Thanks to its soggy climate, its people’s proclivity for hanging out in cafes, and the local love for mood-modifying substances, the Pacific Northwest has shaped and influenced global coffee culture for more than 50 years. It’s the birthplace of America’s obsession with the espresso shot, its ongoing love affair with cold brew, and its underlying ethos of cafe cool. You can taste it in the streets, rising like so much cappuccino foam. Across state lines and generations, visionary entrepreneurs and artisans have built the Pacific Northwest into a globally recognized hub for coffee quality, technological innovation, and espresso bar culture.
As a lifelong pan-Northwesterner and inveterate cafe dweller, I’ve had a front-row seat to the movement across the decades of specialty coffee — a term first coined to denote coffees that score highly in qualitative buying circles but is now an expansive cultural signifier. In 2009 I co-founded the website Sprudge, the world’s most popular coffee publication, in — where else? — a coffee bar on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. Today Sprudge is published out of — no surprise — Portland.
No timeline can ever be definitive, but I’ve tried to distill the essence of the story of specialty coffee in the Pacific Northwest: It begins with striving, baby boomer empire building in Seattle; travels down I-5 with Gen X ennui; and ends, for now, with millennial and Gen Z disruption in Portland. It is a story that is achingly, troublingly monochromatic at times, a holdover of who controlled access to capital and dominated culture in the late 20th century. The tattooed white coffee snob with a mustache is a trope for a reason. It is also, happily, a trope that is dying, as inclusivity, approachability, and accessibility on multiple levels have become rallying cries for a new generation of entrepreneurs.
This isn’t where coffee culture in the Northwest started. Think jazz clubs of the 1920s (particularly Nanking Cafe), the beatnik cafe boom of the late 1950s, and the folk revival of the 1960s, especially the Place Next Door (1959), where it was the fuel for late-night jam sessions and a lot of groovy poetry, man. But specialty coffee as we now know it — a latte on every urban street corner — began at Pike Place Market in 1971. There, Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegl, and Gordon Bowker set up the first Starbucks coffee shop, laying the groundwork for a new kind of American cafe focused on elevating the coffee above all else.
Named for the first mate on the Pequod in Melville’s Moby Dick, that original cafe was at 2000 Western Avenue — its first sale, a pound of Sumatran beans, was $5.36 (paid for with a check; okay, boomers) and was celebrated with a bottle of white wine drunk in store. The shop primarily sold coffee beans by the pound, but also offered a range of spices and coffee brewing equipment; caramel macchiatos were not yet a sugary twinkle in the eye of its shareholders. The cafe managed to clear just shy of $50,000 in its first year ($330,000 today). The very next year, Starbucks opened a second shop.
Today, the honorary “first Starbucks” is a few blocks away at 1912 Pike Place, and has become a sort of living museum. From this perch, the original owners grew the brand into an importing and roasting company, operating a half dozen cafes in Seattle by the late 1980s. It was then that the founders sold to Howard Schultz, a Ray Kroc-esque figure who supersized Starbucks into a global cafe juggernaut with a market cap of $130 billion. Currently more than 30,000 Starbucks are in operation worldwide, and the brand’s global HQ now sprawls across a 1.8-million-square-foot facility in SoDo. A delicious tension has developed over the years between Starbucks and specialty coffee, from buying the Frappuccino recipe off George Howell in 1994 to its cringey flat white roll-out in 2014 and cold brew a year later. The brand, once enamored with Italian coffee culture, is now openly inspired by — perhaps even outright lifts—the design language of independent coffee, and wherever you find a specialty cafe today in America, a Starbucks is likely across the block.
Nathaniel Jackson occupies a peculiar and deeply Northwestern place in coffee history: He is arguably the world’s first celebrity barista. Jackson got his start at Cafe Allegro, an iconic ivy-covered coffee bar located just off the University of Washington campus. Currently the oldest continually operated coffee shop in Seattle, Allegro was founded in 1975 by Dave Olsen, who later moved on to become a Starbucks executive. Howard Schultz, in his 1997 book Pour Your Heart Into It, cops to basing much of the Starbucks cafe model off Allegro’s early vibe, which fused the European cafe tradition of the “third place” with something distinctively American in its informality and uniquely Seattle in its approach to the rhythms of urban life.
