Seattle Coffee Guide: Locally Roasted Beans
The bean has arrived. Once a mere commodity, coffee beans in the past decade or so have been treated
By Shannon Borg
December 31, 1969
The bean has arrived. Once a mere commodity, coffee beans in the past decade or so have been treated like wine grapes—coddled, encouraged and coaxed into their full potential. Now, more than ever, the coffee bean’s pedigree is everything.
As with many culinary offshoots, the coffee world has adopted the term “terroir”—the special characteristics of the place and climate in which beans are grown—which is not only acknowledged by a few coffee geeks, but asked after by picky café hounds. The old guard that started roasting beans in the 1970s in Seattle—Jim Stewart of Stewart Brothers Coffee (eventually Seattle’s Best), for instance—hand-roasted small batches of beans in either the northern European lighter style or the bolder southern Italian style of espresso. But these pioneers had a vision of coffee as a culinary art all its own, beyond the watery, flavorless American cuppa joe toward a more traditional shot of espresso. They may have never imagined how far their trailblazing would go.
Today, beans are sourced from sustainably run farms with fair trade practices, and single-origin coffee—using beans from one particular farm—is the rage. Lighter roasts are becoming favored over the deepest, darkest espresso roast, in many cases. The filter cone is taking its place as the what’s-old-is-new-again brewing method of choice by local roasting geeks and coffee connoisseurs— a presentation that brings out the simplicity and delicacy of each particular bean. While the pioneers of Seattle roasting are still going strong, the field has broadened with more roasters than ever on the scene holding public cuppings and traveling to visit the source farms. The bean is definitely in its golden age.
Espresso Vivace Roasteria
One of Seattle’s first artisan roasters, Espresso Vivace was established in 1988 by David Schomer and Geneva Sullivan with the goal of producing “una bella tazza”—a beautiful cup. Vivace focuses on espresso only, and all the coffee beans it roasts are proprietary blends, leaving single-origin coffee to the other guys. Respected by his peers as Seattle’s espresso guru, Schomer has gathered his expertise into a book, Espresso Coffee: Professional Techniques, and two videos, Caffe Latte Art and Techniques of the Barista. Schomer takes his espresso so seriously that he and his crew have also planted thousands of trees in Interlaken Park and other areas to offset the carbon dioxide produced in the roasting process.
Everyday favorite: Espresso Vita ($13/pound) Vivace’s signature blend creates a northern Italian style of espresso, with gorgeous golden crema—or foam—and a nutty aroma. The flavor is all sweet fruit, caramel and chocolate notes. Best enjoyed as a macchiato—a shot of espresso “marked” with a dot of foam—it may be one of the most transcendent coffee experiences available.
Rev ‘er up!: Espresso Dolce: ($13/pound) Like all of Vivace’s beans, Espresso Dolce is a full-bodied roast, a blend of coffees from Brazil and Central America. The process is stopped just before the oils are released from the bean, in order to retain as much flavor as possible. The Dolce is roasted to its full flavor, and as a ristretto espresso—a very short shot made with less hot water than normal—is the ultimate demitasse of caramel and deep chocolate nut richness with a smooth, creamy finish. Best as a straight espresso shot.
At Victrola’s Pike Street roastery, roast master Perry Hook holds public cuppings to showcase his latest roasts. Always looking for the perfect SO (single-origin) espresso, he toils in the fishbowl of a roasting room with small batches of Guatemalan beans from the century-old Finca Bourbon farm, or he mixes up one of Victrola’s four signature blends. Victrola has a useful blog and website (victrolacoffee.com) that charts its roasting progress, and also lists events, which include public cuppings every Wednesday at 11 a.m., when you can visit the roastery, watch Hook and crew work with the beans, and sip and slurp the latest brews.
Everyday favorite: Streamline Blend ($6.50/half pound) As an espresso shot, this blend of coffee from Brazil, Central America and South America makes a nutty, chocolaty, smooth shot with dark fruit and brown sugar flavors, and a pleasantly grainy, zesty finish.
Rev ‘er up!: Guatemalan Huehuetenango Finca Vista Hermosa ($7/half pound) This single-origin coffee is a delicately aromatic bean, which, brewed as a pour-over (hot water poured through a cone filter), is clean and nuanced with light orange blossom and caramel aromas, a soft vanilla taste and a smooth feeling on the palate.
