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Tanager Coffee Roasters' C.J. Speelman on Building Community Through Coffee

Welcome to Unfiltered, Eater PDX's new coffee column. Written by Emily McIntyre, an ex-barista and beverages writer married to a coffee roaster, this recurring column will explore coffee roasters and spaces throughout the City of Roses, honoring the new, the old, and the futuristic in one of the most dynamic coffee scenes in the world.


Photos courtesy McIntyre/EPDX

C.J. Speelman of Tanager Coffee — a graceful bear of a man with a crisp mop of caramel-colored hair hiding a rough-hewn face — doesn't look like the sort of man to balance fatherhood, a long career in nonprofits, and one of Portland's best micro-roasteries. Maybe that's because he's the sort of man who's so busy doing just that that he remembers, partway through our photoshoot, that he forgot to brush his hair that morning. Regardless, when I dragged myself to a 4:30 am interview with Speelman to catch him in action with my camera and talk bike repair, coffee origins, and healthy competition, it was a memorable hour.

Speelman, co-founder of Portland's non-profit mobile repair shop Wrench Raiders, first got into coffee after a chance meeting with fellow coffee enthusiast/non-profit founder Scott Davison. "I was interested in working in coffee," says Speelman, "and wanted to become more bi-vocational. I wanted to use coffee as a tool to really build the community locally in Portland and in coffee growing regions." Joining Davison's vision and helping open the Arbor Lodge — where Speelman still works as a barista — was the natural next step. At first, Speelman roasted exclusively for the Lodge, but last summer, he launched Tanager as its own brand: In just one and a half years, he's built Tanager to national recognition. And Speelman's just getting started.

Tanager's non-profit origins:
Speelman and his wife, Tisha, lived in the high desert in Victorville, California, where "I started working a lot with people who live outside, doing a lot of sharing meals in the park along the old Mojave River bed," Speelman says. Coffee was a natural part of the meals, and at first they used a supermarket brand — "Folger's, or whatever," — but soon the dichotomy struck him. "I thought, here we're doing all this social justice work, but some of what we are feeding our friends is not justly sourced. We started using organic, Fair Trade coffees so we could have parity — supporting poor farmers while working with the poor." That's when Speelman started learning more about different styles of coffee, coffee origin countries and communities.

When the Speelmans moved to Portland, that spirit continued: "We moved to Portland to explore the idea of continuing what we were doing, with bikes, and I built up a non-profit idea associated with the other called Wrench Raiders. It is a community built around fixing bikes for folks who live outside," Speelman says. Even with his microroaster, the project continues: "Every other Sunday we meet downtown and fix bikes," he says. "People I work with have all previously lived outside or are experiencing homelessness." The group fixes between four and eight bikes a week.

Fly south, pretty bird:
Tanager "just kind of happened" around a year and a half ago, when Speelman's desire to learn more about coffee coalesced with the help of Trevin Miller of Mr. Green Beans, the collaborative roasting space and learning center based in SE and on Mississippi Avenue. "I wanted a new challenge, and to push my dream towards progressing my career in coffee," he says. "We started talking with Trevin about his ethos and how they operate, and he kind of mentored me in roasting, green buying, and everything else."

The "Tanager" concept is a metaphor for working locally, using coffee to build communities on both sides of the coffee-producing chain. It's particularly apt, since the tanager is a bird that migrates from North America and lives on coffee farms in coffee growing regions.

Promising crops:
The next month will be exciting for Tanager: new crops of coffee will be pouring in, with new stories and flavor profiles. There's a Zelele from Ethiopia that Speelman's particularly excited about: "It's rare for coffees from that region of Ethiopia [Yirgacheffe] to be separated at the farm level, so it's a lot of fun to offer that. Though it's not a direct trade, it reflects the ethos of Tanager — buying coffee through a caring importer [Cafe Imports in Minneapolis, this time] at rates that really benefit the farmer and his family, with a story we can tell."

Other exciting coffees coming soon are a tiny lot of natural-processed Nicaragua sourced directly by Speelman's friend and co-worker at the Arbor Lodge, Michael McIntyre with Revive Imports, and an El Salvador that at this point is one big juicy secret. "Recently I traveled to El Salvador to work with a producer on a project there," Speelman says. "Soon, we'll be roasting coffee we sourced directly from them — it's going to be fun and tasty!"

Cup, and cup again:
How does Speelman select his coffees? "Before I ever buy a coffee, I make sure it has a story I can tell, and that I know it's sustainably and ethically sourced," he says. "Then I sample it and taste it multiple times — not just cupping but also with several different brew methods so I can taste what my customers will taste. Working as a barista, I'm able to serve my coffees every day as espresso, drip, and pour over, so that's very helpful as well for maintaining consistency and getting feedback."

When it comes to roasting philosophy, Speelman laughs and quips: "Oh man — just don't burn the beans! But really, I enjoy single-origin coffees and learning the intricacies of terroir in each region and even farm to farm. My goal is to bring out the sweetness and juiciness of these coffees — I roast coffees I want to drink."
· Tanager Coffee Roasters [Official site]
· All Previous Coffee Coverage [Eater PDX]