At the core of it all was Jackson, a preternaturally gifted conversationalist who offered friendly, affable daily service more commonly associated with a bartender. He helped forever establish the quality barista as a beloved character in American city life. The Morehouse College graduate, who moved to Seattle in the early ’70s and fell in love with cafe culture, eventually became a co-owner of the cafe. He is still widely identified with coffee in the neighborhood; ordering coffee from Jackson became a rite of passage for generations of UW students who streamed into the University District each fall. By 2013, Jackson had departed, but stayed on bar in the neighborhood at another nearby mainstay, Bulldog News.
Seattle and Florence, Italy
You can’t make coffee without coffee equipment. In the late 1970s, a critical piece of the Pacific Northwest coffee puzzle fell into place when Kent Bakke, John Blackwell, and Joe Monaghan connected with the team at La Marzocco, a multigenerational artisan manufacturer of espresso machines based in the rolling hills outside Florence, Italy. Before, finding quality espresso equipment in the United States was a difficult process; none of it was manufactured here, and the import model was scattered. Directly importing these machines to Seattle helped normalize espresso service — along with espresso drinks, like the macchiato, cappuccino, and latte — with American coffee drinkers. It also led to a major early partnership with Starbucks, to whom La Marzocco supplied machines until the early 2000s, when cost-cutting and scaling measures led Starbucks to develop its own line of push-button automatic machines.
Many influential specialty coffee professionals got their start at Starbucks and were trained on La Marzocco equipment. Machines originally sold to Starbucks soon proliferated on the resale market, making La Marzocco a recognized leader on independent cafe counters around the region and later the world. La Marzocco USA’s presence in Seattle also helped establish the area as an American hub of coffee technology and wider industry innovation. The region has produced multiple espresso machine manufacturers (including Synesso, Slayer, and Mavam) and influential green coffee sourcing companies like Atlas Coffee Importers (Seattle) and Sustainable Harvest (Portland), as well as the world’s first click-to-buy coffee equipment website, Espresso Parts, founded in Olympia, Washington, in 1993.
Every movement needs a true believer, and for the Seattle espresso culture, it was David Schomer. A quality-obsessed former Boeing engineer, Schomer opened Espresso Vivace as a coffee cart on Union Street and Fifth Avenue in 1988. He soon moved to Capitol Hill, where the iconic “Vivace cart” is permanently installed on Broadway between Republican and Mercer streets.
The term “coffee geek” perfectly describes Schomer, who took his metrology and engineering training and applied it to perfecting the espresso shot. The taste and texture of espresso in America still owes a debt to Schomer’s work in the late ’80s, specifically his work in defining the structure of the cappuccino and latte, and the correct milk foam and texture for each. But his influence didn’t end there. Schomer’s hands-on approach to barista training influenced generations of coffee professionals and formed a broad flight path of influence that stretched from Seattle to New York City to Los Angeles and beyond. A select few of these figures are enshrined in the hallway next to the Vivace cart in an installation known as “the goddess Caffeina.” They include Brian Fairbrother, a beloved longtime manager and trainer at Vivace who helped establish the brand as a welcoming space for members of the LGBTQ community on Capitol Hill.
Perhaps the greatest influence of David Schomer is his work as an author. In 1996, Schomer published the descriptively titled tome Espresso Coffee: Professional Techniques: How to Identify and Control Each Factor to Perfect Espresso Coffee in a Commercial Espresso Program. Now in its third edition, the book is widely recognized as an industry bible for espresso technique. If you’ve enjoyed a latte or a cappuccino in America in your lifetime, David Schomer influenced it.