Espresso is king at Vita. The beans here celebrate the dark side, with lush caramel, nut, chocolate and dark fruit flavors, but there’s often more at play. These beans are as much about terroir as any fine wine. The Vita crew travels the world to source the best beans exclusively for espresso. Focusing on farm direct rather than fair trade, they visit origin sites at least once a season to get to know the farmers, and to inspect the bushes and the environmental and labor practices. Vita arranges special dinners on the farm sites—with the help of coffee and culture consultant Michael Hebb—to highlight and support the farm-to-cup relationship.
Everyday favorite: Theo Blend ($15/pound) Some of the best coffee and chocolate experts in town got together to create this blend of fair trade organic beans from Peru and East Timor for an espresso full of dark nuttiness, tobacco and cocoa flavors that play well with chocolate. Best as an espresso shot.
Rev ‘er up!: Sumatra: Gayo River ($14/pound) The Vita boys think this is one of the best beans they’ve introduced, with a balance of fruitiness, smoke and earth in the espresso cup. Plus, the beans are grown on a single-origin site—a plantation where chiles, bananas, vanilla beans and other crops grow among the coffee trees. Best as an espresso shot.
Owner and head roaster Ed Leebrick approaches roasting the way a winemaker would approach blending a fine wine. Since 1993, he’s been sourcing special beans from smaller farms around the world and roasting them in small batches. Then he tests and blends to highlight the fruit, acidity, nuttiness or spicy complexity of each bean. The best thing about Lighthouse is its small-town feel. You can watch the team roast beans in vintage cast-iron roasters just feet from your table, with the aroma of the roasting coffee infused into the walls of the place and the sound of the machines churning behind the barista’s music mix.
Everyday favorite: Lighthouse Blend ($12.25/pound) This blend is a popular home-brewing bean choice at Lighthouse. It is a collection of beans from Central America and South America, producing a medium-bodied cup with fresh floral and citrus aromas, clean, citrusy acidity and milk chocolate overtones. Best as a French press cup with cream.
Rev ‘er up!: Yemen Mocca Sanani ($18/pound) A single-origin varietal bean, this is an incredibly complex and full-bodied coffee, renowned as one of the most desirable beans for its smoky, leathery and dried-floral complexity. It has a noseful of fruit and soft spice, with round, nutty notes on the palate. Best as a French press or straight espresso shot.
The most recent arrival is Stumptown, coasting in on its Portland success and finding a place in Seattle’s coffee-soaked market. Much like his local colleagues, Duane Sorenson, who trained at Lighthouse, brings a passion for detail, an attention to the social and environmental importance of the Stumptown product, and a cool-as-thou interface with the Seattle coffee hipster. Stumptown’s roasts can be bold or delicate, and the beans are impeccably sourced from sustainably run farms. Its cold-brewed coffee “toddy” starts as a coarse grind in a large jug with two filters at the bottom. Cold water is poured over it, and the brew sits for 12 hours. When made this way with Hairbender Blend and poured over ice, an amazingly fruity, chocolaty, creamy—yet refreshing—coffee is born. This glass of cold brew doesn’t need cream to cut any harshness. Just black, it’s smooth and cool.
Everyday favorite: Hairbender Blend ($11/12 ounces) This blend of East African, Latin American and Indonesian beans fills the nose with orange blossom and coconut. Bittersweet chocolate and orange zestiness treat the palate, with softer tropical fruitiness—think pineapple or guava—and cream coming on in the finish. Best as a straight shot, but a little cream, as in a macchiato, brings out its floral and citrus notes.
Rev ‘er up!: Guatemala Finca El Injerto Bourbon ($13.50/12 ounces) A delicate single-origin varietal bean that, with a medium roast, reveals flowers and green tea herbal aromas, mouth-tingling acidity, cocoa and plum flavors, a clean bite and lingering light nuttiness—almond and hazelnut—on the finish.
Until Starbucks changed the coffee landscape, most people didn’t think about what was behind the bean. As the company grew, Starbucks began to focus on the complete arc of its product’s journey to the cup, developing ethical and sustainable growing and labor practices on a grand scale. Of course, it has its choice of the best beans from around the world. As a roaster, Starbucks roasts a range of styles, from a lighter roast to deep and dark, as well as blends and single-origin beans.
