Walking through Portland International Airport over the holidays, gingerly blowing on a too-hot latte made with scorched milk and burnt-to-Hades espresso, I pondered a question I often ask this time of year:
Why does Portland’s airport, the inviting gateway to arguably the greatest coffee city in the world, have such god-awful coffee?
Let’s admit it, we’re spoiled. Last month, Food & Wine magazine named roasts from Portland’s Stumptown and Heart coffee roasters as two of the top five coffee splurges for 2012. And that short list missed Coava, Ristretto, Trailhead, Water Avenue, Courier, Sterling, Extracto, Spella and dozens of other Portland coffee roasters from the good to the great.
Yet for coffee fans arriving and departing, PDX airport has just two options: Starbucks and Coffee People, the latter a once-proud Portland chain sold in 2006 to — shocker — Starbucks. (Coffee People’s airport kiosks were not part of the sale, and the brand is run today by Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, the Vermont-based conglomerate. Quality has declined.)
And yes, Starbucks was once proud itself. But the corporate giant has grown so large it’s lost sight of what makes a great cup of joe.
For example: espresso drinks at Portland cafes today are served at cooler temperatures — baristas argue that high temps destroy complex espresso flavors the same way over-roasted beans lose their ripe (and, perhaps, ripe for mockery) berry, citrus and chocolate notes. Lattes are delivered cool enough to drink immediately. A recent macchiato at Coava’s Southeast Portland cafe/bamboo showroom was downright lukewarm.
But big corporate chains like Starbucks steam their milk to 160 degrees or higher — past the burn point — no doubt because of dubious sanitation concerns, then pour the scalded milk over espresso made from oily, over-roasted beans.
Knowing this, I approached the Coffee People kiosk with trepidation. I ordered a latte, but asked for it to be served on the cool side. As I waited, I overheard the manager explain to a new barista to heat the milk up to 165, then add milk from the fridge to cool it off.
The result, not surprisingly, was acrid. I did a little venting on Twitter. Kevin Sandri, the former operator of the Garden State food cart, was also at the airport. He saw my tweets and replied that the “Oakshire espresso stout on nitro at Beaches (is probably) the best coffee here.”
He’s right. And that’s what makes the airport coffee problem worth mentioning. In other cities, people don’t expect much from their local airport concessions — mediocrity and price gouging are the rule. But PDX already does so many things right. Lines are swift. Security staff are generally polite. Bars, including pubs set up by the Rogue and Laurelwood breweries, sell Oregon craft beer such as the tasty stout from Eugene’s Oakshire Brewing. The Made in Oregon store sells fine bottles of Willamette Valley pinot noir, which (pro-tip) double as great last-minute gifts. Don’t look for good roasted coffee beans there, though — you won’t find them.
Coffee is one of the first things people think of when they think of Portland. Our roasters are innovators on an international level. We deserve better on our own front porch — both as a showcase for out-of-towners and a reminder to returning travelers of just how good life here can be.