Seattle (well, Los Angeles)
It took fictional cafes to capture the imagination of the wider American public, inextricably connecting coffee culture with the Pacific Northwest. And although they hang out at coffee shops in Singles and drink a ton of diner coffee on Twin Peaks, no fictional depiction better epitomizes the fusion of region and beverage than Frasier, which began airing on NBC in 1993.
Before there was Central Perk, there was Café Nervosa, a daily haunt of the Brothers Crane, the neurotic and nattily attired psychiatrists at the core of the series. The show, scripted and filmed in Los Angeles, gets a lot wrong about Seattle life; for starters, almost nobody dresses like that here. But it does accurately depict the city’s deep and abiding cultural obsession with coffee, as well as its regional dependence on the coffee bar as an archetypical third place from which to escape the perma-gloom and rain. A typical Niles Crane drink order—“Double decaf nonfat latte, medium foam, dusted with just the faintest whisper of cinnamon”—sounds like a first draft of today’s despicable TikTok ordering trend, and as America watched coffee intertwine with the imagined daily rhythms of Seattle, an indelible bond was cemented.
Coffee as an industry has drawn more than its fair share of rogues, quirks, and kooks. But Zoka Coffee founder Jeff Babcock goes further than most: In 2003, he dressed up in Tea Party cosplay (as in 1773, not 2009) and tossed burlap sacks full of coffee into Green Lake in opposition to a proposed “espresso tax.” (The measure failed.) More than any other roasting company in the Pacific Northwest, Zoka shifted perceptions of coffee as a culinary experience during the late 1990s and aughts, sourcing some of the world’s most expensive microlot coffees, championing visionary coffee producers, and extolling the virtues — and price-worthiness — of specific coffees from specific farms in its Tangletown Café, opened in 1997, long before this was a common conversation. Starbucks and Frasier Crane and David Schomer all knew their way around a cappuccino, but it took Zoka to elevate the farmer to the level of a vigneron, and to champion the specific terroir and microlots as expressions of culinary coffee’s zenith. Along the way, Babcock helped recast the coffee farmer as an artisan, on par with the great vignerons of Europe, and Zoka became an influential company for the coffee industry, training an impressive roster of coffee professionals with an influence and impact that continues to this day, from Seattle to San Francisco to Nairobi.
At the turn of the 21st century, specialty coffee felt like it was on the cusp of a zeitgeist, in which specialty coffee would become part of the fabric of a certain kind of urban life across the country. No brand better exemplifies that shift than Stumptown, whose quixotic founder, Duane Sorenson, worked his way up across the Pacific Northwest as a barista (at Tacoma’s Shakabrah Java, still around today) and roaster (Fremont’s Lighthouse Coffee, also still around) before launching the company in 1999.
From a single cafe on a then-sleepy block of SE Division Street, Stumptown grew to open multiple coffee bars across the Portland area, as well as operations in Seattle, New York City, and New Orleans. Along the way it amassed a formidable armada of wholesale accounts — independent cafes that were signed up to serve Stumptown, thereby taking part in the cool, almost like an indie record label. In-the-know Portlanders at the turn of the aughts had their favorite wholesale Stumptown spots memorized, including the Fresh Pot and Kevin Fuller’s influential Albina Press. The success of Stumptown’s wholesale approach begat similar approaches in cities around the country, dovetailed with the efforts of similar influential companies (like Intelligentsia and Counter Culture), and inspired future Portland coffee roasting companies, such as Heart and Coava, to build their own wholesale networks.
Sorenson sold the brand in the 2010s (twice, actually) and went on to open and close a string of restaurants, markets, and juice bars. But for all that, perhaps the most enduring legacy of Stumptown emerged in 2011, when Sorenson and his team launched a then-unheard-of product category into the coffee consumption sphere: ready-to-drink cold brew. In little brown bottles modeled off of retro Olympia Beer stubbies, Stumptown managed to harness the quality and cool of specialty coffee with a scalable and shelf-stable product approach. So goes the cycle of entrepreneurism, success, and scale; Stumptown went from your favorite indie band to the sort of thing they play at baseball stadiums, and its products are now sold in grocery stores and markets across the country. Not long afterward, the brand sold for tens of millions, and cold brew? It’s so popular now they sell it at Starbucks.