Everyday favorite: Pike Place Roast ($9.95/pound) A nod to the famous café near the Pike Place Market that started it all, and intended as a “heartfelt toast” to the customers who have made the company’s success possible, this blend is a great everyday coffee, offering a nutty aroma and a rich cocoa flavor. Best as a French press with cream, or black.
Rev ‘er up!: Starbucks Reserve Aged Sulawesi Kalosi ($18/half-pound) This bean was sourced from 12 farms in the South Sulawesi districts of Tana Toraja and Baraka in Indonesia, then aged for one year in Sulawesi before being moved to Starbucks’ Singapore aging warehouse and aged four more years. Coffees are not commonly aged, but some roasters like the effect, and let the green beans sit in humidity-controlled warehouses in order to mellow and develop intensified, complex flavors. A dark-roasted, elegant bean, it is spicy and zesty but with lower acidity because of the aging process. It shows flavors of caramel, hazelnut and toasted marshmallow. Best as a French press cup.
Fonté Coffee Roasters
Often, a cup of coffee is an afterthought to a delicious meal. One of Fonté’s goals is to open people’s eyes to coffee as an essential part of the fine dining experience in restaurants and hotels. Roast master Steve Smith hand-roasts as much as 10,000 pounds a day in his German-made Probat machines, and is adamant about shipping beans within 24 hours to Fonté’s high-end wholesale accounts—among them Las Vegas’ Wynn Resort, chef Daniel Boulud’s restaurants and, locally, chef Jason Wilson’s Crush. At its downtown café, Fonté showcases not only the pure bean—mostly in espresso or French press form—but also an array of coffee “cocktails.” such as the Cafe Megara—featuring Metaxa, Amaretto, orange zest, Fonté F2 and fig-honey whipped cream. It may be the only place in town doing straight espresso shots infused with cognac or vodka rather than water.
Everyday favorite: Fonté F2 Blend ($15/pound) This blend combines beans from Brazil, Guatemala and Kenya for a consistently delicious espresso shot with a bright tomato and nut aroma; beautiful blossoming in the mouth, from chocolate and orange peel to creaminess and a pleasantly grainy mouthfeel with a long, zippy finish. Best as a shot of espresso.
Rev ‘er up!: Ethiopian Nekisse ($24.50/pound) A truly special single-origin bean with the surprising aroma of roses, lavender and dried herbs, and deep caramel undertones. As an espresso shot, this is all lushness and velvet in the mouth, smooth, dark-roasted cacao nib flavors and the brightness of a preserved lemon on the finish. Perfect for French press.
Emanuele Bizzarri is a third-generation coffee roaster. His grandfather, Ornello, and his father, Umberto, roasted coffee in Perugia, Italy. With his partners, Jesse Sweeney and Pasquale Madeddu, Bizzarri has developed a northern-Italian-style roastery featuring bold blends of depth and complexity. The Pioneer Square café gives the feeling of going back in time, especially with its high ceilings, tiled floors, Italian pottery and quaint outdoor seating. Sipping a demitasse of Gusto Crema espresso, you may just forget you’re in Seattle.
Everyday favorite: Gusto Crema ($9.95/12 ounces) A medium-roast blend for drip coffee or espresso, this is a classic Italian-style coffee, with beans from South America, Central America and Africa. It has a beautiful golden crema when made into espresso, with a smooth finish and chocolate notes. Best as a straight shot of espresso.
Rev ‘er up!: Bizzarri Blend ($9.95/12 ounces) Roasted medium-dark for an espresso that tastes wonderful in milk-based drinks, giving it a chocolaty flavor with notes of caramel and hazelnuts. Best as a double-shot cappuccino.
Fremont Coffee Company
Fremont Coffee Company roast master Aric Annear is bent on sourcing the best beans from around the world, then making sure they are “roasted attentively and cupped obsessively.” It shows in the flavor explosion of the beans we tried: delicate, yet balanced, with sweetness and tang, earth and fruitiness. Fremont Coffee Company supports fair trade growers and small co-ops in Guatemala and Sumatra, among other places, and sells the single-origin coffees in its charming coffeehouse in Fremont. Very much under the radar, these roasts are delicious and the roasters bring their skill to every cup.
