“You’re Hanna, right? You wrote that book!” said a tall barista from behind the counter of Stumptown Coffee in downtown Portland. He had an almost star-struck look about him. Not “rock ‘n’ roll” star-struck, but more like “famous professor” star-struck.
“That book” is Left Coast Roast, and “Hanna” is Portland author and coffee expert Hanna Neuschwander. I had joined Neuschwander for coffee — of course — to talk with her about her book and the Northwest’s coffee culture.
When we ordered, Neuschwander kept it simple with cappuccino. I kept it even simpler: Coffee. In a cup. As we took our drinks to our seats, I asked her if that happens to her a lot.
“Not really,” she said. “It depends on what coffee shop I go to, but yeah, some people recognize me because of the book.”
Left Coast Roast: A Guide to the Best Coffee and Roasters from San Francisco to Seattle is a virtual encyclopedia of all things coffee. From the best coffee shops and roasting techniques, to the history, economy, sustainability and ethics of coffee production, the book showcases the vast depth of Neuschwander’s knowledge about the industry with a particular focus on the Pacific Northwest.
Although writing is a lifelong passion for Neuschwander, believe it or not, coffee was not even close. In fact, it wasn’t even on her radar until 2006 when she moved to Portland. Before that, she was studying English literature at McGill in Montreal, and coffee was simply something that she used to keep herself awake while studying.
“Writing a book about coffee was not the plan,” she says adamantly.
“When I first moved to Portland in 2006, I was freelancing as a copy editor … I was just in my house doing my stuff in my sweatpants all day.” And while that might sound pretty awesome to some of us, Neuschwander was eager to make connections with actual people. So without knowing anything about coffee, she began moonlighting at a coffee shop called Extracto in northeast Portland.
“They cared a lot about coffee and what was happening in coffee,” she says.
When asked what the phrase “what was happening in coffee” means, Neuschwander explains, “I think that people get that there’s something happening in coffee. There are these fancy cafés, people are spending all this money on coffee and they didn’t used to, so they get that there is something exciting about it, but they don’t necessarily get what it is.”
“About 15 years ago, the whole way coffee was bought and sold really fundamentally changed. It used to be that if you bought pretty much any coffee, you would be buying coffee from Columbia, or a blend.”
According to Neuschwander, the coffee boom took off in the United States during the 1980s. Before that time, if you took a trip to the grocery store to get coffee, you would find tin cans of pre-ground, freeze-dried blends labeled “Rios” or “Santos,” which Neuschwander explains were the names of Brazilian ports that exported the coffee.
“And that’s about as specific as you could get,” she says. “Otherwise you were just looking at giant blends with coffee from all over the world tossed together.”
Things began to shift with the advent of coffee pioneers like Alfred Peet (Peet’s Coffee) and Starbucks founders Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegl and Gordon Bowker who started looking at the specific origins of coffee. Neuschwander explains that the industry transitioned from homogenized, grab bag blends of coffee to a wide and varied selection of single-origin coffees, whose beans could be sourced to the individual farms from countries around the world, each with their own unique flavor. Not only did Starbucks and Peet’s Coffee pioneer the import and export part of the business, but they also set the standards associated with training and educating a coffee workforce that helped revolutionize where and how coffee was served.
“It was so exciting when you started drilling down into these differences and uniquenesses that you couldn’t access before,” says Neuschwander. “Before this, all the coffee from Columbia would be thrown into one giant pile and then exported and you would get a cup of coffee where the 20 beans that went into making that cup could be from 20 different parts of the country.”
She says people could taste the difference.
“For example, take Stumptown: Most of what Stumptown is known for are their single-origin coffees. Their biggest seller is ‘Hair Bender’ which is their espresso blend and that’s a blend,” she explained.
“And there’s a reason for that. When you take a single-origin coffee and run it through the very extreme processes that an espresso machine involves, which is very high temperature and very high pressure, it takes the uniqueness of that coffee and amplifies it by 100.”
“So if you have a single shot of espresso from, say, Harrar, Ethiopia, it might taste awesome, but it also might taste like someone squeezed a lemon in your mouth. So blends are really, really good at smoothing out the extremes of flavor that you might get with single-origin coffee.”
Soon, things started going over my head. Neuschwander began to compare single-origin beans ground for a normal coffeemaker versus espresso blends ground for espresso. Ethiopian beans and lemon flavors versus strawberry notes and regional terroirs. At one point, I’m pretty sure she was talking about molecules.
“… but that’s just getting way too nerdy,” she said to my relief.
Neuschwander compares her relationship to coffee and the relationship a “normal” person might have with coffee to that of her and her husband’s relationship to soccer.
“When I watch soccer, I just watch the ball. When my husband watches soccer, he sees the whole field. He understands the rules of the game and how the players interact with each other on the field. That’s me with coffee.”
She told me that not everyone needs to care so much about coffee, although for her, being part of the coffee culture is somewhat addictive.
“In this weird, tiny little world that doesn’t actually matter that much, I am a known person. I can walk into this café and they [recognize me]. And who doesn’t want that sense of belonging?”
“Caffeine is certainly a factor, too,” she says with a laugh. “It’s also very much to do with our sensory perception. A lot of cafés are really nice and the atmosphere is pleasant and when you mix that caffeine with aesthetics and the experience, yeah, you could say that also has something to do with ‘what’s happening in coffee.’ “
That prompted me to intentionally put her on the spot, giving her a single-question pop quiz: Best café in Portland?
She responded with what she admitted sounded like a “cop-out” answer, but in actuality made a lot of sense.
“The best thing about Portland is how many amazing cafés we have. It is amazing. There are places that I like to go frequently because I like the space, or I like the people, but I try to go a different place every time that I can.”
If you’d like to learn more about “what’s happening in coffee,” you can see Hannah Neuschwander at Powell’s Books on Hawthorne on Monday, March 18 at 7:30 p.m.