Coffee Wars

Has the Stumptown Backlash Begun?

“So, what do you think of Stumptown?” It’s a question we’re asked at seemingly every dinner party, and today, in the dependably contrarian New York Press, Portland college grad Ethan Epstein tells us exactly what he thinks about his hometown’s pet roaster. He thinks that while “legions of promoters and sycophants” consider it a “bohemian paradise,” “Stumptown’s current strategy is essentially a retread of Starbucks’ corporate model from more than a decade ago.” Ouch. Contrary to popular opinion, Epstein believes “the coffee just ain’t that tasty,” and notes that the company doesn’t reveal much about how it comes up with its flavor: “Stumptown’s literature simply tells us that Hair Bender features ‘coffee components from the three major growing regions of Latin America, East Africa and the Pacific Rim.’ Thanks! Now, that’ll be just $12 a pound!”

Of course, New York’s profile of Stumptown’s messiah, Duane Sorenson (whom Epstein makes no mention of attempting to contact for comment), included a sidebar that told a lot about why the beans have a distinctive taste — a taste that makes them a winner in the eyes of, among others, the International Culinary Center’s director of beverage education. But flavor aside, Epstein doesn’t buy the company’s “sustainable” and “local” spiel, since beans are being flown all the way from Africa to Portland to New York until Stumptown’s Red Hook plant opens. (Kind of a weak jab, since the Red Hook plant is due to open any day now.) And don’t get him started about “fair trade”: “Fair trade practices like Stumptown’s pervert the natural functioning of agricultural markets in poor countries.” Whoa! Talk about a buzzkill!

Actually, a lot of Epstein’s concerns were brought up by readers commenting on the New York feature. One remarked: “This type of growth almost always results in collateral damage to quality. Look at what happened to Peet’s and the difference between the coffee at their first store and the franchises that cropped up.” Another: “I am from Portland and am surrounded on a daily basis by this particular type of Pacific Northwest arrogance. I want to like Stumptown coffee, but alas cannot, as it tastes like cardboard and smugness.” But Stumptown also had its fans, including New York’s own movie critic David Edelstein: “I bought a bag of Stumptown at Chelsea Market a couple of months ago. It was their ‘best,’ around $19 bucks. And I must say, it was DAMN good. I’ve tried Counter Culture, Gorilla’s, and many other premium coffees, and Stumptown was by far the best.”

So where do you stand? Does Epstein make valid points, or is he clearly in need of a chill session with a pint of Stumptown stout?

Totally Stumped [NY Press]
Related: The Messiah Hails From Portland [NYM]

Has the Stumptown Backlash Begun?