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Economy | Business

A Tale of Two Cities: Portland's Coffee Culture Swipes Seattle's Crown

Ask a crowd full of Seattleites at a Starbucks what city in the United States has the best coffee, and the answer is unanimous: "Seattle, of course."

But that's not the view of coffee industry insiders. They say it's been years since Seattle led the way in coffee culture.

The consensus among connoisseurs is Seattle has lost its crown to Portland. Correspondent Chantal Anderson talked to coffee aficionados in both cities. She begins her story in Seattle.

In a neighborhood coffee house in Fremont with creaky hard wood floors and warm lighting, Jordan Michelman leans over to tell me something he probably shouldn't say in a Seattle coffee shop.

"There's not really any good coffee in Seattle," Michelman said.

Michelman is one of the cofounders of coffee news website He doesn't consider a tall, nonfat, vanilla latte innovative.

"Seattle is very stuck in a mold of what coffee culture was like 20 years ago and third wave coffee is very, very different from that."

Third wave is a term the average coffee drinker might not know. Michelman sums it up this way.

"It works on much more of a thinking about it almost from a gastronomy stand point of being really, really obsessed about seed to cup, where it comes from, who's roasting it, where it's roasted, the duration of time, having the choices, seasonality, all these kinds of things. There's nowhere that does that here."

He says there are a few exceptions to his blanket condemnation of Seattle coffee. One of them is a cafè called Vivace Roasteria.

Owner David Schomer literally wrote the book on how to be a barista and he doesn't suffer coffee amateurs lightly.  He says one reason Seattle is falling behind Portland is Seattle consumers are more likely to accept mediocre coffee.

"When I opened on Broadway in '88 as a cart in my infinite hubris I also opened one downtown in the financial district, well those people you could not establish loyalty with them, one day they'd have a Starbucks, one day they'd have mine, and I just thought well don't you stop and taste that? I wanted to rip my hair out because I was still you know believing that people are all available for culinary experience, and if you show them something better, they'll just flock to it. Well I've learned the hard way that, that is not true," Schomer said.

One other complaint from coffee people in Seattle is city regulations. At Equal Exchange in Ballard, Sam Lewontin, tells me the city of Portland is friendlier to small businesses.

"There's a lot of street food in Portland there are a lot of carts, a lot of small venders whose entire ethos is making something awesome for their customers and it doesn't have to be high rent or really even fully built. That's really what David Schomer did with Vivace. And it's an awesome model which doesn't work really well in Seattle anymore because of regulations regarding street vending, regulations regarding restaurant building really kind of prohibit it," Lewontin said.

For baristas like Lewontin coffee is not like fast food. Great coffee takes time, time for: sourcing, roasting, training, and creating the final drink.

In Portland, coffee connoisseurs agree the bar for greatness was set by one company.

"Stumptown, definitely single-handedly shaped coffee here." says Adam McGovern of Portland. He runs a cafè called Coffeehouse Northwest which serves Stumptown coffee.

"If it's not the best coffee in the world it's some of the best. Because what's unique about Stumptown's coffee is for the very first time roasters are able to give feedback to farmers who haven't been able to try their product."

Across town at Cellar Door Coffee Roasters in Southeast Portland, six friends leisurely sip coffee on a Saturday morning.

They're into supporting local small businesses and view coffee as the new wine. One of them is Nikki Kelly. She says among her friends coffee infatuation is the norm.

"They'll talk about their French presses and how they clean them and how long they brew, and what kind of coffee they drink, like and not like. It's kind of really high up on Portland's radar," Kelly said.

Inside the cafè, owner Jeremy Adams says what he's found is that Portland consumers are more receptive to hardcore coffee drinks. He says people also appreciate the "do it yourself" attitude that comes with small cafès.

"Somebody said, 'Portland coffee's just more punk rock.' Or something, or more you know DIY or more you know people hustling and trying to scrape things together and make it happen and still doing really high quality, but not always with the most resources, but I think there's something to that," Adams said.

Portland may be more punk rock, but Seattle has an espresso machine with a death metal name. It's called Slayer and it's considered one of the bright spots in Seattle's coffee future.

Inside a Georgetown studio, three coffee dudes have created what some are calling, the "holy grail" of espresso machines.

The machines are selling at $14,000 and up.