Everyday favorite: Guatemala El Quiche Chajulense Co-op ($11.50/12 ounces) A single-origin bean roasted lightly to create an excellent drip coffee with a lovely floral aroma, with notes of tomato, butter and milk chocolate on the palate. Best as a pour-over either black or with a bit of cream.
Rev ‘er up!: Espresso Blend ($11.50/12 ounces) A blend of several beans from Central America and South America, this espresso roast is all citrus and basalt on the nose, but in your mouth it’s complete buttercream. Herbal notes of sage along with toasted pecan give it a surprising complexity. Best as a straight espresso shot.
Roaster Scott Richardson revels in the aromas and flavors of each unique bean. He roasts to bring out the particular flavor of that bean, rather than trying to create one consistent flavor in the cup. The beans are sourced from small farms that use traditional techniques in shady areas with no pesticides or herbicides. By appointment, Richardson, owner Mike Prins and his crew hold free cuppings at their Phinney Ridge store, where you can smell and taste the latest single-origin arrivals, just roasted, and learn how to smell, taste and prepare these special coffees. On his blog, baristaexchange.com, Richardson offers tasting notes on all the latest arrivals—a fun read, not to mention helpful in picking out your favorite beans.
Everyday favorite: Espresso Blend ($10.25/12 ounces) This proprietary blend shows bright grapefruit acidity with a buttery mouthfeel and spicy/grassy finish. It’s the everyday espresso roast at Herkimer, and it makes for a bold, aromatic Americano.
Rev ‘er up!: Tanzania Peaberry Hope Project ($12.50 /12 ounces) The Tanzania Hope Project helps small farmers get their beans from their farms in Tanzania to market by providing a central water-processing site—often difficult to find—and improving the care the beans are given. Lightly nutty and with a sweet rose aroma, a fresh herbal/grassy taste and a creamy feel in the mouth, it’s best as a pour-over to highlight the delicate flavors.
Seattle Coffee Works
Roast master and owner Sebastian Simsch is obsessed with getting the roast, the pull and the drip right, to show off the beauty inside the bean. His shop at First and Pike sells two dozen or so small-batch beans, all lovingly roasted in his red race car of a roaster, Anna (she has her own room in the back). Simsch holds court at his Slow Bar weekly with public cuppings at which he features his latest favorite roasts and demonstrates some of his many contraptions, such as the Trifecta coffee brewer from Bunn, a cutting-edge machine inspired by the Clover, and his old-school vacuum-pot machine that has remained unchanged since its heyday in the 1950s.
Everyday favorite: Seattle Coffee Works Seattle Space Blend ($11.95/12 ounces) Aromas of chocolate croissant and toasted pecan, with a lovely smoothness in the mouth balanced by soft citrus acidity come from a blend of Brazilian and Indonesian beans, with dashes of Indian and African. It has lingering floral notes and and milk chocolate finish. Best as a vacuum-pot cup or in espresso drinks involving milk.
Rev ‘er up!: Ethiopian Yirgacheffe Kochere ($12.95/12 ounces) In an espresso shot, this single-origin coffee has a lightly grassy, hazelnut, whiskey aroma, with a bright orange peel and tropical fruit flavor and a clean, citrus finish. Also tasty in a vacuum pot or as a pour-over cup.
Zoka Coffee Roaster and Tea Company
Owner Jeff Babcock established Zoka in the Tangletown neighborhood near Green Lake in 1996. His business has grown to three coffee shops and a 10,000-square-foot roasting facility, and earned accolades such as Roast magazine’s 2008 Roaster of the Year award. Bonus: Zoka fans can have favorite coffee beans delivered to their door through one of three monthly coffee clubs: Endless Blends (favorite everyday blends; $21–$23 for two 12-ounce bags), Roaster’s Reserve (a coffee of the month chosen by the roaster; $25 for two 12-ounce bags) and Artisan’s Elite (unique single-origin coffees; $35 for two 12-ounce bags).
Everyday favorite: Paladino Blend ($11/12 ounces) A spicy, soft aroma and flavors of nutmeg and other baking spices, with light acidity and a velvet buttercream mouthfeel make this fruity blend of South American, Indonesian and African beans a classic espresso shot. Also enjoyed as French press.
Rev ‘er up!: Organic Sumatra Permata Gayo ($12 /12 ounces) This is a lighter, clean, single-origin bean with medium body, and clear citrus and spice flavors on the palate. Best as a pour-over cup.
