celebrate in the book. What’s happening in coffee right now is genuinely exciting and captivating—the focus on quality and flavor. And the intensity of this focus is new.
What the hell is it with coffee and this part of the world?
I used to think drizzle was the answer. But some of the most crazy passionate people I met doing research were in Santa Cruz and LA (granted, many of them started out in the Northwest). I think the current fascination with coffee has more to do with our obsession over food, which is happening everywhere but we arrived to the table on the early side here on the west coast. People are much more likely to see coffee in a culinary light today—something worth taking time over, worth a little extra money, something with incredible flavor potential and aesthetic value and not just a quick perk-up.
How much coffee do you drink in a typical day or week?
One cup first thing in the morning, and sometimes one more before lunch. I’ve overdosed on caffeine twice in my life and it’s among the worst physical experiences I’ve had. You come face to face with the fact that it really is a drug. There’s nothing fun about drinking too much coffee, and for some people even a little is too much. That’s why we say decaf drinkers are the “true believers”—they love the taste so much they drink it even though it doesn’t give the same lift as regular coffee.
How are you at blind taste-testing?
I recently attended the judging for the Good Food Awards coffee competition. I was in a room with some of the most celebrated coffee roasters and buyers in the business. We were blind-tasting coffees from all over the country that had been entered into the competitoin, assigning them scores out of 100 points using international guidelines. Out of 40 coffees, I’d say my scores lined up with the general consensus scores of these folks about 85% of the time. I was surprised I did that well—I don’t do that kind of thing very often. It was humbling, but also built my confidence as a taster a bit.
I think drinking coffees side by side is one of the fastest routes to really falling in love with coffee. You begin to comprehend how vast the potential for flavor is. You may not immediately be able to say “that tastes like rosehips” or somesuch, but you will—guaranteed—be able to say “I think I like coffee A better than coffee B” and your brain will be able to help trying to sort out why. Was it heavier on your tongue? Was it a bit sweeter? Did it remind of you something you’ve had before? Even if you never get to “that tastes like pear juice and molasses” the process of comparison is captivating.
Do you think coffee will actually reach the level of analysis and taste that wine is now at?
It’s already there for professionals, without a doubt. For enthusiasts, I think it’s coming. But it will be different, and it should be different. I’d love to see more emphasis on casual taste comparisons without necessarily focusing on public “cuppings” (a formal coffee tasting format), which I think can be intimidating. Some cafes offer tasting menus – just a few ounces of a few different coffees to try side by side. I think this is a lovely idea and wish more places did it.
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