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Case Study Coffee on Alberta: Personal by Design

Welcome back to Unfiltered, the column by Emily McIntyre that explores the new, the old, and the futuristic in one of the most dynamic coffee scenes in the world.

Emily McIntyre

In a city full of excellent coffee, it's the tiny details that make Case Study Coffee's brand-new location stand out. It could be as simple as a barista's smile, a splash of house-made toasted hazelnut syrup from real hazelnuts, or realizing that the spidery chandelier above your head is really a twelve-foot model of caffeine molecule.

Case Study Coffee co-owner Wes Russell and his wife/business partner, Christine Herman, planned every detail of the Alberta space, infusing it with an updated mid-century modern aesthetic: The light fixture over the bar, designed by Russell, is a riff on Cold War-era Sputnik chandeliers; George Nelson bubble lamps float above the floor like fairy lights; and the minimalist Rowland 40/4 chairs were refinished to reflect the original taupe. Even the custom laser-etching on the new Synesso Hydra espresso machine was made to mimic the hand-painted chalkboard menu.

The duo's vision was executed in part by a team of baristas who earned their spots in the new cafe with sweat equity, sanding hundreds of walnut rails that cover the European-style curved bar, and scrubbing the strangely wet-looking floor made of Asian beach pebbles. "Working in this store before it opened has given me a strong sense of ownership and pride in the space," says Rachel Emery, the Alberta store manager. "Plus, I feel more knowledgeable about each design detail."

Unlike most roasters in this city, Case Study doesn't sell its coffee wholesale, instead choosing to focus on building cafe communities and roasting for retail. Co-owner Herman has done the roasting since the beginning, working out of a communal facility -- Mr. Green Bean in Southeast Portland. But soon she'll be able to move operations to the Alberta store, where a 1940s-era German-built roaster is being installed. In addition to its undeniable cool factor, the new roasting setup will allow Herman more flexibility, and encourage dialogue with interested customers.

case study

Herman works closely with importers and farmers who are doing good through coffee production. For example, the Guatemala El Tambor that is currently on the shelves was sourced when Christine visited the farm last spring. There she saw first-hand how farmer Victor Calderon strives to improve his workers' lives. Ten percent of the farm is dedicated to growing food for the farmers, and each family is given a horse to use for transport.

Russell and Herman conceived of Case Study as a "case study" in every aspect of the coffee experience -- from the chemical changes ground coffee undergoes at 9 bars pressure and 200 +/- degrees Fahrenheit, to the nuances of satisfying customers and retaining good staff. James Niewinski, who manages the Sandy store, says, "Wes and Chris are the best owners I've ever worked with. They don't micromanage. They trust the people they hire."

With the opening of a third store, there are plenty of new faces on both sides of the counter. Baristas are dialing in their shots as well as their closing routines, and the inevitable cast of regulars is still forming as the neighborhood discovers the new addition in their midst. You could look at it all as a case study in starting a new coffeehouse community. Or you could just go check it out for yourself.

Editorial disclosure: After scheduling this piece, Emily McIntyre was hired by Case Study to do some work.