Victrola 15th Avenue
At the turn of the 21st century, a new wave of coffee companies — sometimes called “third wave,” a phrase coined by noted coffee roaster and Zoka alum Trish Rothgeb — opened across the United States. Seattle and Portland were innovation hubs for this movement, specifically the neighborhoods of Southeast Portland and Seattle’s Capitol Hill, which were then undergoing a generational arts and culture boom. (Don’t ask how much an apartment cost back then. Fine, a studio was like $400.)
Gen X did more than sass its elders and inherit the last gasp of the baby boomer endless prosperity cycle. Victrola’s 15th Avenue baristas were among the city’s first to consider themselves culinary craftspeople, setting the stage for coffee’s rise to respectability as a component part of the early 21st century “foodie” moment. Several of them went on to own their own thriving coffee companies, including Tony Konecny (Yes Plz) and Kyle Glanville (Go Get Em Tiger). “We knew what we were doing was special,” Konecny told me in 2018, “even if other people didn’t get it yet.” The snobby barista trope, once so inextricable from coffee culture, found its essence in places like this. “We wore those attitudes like a suit of armor,” Konecny told me.
Phuong Tran’s Lava Java
Jean-Paul Sartre marked the march of history and human phenomena into two distinct categories: singularity and ubiquity. The latter is arguably more important — mass adoption, access, and availability are required for any food and beverage trend to grow from the fringe to something bigger. Because of this we look outside the city limits of Seattle and Portland to Interstate 5, Exit 14, and the city of Ridgefield, Washington, home to one of the most influential coffee bars in all the Pacific Northwest: Phuong Tran’s Lava Java.
Tran occupies a unique and singular place in American coffee history, for out of tiny Ridgefield (population 7,767) she went on to win the United States Barista Championship, an annual tournament of coffee skills that is the subject of much obsession within the American coffee industry, in 2004. Along the way, Tran helped make her cafe, Lava Java, a required stop for coffee lovers on any drive between Portland and Seattle or points between, helping to establish the growing trend of great coffee in rural areas across the Pacific Northwest. Tran sold Lava Java in 2013, but the movement she helped inspire lives on. Today there are great cafes like Lava Java in small towns like Ridgefield across the Pacific Northwest and, indeed, throughout the United States and beyond.
By 2009, coffee in Portland was a major source of municipal pride, an international marketing point synonymous with the city itself, thanks to the wild success of brands like Stumptown. (Although the less said about those awful racist Portlandia skits, the better.) It took more than a cool coffee bar at this point to innovate. Enter Billy Wilson, a Lava Java alum and multiple regional barista champion. Rather than settle for the traditional approach, in which a cafe would serve coffees from a dedicated source roaster, Wilson and his team flew in coffees from boutique roasteries across the country, curating the best of the best. He offered these roasts, perfectly matched to a specific brew method, to the city of Portland with exacting service standards — along with the satisfaction of knowing you were at the trendiest cafe in town.
The popular narrative is that Barista “invented” the multi-roaster model. While it certainly helped popularize that, and in the early 2010s was synonymous with this approach to coffee service, a multi-roaster approach was in place at Seattle’s Tougo Coffee as early as 2008. Tougo’s founder, Brian Wells, is also a noted photographer, and exemplifies the undertold story of BIPOC excellence in the Pacific Northwest coffee narrative.
Being a coffee snob had become de rigueur for Pacific Northwesterners for decades, a race to the bottom of snooty attitudes and expensive analog stereo systems. Ian Williams blew this up in 2016, when he opened Deadstock Coffee as a hub of super-approachable, unabashedly fun coffee culture in the heart of Portland’s Old Town district.
