Not a lot of folks outside of Portland know about the McMenamins empire. But they have managed to acquire a number of historic and interesting old buildings, and have turned these into rather fascinating, hard-to-describe places. McMenamins run the gamut, from the Crystal Ballroom, with its dance floor set on ball bearings, to Edgefield’s with its soaking pool & vineyards, to Kennedy School, with its boiler room bar and beer-fed movies, to…well, places in Bend, Gearhart, Mill Creek WA, Centralia, etc. etc. etc. And at each of these there is at least one restaurant/ coffee bar serving coffee; many have several. So it’s logical that they roast and package their own coffee, especially in this town of ours, known for its microbrew cultures of both beer and coffee.

My companion and I happened upon the roasting plant one afternoon, and we were proudly given a tour of the small place, with just about all the information we could possibly absorb. We were also brewed our own samples of coffee out of today’s roasted beans. Chemex, the coffee-maker was called. It’s been around since the 70’s, and has an hour-glass shape, with wood at the “waist” of the glass sections. Because its filters are thicker than most, it strains out more oils as well as sediments, leaving a crystal-clear coffee. Our tour guide demonstrated how to pour in the first dose of water and then let the coffee “bloom”, or bubble up and expand, before adding more water. The sample was very smooth and tasty, without bitterness, just as he promised.

Microroasters are popping up in Portland, as the coffee fans follow Seattle’s (Starbucks?) lead, and as consumers develop sophistocated palettes. Maybe people are simply addicted to the stuff, after a near-saturation blitz of by Starbucks , beginning in the 1990’s. Stumptown was an early roaster here, and it is well-established as a local brand. Other microroasters include beans from exotic places, and each tries to make itself a niche with specialty coffees. McMenamins roasters buy beans from places including Columbia, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Guatemala. They try to personally visit each contributing farm, to buy directly from them (thus ensuring fair trade), but some portion of each shipment is from brokers, and cannot really be traced. The fair-trade beans are organic. Apparently the green beans ship and store well, and they keep around an ample supply in big burlap bags. They have a large roaster which they use daily—early in the morning because beans are roasted at over 400 degrees—and an after-burner for the exhaust, so that the entire neighborhood doesn’t reek (my word) of coffee. Now, how could that ever be bad? But I suppose some (zoning) people consider it to be. One of my own offspring doesn’t share my love of the dark brown drink, preferring tea as a caffeine source, if needed. Bins of fresh-roasted coffee were being used to fill big boxes of different coffees, to be sent UPS to the various McMenamins restaurants that same day. They had a copper grinder for in-house use—such as, for our samples. Not a lot else in the place; the place is indeed a micro roaster.

The roasters at McMenamin’s graciously allowed us to use names and photos of them and the place, and I hope I didn’t misrepresent any facts—the visit was 2-3 weeks ago. He helpfully recommended a book about coffee, Uncommon Grounds, by Pendagrast.  I shall review it some day…