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Inside Adam McGovern's Influential Sterling Coffee

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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.

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All photos by Emily McIntyre

Every micro-culture has its story — its major players, its innovators, its all-around great people and its snakes in the grass. Portland's coffee culture is no different, but for those of us coming in now, the layers of history and relationship are not just confusing but mostly irrelevant. Mostly, but not always: Nearly everyone in the local coffee industry mentions Adam McGovern as influential in their development. For 10 years now, McGovern has been anchoring Northwest Portland with his coffeeshop, Coffeehouse NW, and more recently, his sun-dappled charmer, Sterling Coffee.
"I was 22 when I took over Coffeehouse [NW]," says McGovern, "and I quit my job and dropped out of school to tackle the challenge. I came into a failing shop and I worked every day for two and a half years to get it off the ground." At the time, owning a coffeehouse and doing a really great job of it was unusual: Anyone with pretensions of quality used Stumptown Coffee as their roaster, and Albina Press in NE and Coffeehouse NW pretty well summed up the modern coffee scene. But in the past five years, McGovern's approach to quality coffee also spawned a tiny, more sophisticated twin, Sterling Coffee, which has held court every morning on 21st Avenue (in 2012, it moved from its kiosk to its current shared space with M Bar, transforming into a neighborhood wine bar every night).


Sterling came along in 2010 when McGovern and his business partner William Aric Miller wanted to start roasting their own coffee — limited resources plus the chance to do some experiments like single-origin espressos (unusual then) drove that decision, but also the excitement of starting a new brand. They found a 50-square-foot tin shed near Couch Park and opened Sterling Coffee. Sterling was a hit, aesthetically as well as otherwise.

"Design is always important to us, but we've only come to understand it in the past few years," McGovern says, "when we took what was essential at the stand and moved it to this place." He notes that many opulent coffeehouses can edge into ostentation, where the details overwhelm the whole. Perhaps he and Miller would have been seduced by the glitter of the details, but sharing space with a wine bar has helped rein them in. "We are balanced against the reality of the space: it's a wine bar at night." McGovern points to the scratches on the bar from customer's feet, to the scuffed floor and nicked window frames: "It keeps us honest."

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The first five years were a complicated dance with burnout, McGovern says, and the last five years have been a chance for him to step back a bit from the details and see with a longer eye. Not just coffeehouse management — though he's put a lot of thought into the process, from training to employee communications — but also the nature of happiness and health. (Which, if you're curious, he reduces to three simple steps: get enough sleep, water, and exercise, and many of your problems will go away.)

Honest and grounded is pretty much the impression McGovern leaves. Sitting in the sun-drenched box of a coffeeshop that is Sterling Coffee, you can feel it: Sip a shot of espresso-single origin or the Blendo Stupendo (aptly named) in a curvaceous Glencairn glass and gaze at the striped wallpaper with a sense of satisfaction. You're joining a Portland tradition.
· All Unfiltered Coverage [Eater PDX]
· All Previous Sterling Coffee Coverage [Eater PDX]

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