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.
All photos by Emily McIntyre
Tucked away in the idyllic Portland village of Sellwood is a cafe that approaches the perfection of a neighborhood coffeehouse: Either/Or. This name is inspired by Portland artist Elliot Smith's 1997 album, which in turn was inspired by the famous book on aesthetics and ethics by Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. But it also evokes simpler choices: Either quaint inside benches/Or communal outside seating, Either local roaster Roseline/Or other local roaster Heart in that perfectly-prepared cappuccino, Either house-made chai/Or the house coffee soda.
Multi-roaster cafes are common now — step into Barista and you'll find a rotating list of coffees from Texas, San Francisco, and Washington. The Arbor Lodge features local roasters Tanager and Roseline, and even cafes that roast their own coffee often feature guest roasters. At Either/Or, both Heart and Roseline coffees are treated with respect that, with a minimum of fuss, delivers an experience that rounds out the perception of those roasters. Here now, in a coffeehouse close-up, a look at what makes Either/Or tick.
Owner Ro Tam grew up in San Diego, where her parents owned a Chinese restaurant. She loved the music and cultural scene in the Pacific Northwest and moved to Portland to pursue photography nine years ago. "I've always loved the service industry," she says, and she naturally gravitated to working in the Portland coffee scene. Years later, after months of planning, Either/Or was born.
Either/Or's Tanglewood Chai is rapidly making a name for itself around Portland, with prominent coffee micro-chains Barista and Heart using it enthusiastically in their cafes, along with other independent cafes, like St. Johns' Cathedral Coffee. Ro says, "The chai is such a wonderful things for us. Up 'til a month ago I was making it three bottles at a time here, but now I'm making it in a nearby commissary kitchen. That's what has allowed me to hire employees." It's pungent and warming all at once, available iced or hot.
Just like at multi-roaster cafes, tasting flights are everywhere. Usually they are visually impressive, novel and intriguing in concept. But form can be sacrificed for function — espresso sits too long, milk texture dies, water warms ... and the end result is underwhelming. In contrast, the tasting flight at Either/Or is a constantly-morphing delight in which the entire staff collaborates, drawing on whatever is in-season as well as the always-changing coffees Heart and Roseline bring to the table. One week it was a shot of Heart's Shakisso espresso, a Roseline Ecuador cappuccino, and a nibble of banana yogurt with raspberry and lime zest. Sounds simple. Tastes complex. Ultimately, memorable.