Where in the world is it not only polite but a downright requirement to slurp up your coffee with vigor and tenacity? At Stumptown's Annex, a tasting room in Portland, Oregon, you can drink several of their esteemed coffees and learn about the intense brews from the pros behind the counter. It's the quintessential gourmand Portland experience, perfect for locals or out–of–town guests.
With Stumptown's ever–widening grip on quality, fairly-traded, organic, perfectly–roasted coffees, I feel privileged to live in the little "Rose City" of Portland where the caffeinated magic started. A trip to the Annex, next door to the Southeast coffee shop location, is a must for any Portlander worth their coffee beans as well as being a fun stop for tourists. The free 'cuppings' (tastings) are held twice daily. During the hour to hour and a half session, you are guided along an informative and delicious coffee journey, from the bean to the cup. Matt, the expert of the day, explained to a group of about fifteen of us that we'd be doing a 'baby tasting.' This experience, however, was pretty close to what coffee professionals do, just on a much smaller scale. We tasted five different coffees, brewed in a variety of ways and were coached in every aspect of the process.
What is the coffee–tasting procedure? First, you must smell the beans and the fresh grounds. I noticed quite a surprising difference in smell from coffee to coffee. Matt educated us on notes we may find in the coffees, comparisons to melon, beef stew, Thai food, and bloody marries were some of the most vivid and hilarious descriptors. To 'reset' our sense of smell, we were directed to smell our arms, this was surprisingly effective.
Next up was smelling the brewed coffees. After they were steeped just the right amount of time (about four minutes), Matt showed us how to "break the crust." This satisfying gesture was akin to cracking the brown sugar layer on the top of a crèeme bruléee, the shattering caramelized skin giving way to the gentle pillow of custard. We broke the crust of the light layer of foam (which had developed while brewing) with the backs of our spoon, sticking our nose almost completely into the aromatic coffee. The steamy flavor enveloped my shnozz in a haze of rich, beloved aroma. I'd never been so close to my sacred brew.
Finally, we tasted five coffees, with the severe slurp from a wide-mouthed silver soup spoon. As instructed, we aerated the coffee as much as possible in our mouths, and spit the remains into a paper cup. The experience began with fifteen other coffee–slurppers, like a symphony of first–date, jitter–filled vanilla malt milkshake sips. As the tasting progressed, we grew loud and empowered. We devoured the exceptional coffees with the grace of thirsty St. Bernard puppies. lapping wildly at their water bowls. It's a very joyous shared experience. Meanwhile, Matt and his assistant demonstrated three different methods of making coffee at home. It was fascinating how distinct each coffee tasted, coming from a different vessel. For example the Chemex Coffee glass was a beautiful object, full of sensual curve and graceful lines, but the Melitta, a simple paper filter, pour–over, single-cup method produced a stronger, richer–flavored coffee, in my mind.
At the end of the cupping, the coffee origins were revealed. My favorites ended up being the Colombia and the Esmeralda, both known for their full-bodied intensity and balanced flavor. A little buzzed, and a lot excited about superb coffees, my family left the Annex. We didn't then go for a hike in Forest Park or venture to one of the pristine rose gardens the city is famous for, instead we headed straight for the Stumptown coffee shop next–door, for another cup of coffee. One good turn deserves another!
Visit Stumptown's Annex: Annex
Related: Coffee Methods: The Chemex Carafe
(Images: Leela Cyd Ross)