Williams, who worked his way up from janitor at Nike HQ in Beaverton to become a member of the brand’s sneaker design team, built Deadstock as a sort of gallery approach to coffee: The store is full of sneakers, vintage sports posters, and memorabilia and hosts regular art shows from Portland’s visual arts community. But this shop matters because it’s an antidote to the worst impulses of specialty coffee’s snobby zenith, a scorched earth of too-cool baristas disallowing condiments and painfully light-roasted coffee. “A lot of the reason why I opened a coffee shop was because I didn’t feel comfortable in all these other [cafes],” Williams told Sprudge in 2018. By building a place he’d feel comfortable in, Williams opened the door to a new generation of coffee lovers and entrepreneurs, driven to build and inhabit coffee spaces unlike those who came before.
Deadstock remains a landmark coffee destination and draws visitors from around the world. At any given moment you will meet streetwear designers, sneakerheads, coffee pros, tourists, regulars, well-wishers, and locals—and that’s just while you wait in line.
The Pacific Northwest
The History of the Present
In some ways it’s tempting to look at this moment right now and say Big Coffee won. That’s both a bad and a good thing: On one hand, Starbucks is more popular than ever, and nearly every pioneering early specialty coffee company has been VC’d out, bought and sold into an impression of their early form. But at the same time, there’s demonstrably tasty coffee available now in seemingly every city and town, much of it in the mold of early Pacific Northwest influences. So permit me a moment of pollyanna, because I think the best moment for coffee in this region is happening right now.
The modern landscape for coffee companies in the Pacific Northwest looks and feels very different than it did a decade ago. An up-and-coming new generation of shop owners is redefining what specialty coffee looks like with a renewed focus on community — in particular their own communities — with a more deliberate interrogation of what is celebrated in coffee both at a product level and at a cultural level.
I’m thinking specifically of owners like Erica Escalante of Café Reina, whose in-house baking program is the subject of much obsession here in Portland; Kimberly Dam of Portland Cà Phê, whose interpretation of Vietnamese coffee redefines the beverage, and whose frequent collaborations with indie food brands like Hey Chaudy and Heyday Donuts gives coffee a rightful culinary placement; Loretta Guzman’s Bison Coffeehouse, a prominent Native-owned cafe that doubles as a lovingly arrayed tribal art gallery; Axel Villa and Angel Medina of La Perlita & Reforma Roasters, a cafe and coffee company with an unabashedly Mexican-American lens (serving truly extraordinary Mexican-grown coffees); and James Lim of Seattle’s Watson’s Counter, a high-wire act of outstanding coffee and outstanding food, from black sesame churros that beg to be dunked in a cup of drip to cereal French toast (with “fruity pebs” or “frosty flecks”) and Lim’s mom’s own kimchi recipes. You’ll read about these places, and many more, throughout Eater’s exploration of coffee in the Pacific Northwest.
In 2021, it feels like nearly every coffee bar is its own roasting company, thanks to the collaborative roasting model offered by places like Portland’s Buckman Coffee Factory, as well as ever-smaller roasting equipment options. Ready-to-drink (and especially cold brew) have never been more important, but cafes with patio seating and outdoor vibes have found themselves especially well suited to weather the pandemic. Predicting what comes next in coffee is a fool’s game — as a career coffee journalist, I assure you — but the Pacific Northwest will continue to play a major role in leading worldwide trends for how the beverage is consumed, roasted, and appreciated. Coffee is our region’s cultural heritage, our common ground, and our calling card, now more than ever — rain or shine.
An earlier version of this piece stated Phuong Tran was the first Asian-American barista to win the US Barista Championship, in 2004. This is incorrect; in 2003, when the tournament was reorganized following the North American Barista Championship, its winner was Bronwen Serna, an Asian-American coffee professional from Seattle. Eater regrets the error.
Jordan Michelman (@suitcasewine) is a co-founder at Sprudge Media Network. He is a 2020 James Beard Award winner for journalism, and the co-author (with Zachary Carlsen) of The New Rules of Coffee: A Modern Guide For Everyone, published in 2018 by Ten Speed Press.