This week is the annual Coffee Issue over at Willamette Week, Portland’s only newspaper (to which I am a food and wine contributor), offering a fine snapshot of what’s happening in Portland coffee culture in 2017. It is a mostly positive volume, with stories on Portland’s (and perhaps the world’s) first drive-thru coffee shop, an epic cold brew taste test, a feature on the drummer from Fall Out Boy’s new cafe, and so on. But elsewhere in its pages, culture editor Martin Cizmar shepherds legendary studio tech and record producer Gary Alpern across Portland’s cafe landscape, looking for the best stereo set-ups. The duo are appalled at what they find.
At Proud Mary: The word Alpern used was “tragic.” Proud Mary appeared to be trying very hard, and yet, because of the poor implementation, it turned into a “horror show.”
At Stumptown Downtown: “They work so hard on their product that they create and their service,” he says, “and yet they enter into something they have no idea about. And worse, they try to showcase it, and it’s just offensive on every level—even subliminally, and especially subliminally.”
At Courier Coffee: Alpern pointed out that the most basic elements of setting up a turntable appeared to have been ignored—things any kid in the ’70s would have known but which have been totally ignored by the hipsters buying up vinyl and destroying it with needles. For example, Courier’s turntable read that the needle weight was set to an absurdly light weight.
At Barista: Billy Wilson’s chain of five coffee shops are known for their sparse aesthetic and focus on skilled staff who do a great job executing espresso drinks. My Americano was perfect and Alpern’s chai was good. The wraparound banquettes give the room a nice open feel. Sadly, the sound was hardly worth talking about. The issue was a lack of sound pressure from the overhead speakers. Essentially, you’re getting the sonic experience you get in an elevator.
Alpern and Cizmar are more kind to the likes of Prince Coffee (“at least it was an honest presentation”) and Deadstock Coffee (“the best of anything all day”), but in general this article is a crushing assessment of the sonic landscape in Portland’s cafe scene. Stereo systems have long been part of the aesthetic of a certain vein of Third Wave Coffee, but never before (at least to my knowledge) have cafes been judged solely on their audio chops.
Audiophiles are a special breed of geek, and their expert assessments should be taken with a grain of nerd salt—I’ve been to all of these cafes and hadn’t noticed sound issues, but I know exactly nothing about this world, on purpose, because it is an endless money and attention pit and I already have one of those, thanks. But it just goes to show you that thousands of American dollars (or Australian dulluhs) of audio equipment ain’t much good if your “paired speakers [are] hung up as monitor speakers all over the place” or your turntable’s needle weight is out of whack. Because someday, some true audiophile (and perhaps even the True Audiophile) will listen for a moment, collect their thoughts, then read your cafe to absolute filth.
Jordan Michleman is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge Media Network.