In Ollantaytambo, Peru, Cafe Mayu keeps bags of Stumptown’s Hair Bender in its roasting facility. In Tokyo, home to multiple Portland-themed coffee shops, Paddlers Coffee in Shibuya even serves Portland-roasted beans. In South Africa, one of the country’s most successful java chains is called Seattle Coffee Company, even though it was founded in Great Britain back in the ’90s by two PNW expats and has no other connection to the city.
The Pacific Northwest is a global polestar for specialty coffee. It’s also a region in pursuit of a more ethical coffee industry, as roasters, cafes, and nonprofits here have popularized the focus on specific growing regions, transparency in trade, and shade-grown beans. But as the region’s flavor trends — and corporate coffee chains — have become determinants of success and acclaim, the conversation around coffee in the Pacific Northwest has often erased and obscured some roasters who have long been pushing the genre forward. The result is a malleable, often manipulated definition of what it means to produce and source ethically; megabrands like Starbucks use that small-batch metaphor to lure tourists into equating its Seattle roots with the ethos and efforts of independent roasters whose relationships with farmers are more deeply invested.
Of course, coffee in the Pacific Northwest is more than just award-winning baristas and corporate giants. As the region wrestles with a depressed economy, a pandemic, and a reckoning at the heart of Cascadia’s identity, its coffee industry is shifting. Talented roasters are specializing in the beans from their home countries, BIPOC baristas are carving out equitable spaces for themselves and garnering long-deserved recognition, and cafe owners are honoring their family and cultural traditions. Now, people are raising funds for immigration advocacy groups and promoting fair wages for coffee growers. There are roasters actively challenging the inaccessibility of coffee culture, either in their marketing or in the design of their drinks. Likewise, some shop owners are pushing back against the gentrification of their neighborhoods by creating spaces that emphasize community over obscure tasting notes.
These efforts aren’t limited to the hyper-local, though: Many of these mobilizers are mindful of the industry’s impact globally. With climate change and labor issues weighing heavily on coffee-growing regions, the lofty goal of sustaining a humanitarian coffee culture seems harder to achieve than ever. But communities in Seattle and Portland are still fighting to mold the local scene into something that reflects its ideal. The Pacific Northwest is still a coffee destination, and when it comes to why, the answer lies in the roasters, baristas, and cafe owners who are constantly challenging and redefining the culture for themselves. The stories that follow are not only a glimpse into the area’s past and present popularity but also a look at the people setting its future. Welcome to Coffee Country. — Brooke Jackson-Glidden and Gabe Guarente
Editorial leads: Brooke Jackson-Glidden, Gabe Guarente
Creative direction: Brittany Holloway-Brown, Tiffany Brice
Contributors: Jordan Michelman, Katrina Yentch, Rachel Hopke, Bao Nguyen, Jenni Moore, Erin DeJesus, Lakshmi Sarah, Alana Al-Hatlani, Seiji Nanbu, Megan Hill, Mark Van Streefkerk
Photographer: Suzi Pratt
Editors: Nicole Adlman, Matt Buchanan, Jesse Sparks
Copy editor: Susan West
Engagement editor: Milly McGuinness