Another bank of gray clouds moves in over Portland, Oregon as a group of 20–30 roasters and cafe owners filter into Happy Cup Coffee. It’s closing time, and bottles of beer are cracked open over slices of pizza. Between talk of where buyers are in the process of booking coffees for 2016, and updates on inspections of new shops, there’s also friendly chatter about recent trips overseas and favorite historic buildings downtown.
If I didn’t know any better, I wouldn’t think the place was full of coffee professionals in direct competition with one another. The atmosphere is relaxed and downright friendly. This low-key feel, I’ll find after attending a handful of meetings, is typical of Oregon Coffee Board’s “531 Club” get-togethers.
531s are floating meetings held after business hours the first Wednesday of each month (at 5:31 p.m., hence the name), and are hosted at a board member’s cafe or roastery. The talk happening around me is exactly what these things are for.
Nick Walton, who currently owns and operates Mud River Coffee in Corvallis, Oregon (about a 45 minute drive south of Portland), is attending his first 531 on this particular night. And he’s finding it to be exactly what he was looking for. With his company in the midst of a major rebranding transition, Walton later tells me he found immediate direction and support from his colleagues. But, he also feels he has knowledge he could bring to the table.
“We have learned a ton. And we’re continuing to learn a ton, my wife and I. So we’re not old hat, for sure. We’re not seasoned veterans, but we’ve got some experience,” he tells me.
So maybe this whole board meeting experiment is just crazy enough to work.
“With the amount of growth happening in Oregon, it’s hard to keep up,” says Michael Boyd, Coffee Buyer for Boyd Coffee Company and current OCB President. He tells me later the event serves as a scene to bounce ideas off community members—no matter how big or small, old or new their operation is. “We all have the same problems. And in coffee, it’s like two degrees of separation. It’s still a small, family-oriented business.”
The OCB searches for ways to blend public education with promotion—similar to the Oregon Craft Beer Guild (coincidentally, an OCB associate member) or Scotland’s Malt Whiskey Trail. This past year, being a volunteer organization, it’s somehow found new ways to do just that. The board recently put on its first photo contest that brought a couple hundred entrants in from all over the world (a second contest is already in the works). Latte art throwdowns are held quarterly. And for $50, the Oregon Coffee Trail passport offers cafe discounts and tours to enthusiasts.
The board grew out of a meeting between coffee professionals and US Senator Earl Blumenauer about three years ago. They were interested in unifying Oregon’s coffee industry the way the Willamette wine and Oregon craft beer industries had. “We started talking about mimicking what these other industries did,” says Dan Welch, board member and owner of World Cup Coffee.
Welch remembers he and others began meeting regularly, and in February of 2014 they signed the paperwork necessary to make the OCB official. That’s when it finally became real.
It makes sense, when you think about it. Besides farms, what doesn’t Oregon have when it comes to coffee? Shipping centers, green bean brokerage firms, an internationally recognized barista school, top-quality roasters, and even farm owners call Oregon home. The OCB sees membership as access to a vast knowledge base of some of the most central and innovative players in the industry.
So what’s next? Members envision continued growth beyond Portland’s limits—out to Eugene, Bend, Medford, and farther. The OCB plans seven distinct regions all over the state with similar passport programs to Portland’s, creating miles of roadtrip adventures for coffee lovers everywhere. But really no one knows for sure.
“Who knows what’s next. It’s like any experiment,” says Ryan Cross, OCB marketing point man and head of sales for Ristretto Roasters. “And not knowing is what’s so exciting,” he says. It’s not just him. This same optimism—and thrill of Oregon incognita—seems to run through each event.
J. Peter Roth is a Sprudge contributor based in Portland, Oregon. Read more J. Peter Roth on Sprudge.