Beautiful Portland, Maine! As discussed previously in these pages, this jewel of the Northeast is a city of food, and within these food-filled streets is a growing need for coffee. Here's a snapshot guide to the coffees of Portland—almost entirely roasted in the city itself—bearing in mind we may have been too dizzy from frites endorphins after lunch at Duckfat to remember every single cafe.
Tandem Coffee Roasters
Full disclosure—our recent focus on Portland food and coffee is a flame lit by our friends and partners at Tandem, whose entry into the coffee scene in 2012 brought a with it a breath of simplicity and directness. More than half of the small, one-storey warehouse housing Tandem's East Bayside roastery-coffee bar is dedicated to roasting operations (churning out some award winning coffees), and the cute and modern-clean cafe space is only accommodating in the most intimate of ways. A few stools dot the bar. A few more fill out perimeter seating around the edge of the small but open room.
Tandem eschews traditional coffee-house trappings, but still became an instant communal hit–there's no wifi here, no place to hunker down, but there's enough room to hold your baby, a latte, and a warm conversation with the small staff or the other regulars and friends you see each day. Pour-overs done right up in your face engender good coffee conversation, as does the live-action roasting just steps from the La Marzocco GB5. Tunes? From the Technics hi-fi of course, piped through handsome wood Zenith Circle Of Sound speakers mounted above.
Tandem's great, unpretentious energy will extend to yet more of the city soon: owners Will and Kathleen Pratt have signed a lease on a new space in West Portland, a former drive-up dry cleaner and service station (!) that'll house the company's soon-to-launch baking operations, helmed by Briana Holt, formerly of Brooklyn's Pies-n-Thighs and other delicious places. The new space will offer more seating, as well as a central communal table—but still no wifi. There are plenty of other places to go for that in Portland anyway, right? Look for the new space to open on Congress Street sometime this summer.
Coffee by Design
Coffee by Design is Portland's “old guard” coffee roaster. In a city that combines culinary leadership, cruise ship/retiree chic and street hippies, a traditional, locally-roasted, community-friendly, lots-of-travel-mugs-for-sale kind of place is de rigeur. CBD's cafes tend towards a cozy collegiate feel–except perhaps the one inside LL Bean. They offer a broad spectrum of coffees, from single origin microlots to a nice decaf Jamaican Me Crazy blend. Look to CBD cafes for an authentic, small-town experience or a great place to buy some brewing gear. And if you want to learn how to use said brewing gear, or try cups made on some more outré equipment, head on over to CBD's shiny new East Bayside roastery/cafe/training center for a look at the future of Coffee By Design.
Another college-town-vibe cafe, Bard is a comfy and convivial spot in the heart of Portland with a more specialty/third-wave bent than most of its downtown competitors. Co-owned by WBC judge Bob Garver, Bard roasts their own coffees off-site. At the cafe, you'll find Kalita pour-overs of single origins and blends, which you may enjoy in a wicker wingback chair or on a spring-shot sofa while also sipping a bowl of today's Kamasouptra soup offering. Baristas are friendly and patient, and while community may sometimes be more their focus than the coffee, the ability to linger while looking out onto Middle Street is a huge plus.
Like Mr. Espresso in the Oakland, Speckled Ax are practitioners of wood-fired coffee roasting, a method that purportedly provides a whole host of benefits and has an impassioned following. Their narrow downtown cafe is packaged in an assertively third wave style: a two-group Slayer machine is on the counter, pour-over cones and siphon brewers are arrayed about, and the menu offers “fast coffee” ready to go, for those not seeking a special hand-poured drip. (When I visited, I was told the “fast” offering was “a blend of light- and dark-roasted coffees.”)
It's a small, very stylish space, hampered by two factors: A. The close quarters—and this is coming from someone who drinks coffee in Manhattan—are jammed with enough seating as to distract from a pleasant coffee-sipping experience; B. possibly the worst sounding speakers I've ever heard in any cafe. I didn't particularly enjoy my “blend of light-and dark-roasted coffees”—but let's face it, it would have probably tasted better under less tinny, trebly, cramped circumstances.
Crema Coffee Company/Arabica Coffee Company
Crema and Arabica are sister shops here in the Forest City, using coffee from roasting facilities located inside Crema, just across the street from Casco Bay down on Commercial Street. Each cafe has a decidedly “come in and hang out awhile” vibe, with freely proferred wifi, easy bathrooms, large and busy spaces easy to anonymously sink into, and loads of coffee, grab-and-go drinks, and food items. Baking is imported a few blocks (or yards, in the case of Crema) from local heavyweight Standard Baking Company. This place is not at all a bad option to take a break and get some work done, particularly if you can cozy up to Crema's fireplace.
Portland is a small package with infinite little gifts to offer, from the improbably inventive beer offerings at Pai Men Miyaki ramen to the award-winning lobster rolls at the Bite Into Maine truck (which has currently taken to the ski slopes for the winter months) to the day-drinking-fish-fry-bar-fly crowd at J's Oysters to the racks of designer knockoffs and defective food at Reny's, there's truly something weird and wonderful everywhere you turn. And though the landscape's got a disparate, confusing mix of rich and poor (often at the same time—I was panhandled by a guy in iPhone 5 headphones?!) it's got a welcoming small-city vibe rather than a small-town suspiciousness. Everywhere I went, people held doors open—presumably, because humans here even thank each other for doing that.
I can't deny the Portland magic: from the bogglingly hefty, wonderful potato-based donuts at The Holy Donut; to the tiny bells you ring for a reinfusion of hot water at Dobra teahouse to the fact that within ten minutes of arriving, I realized everyone I'd ever contacted in Portland already knew each other (including my blindly picked Airbnb hosts, one of whom would prepare me a siphon at Hugo's two nights later) to the 8″ of fluffy white beauty that fell on my last blanket-cozy night. Go ahead: try flying into this city's Jetport and tell me you can resist its allure. I'll know you're lying.