Seattle’s Best Coffee
Originally started in 1970 by Jim Stewart as a café on Pier 70 called the Wet Whisker, which morphed into Stewart Brothers Coffee and Seattle’s Best Coffee in 1991, this roaster and collection of cafés were in competition with Starbucks for years, until it was acquired by Starbucks in 2003. The buzzword at SBC is “smooth,” and its coffees in general are roasted lighter, but with bold flavor.
Everyday favorite: Seattle’s Best Blend ($26.85/three 12-ounce bags) Sweet and nutty, this is SBC’s most popular blend, with beans from Central America and South America. It is the award-winning blend that prompted Stewart Brothers Coffee to change its name to Seattle’s Best. Smooth and easy drinking, with softer acidity, this coffee makes the argument for a lighter roast that brings out flavor without making the coffee too bold. Best as a pour-over cup.
Rev ‘er up!: Henry’s Blend ($26.85/three 12-ounce bags) Named after an orange tabby that used to show up when the original roaster was cranked up and the aroma of roasting coffee floated out over Pier 70, Henry’s Blend is served at all SBC cafés. It is a darker roast with aromas of nut and spice, and smooth flavors of cocoa and roasted nuts. Best as an espresso shot or macchiato.
Vashon Island Coffee Roasterie/Heirloom Coffee
At the historic coffee roastery on Vashon Island where Jim Stewart used to roast Seattle’s Best Coffee, the single-named Eva and Stewart’s former master roaster, Peter Larsen, roast Heirloom Coffee beans. The roasts range from dark to delicate, and the place is a true destination for coffee hounds who want to experience the range of direct-trade, high-mountain, shade-grown coffee.
Everyday favorite: Heirloom Coffee Costa Rican Reserve ($10.95/pound) This is what Eva calls a “sweet Viennese roast,” which is quite light and delicate, with citrusy notes that pair well with dark chocolate. Directly sourced from a traditionally farmed plantation, this is one environmentally friendly bean, with an elegant, softly nutty flavor. Best brewed in a cone filter to highlight the freshest flavors.
Rev ‘er up!: Wet Whisker Finca El Gato ($375/pound) Yes, that’s $375 a pound—$350 of which is a tax-deductible donation to Jim Stewart’s Vashon Island Coffee Foundation, in support of family farmers who grow his coffee in traditional, shady, high-altitude areas of Central America and South America. A combination of citrusy acidity and a velvety smooth finish, this extra-special bean (available while seasonal supplies last) is grown on the farm owned by Stewart and his wife, Luz Marina Trujillo. It’s shipped in two half-pound batches—the first roasted dark to celebrate summer solstice, and the second is a lighter Viennese-style roast for the autumnal equinox. Best brewed in a cone filter or French press to preserve the delicate flavors.
In the image of Starbucks, Tully’s began roasting specialty coffees in 1992, when founder Tom “Tully” O’Keefe decided the Green Giant needed a foil. It expanded quickly—too quickly, perhaps—but proved that the corporate coffee business could accommodate more than one big fish. The coffee roast is lighter overall than Starbucks, with broad appeal for the latte crowd. In addition, many of Tully’s Green Mountain specialty coffees are certified kosher by the Orthodox Union.
Everyday favorite: Fair Trade Organic Compadre Blend ($8.39/12 ounces) One of Tully’s “Spirited” or lighter blends—the other categories are “Balanced” (medium) and “Grand” (dark)—this is a light-bodied, floral coffee that makes for an interesting cup. Best as French press or drip.
Rev ‘er up!: Sumatra ($8.39/12 ounces) Known for its earthiness, Sumatran coffee here is easy to drink and falls into the “Grand” category, with big, bold flavors, yet still smooth and lush. Best as an espresso shot or in a short latte.
North Star Fine Coffees
Relatively new to the coffee scene is North Star, which has offices in Columbia City and a roastery in Stanwood. With just $128, former furniture broker Bryan-David Scott launched the business in 2007, deciding that coffee was a way to fuse his passion and his business acumen.
Everyday favorite: Seattle Reign ($12.99/12 ounces) A blend of Central American beans—large, small and peaberries—with medium body, earthy and sweet nutty flavors, and a smooth finish. Best as a French press cup.
Originally published October 2010