There’s no such thing as a simple brew for Stumptown Coffee founder Duane Sorenson. Growing up in Seattle in the ’90s during the peak of the coffee craze, he saw breathlessly-hyped espresso bars popping up everywhere, though not all of them were worthy of the buzz. Working in myriad bars and shops throughout his youth, the constant hum of the coffee makers and the smooth, dark elixirs they produced kindled in Sorenson a deep appreciation for the fine art of a handcrafted roast. After climbing the ranks from barista, to buyer, to roaster, he decided to take the plunge and move to Portland and make a name for himself in one of the world’s coffee capitals. Stumptown is now a highly successful company, generating excitement on both coasts. With its attention to detail and focus on providing the highest quality possible, Stumptown has managed to prosper despite stifling competition from big corporate chains and the finicky nature of discerning drinkers. We caught up with Sorenson to discuss his affinity for coffee, what makes Stumptown unique, and how to brew his perfect cup o’ joe.
Have always been a coffee drinker? Yeah. As a kid, when I would go to work with my parents I’d drink it, so I started off at the tender age of seven or eight. I was born and raised up around Seattle, so by the time I was in high school the espresso craze had started. Independent espresso and coffee bars were starting to pop up when I was in junior high and they were where I first started working with coffee. I worked in some coffee bars and then, when I graduated from high school, I moved up to Seattle and continued to work with coffee. In my senior year of college, I was offered a job to roast coffee and to be a coffee buyer. So, I dropped out of college and started an apprenticeship to roast coffee and I was with that company for quite a few years as their head roaster. From there, I went to work with a few other coffee roasting companies in Seattle before deciding to move to Portland to start my own company.
How did Stumptown get its start? Well, I took all the saving out of my bank account and got a nighttime job at a bar, back in 1999. I worked at night and during the day I was building my first coffee bar where we also roasted coffee. From then on we expanded up to Seattle and now in New York, in both Manhattan and Brooklyn.
What is it about coffee that you’re so passionate about? I’ve always enjoyed coffee and I was born and raised in a specialty food household. My father was a butcher and a sausage maker and he really focused on artisan producers and handcrafted products and spices. So, through my father shoving different artisanal products in my face growing up, I developed an appreciation for high-quality, speciality food items. When coffee began getting more recognition in my neck of the woods (the Pacific Northwest) I started tasting and finding different coffees. I began noticing the differences between Kenyan, Guatemalan, and Indonesia coffees. That was very exciting for me, seeing the different farms and the different varieties of coffee and how they were similar to wine. I stuck with it and it became more and more exciting as people’s knowledge of coffee also grew. My customers had an appreciation for speciality coffee and how I remembered what they drank. It has really turned into a passion and a learning experience. Every day I’m learning something new about coffee, brewing coffee, growing coffee, and its production.
Where are some of your more exotic coffees from? Well, that’s the thing with coffee. It’s mostly grown in exotic places, so that’s kind of a benefit. I’ve been traveling around the globe for about 16 years as a coffee buyer, getting coffee directly from the farms. The quality is getting better every year because of the demand for speciality coffee. I’m mainly going to countries in Central America and Eastern Africa, and it’s pretty awesome.
A lot of people think of coffee as quick, on-the-go pick-me-up, but it seems like you’re trying to bring back taking your time and enjoying a real cup of coffee without all the frills. Yes, but at the same time, I appreciate and want to continue it being an on-the-go product if someone needs it to be. There are times when I can’t sit in a coffee bar and read the paper. A lot of the time I have to take it on the road. With coffee, it can be enjoyed like that. It’s much more difficult to enjoy spaghetti and meatballs in your car while you’re driving to work.
What’s different about Stumptown coffee that allows it to succeed despite the competition on every corner? There’s a lot of things that are important to us that make us different because of the focus that we have. Quality of coffee is huge. The selection and the farms that we choose to work with are the best in the world. We spend three weeks out of every month looking for the finest coffee growers in the world. Our roasting style and how we roast our coffee is also pretty unique. It’s very manual, it’s an old world kind of style of roasting coffee. It takes a roaster operator – a person to develop the flavors in the coffee. Our coffee bars also don’t look like many other coffee bars. We spend a lot of time and energy on the details of the materials that we use and also the training for our baristas. We spend every single day with them working on service and how to make great, consistent, and fast coffee for our customers.
So people are willing to pay more money for your coffee because of the quality? It’s a certain market. We don’t intend or plan on selling our coffee to everyone, it’s not realistic. Our coffee costs more but is different in flavor and quality than a bodega cup of coffee served in one of those Greek blue and white paper cups. You almost can’t compare the product. We charge more money for our coffee – we’re talking nickels and dimes, not dollars – but it’s a lot more approachable for the consumer to get a cup at Stumptown compared to what else they’re getting.
Do you have any special in-house brewing methods? We brew our coffee using a French press, which is pretty unheard of for brewing coffee in a coffee bar. Both our espresso beverages and our brewed cup of coffees are pretty unique for a coffee bar. That’s definitely another reason why Stumptown has been successful and has gotten such a following.
What’s your perfect cup of coffee? I mean, I’m drinking coffee all day long. I usually start the morning with some espresso and also brewing coffee with a chemex coffee maker, which is a pretty old school coffee maker that was developed in the ’50s. It’s pretty much just a glass pot cylinder where you pour water over the coffee through a filter on top. It makes a very pure and clean cup of coffee and it’s a way to really taste nuances and the delicacies of some coffees. As far as coffees go, what I’m drinking and brewing throughout the day depends on the time of year. Right now until probably Christmas time, I’ll be drinking a lot of Central American and Eastern African coffees.
What are your plans for the future? Do you plan on expanding more across the country? Maybe not across the country, but now that I’m living in Brooklyn, we’ll probably open up another coffee bar in Manhattan and/or Brooklyn over the next couple of years.