In Character: Profile of Stumptown Coffee Roasters' Duane Sorenson

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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Brewing a revolution

Stumptown’s Duane Sorenson sees coffee as the perfect platform to change the world.

By Brian Libby

With his tall frame and vintage clothes, Stumptown Coffee founder Duane Sorenson cuts an impressive figure. After a meeting next door at Stumptown’s original Division Street café in Southeast Portland, Sorenson heads into the company’s offices in the adjacent Victorian house, where an immaculate white Apple G5 flat-screen computer monitor is sole accoutrement atop his chic mid-century metal desk. Except, of course, for a cup of coffee.

Sorenson is just back from Honduras, one in a long line of trips to the coffee-growing equatorial zone to meet and educate growers while seeking out the best beans. “I’ve only been in Portland about three weeks out of the last four months,” he says, rattling off Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia and Rwanda as recent contributors to a robust frequent-flyer account. “And that takes its toll. I miss my family. But it’s paying off. The quality of coffee that we’ve gotten, especially over the last three years, has been incredible.”

Stumptown has, since its inception in 1999, quickly gained international notice. This spring, Food & Wine magazine rated it as one of the “best boutique roasters” in the world. Sorenson now calls himself Stumptown’s director of coffee, leaving everyday operations largely to others so that he can proselytize about quality growing, roasting and brewing methods.

“He’s very hands-on, with a very great attention to detail,” says Eric Rose, of New Seasons markets, a Portland-based chain that’s one of the few allowed to carry ground Stumptown. “It’s all so we can do the coffee the justice that it deserves.”

Sorenson even goes so far as to instruct pickers on when the coffee beans should be picked. Sound pushy? Keep in mind he also pays more for their product than virtually any other coffee buyer — routinely above the industry’s “fair trade” benchmarks for compensation.  He’s also telling their story, hiring local filmmaker Trevor Fife to make a documentary about Stumptown’s growers in Central and South America. “I think he wants people to rethink the cup of coffee they are drinking and realize that it didn’t get here by the roaster alone,” Fife says.

The marathon traveling means sometimes Sorenson needs to crash. The cell phone goes off and e-mail can go unanswered. Creating the best coffee in the world would be challenge enough for most, but Sorenson is seeking no less than to transform the entire coffee industry.

Earlier this year, for example, Stumptown opened a tasting room next to its café on Southeast Belmont Street in Portland (one of three in the city). Here customers can learn about not only different beans and brews but also the farms where the coffee came from. “It’s empowering them by education,” he says.

Growing up in Tacoma, Sorenson learned about the food industry from his father, a maker of artisan sausage and cured meats. “He was always very selective about using organic producers and growers of cattle and pork,” Sorenson recalls. “That was unheard of back in the ’70s.” The younger Sorenson spent his teens working for his father, but across the street from the family’s sausage kitchen in Seattle, he took notice of a then-relatively small coffee roasting plant called Starbucks. “Those guys just looked cool,” he remembers. “They were wearing shorts and sandals, driving cool Mercedes and Karmann Ghias and playing hacky sack. It was like, ‘I want to work with coffee!’ Plus it smelled great.”

Sorenson worked through college as a barista in Seattle (a coveted job in the grunge-era ’90s) before being promoted to roaster for a small coffee company called Lighthouse. Next he moved to San Diego to head roasting operations for a larger company, but it didn’t take. “Having to get on a freeway to go anywhere, and then having to deal with the machismo, it was like nothing I’d ever seen,” he says. “I was just too uptight.”

In the late 1990s Sorenson bought a circa-1919 Probat coffee roaster and packed his belongings for Portland. When he bought a small storefront 50 blocks from downtown, his friends thought he was crazy. But from there the Stumptown empire has grown steadily.

Sorenson has kept the reins tight. Stumptown now routinely declines offers from other outlets to carry its coffee, and plans little future expansion beyond its three cafés. “We don’t want to get too big too fast in a way that affects quality,” Sorenson explains. Starbucks may have inspired him to leave sausage making for quality, but Stumptown endeavors to remain a boutique roaster and leave the McDonalds-esque ubiquity to others.

It’s a model people respect. Real estate developer Randy Rapaport, who started Portland’s Three Friends Coffee, remembers how Stumptown happily drove him out of the business. “I realized I couldn’t even drink my own coffee anymore,” he says, laughing. “I found myself going to Stumptown. It was so much better.” Sorenson and Rapaport are now friends, sharing a love of indie rock. Rapaport raves about how Sorenson helps members of their favorite bands balance concerts with easy-come-easy-go barista shifts.

But therein lies the dilemma. “Stumptown has a very focused customer niche,” says Mike Ferguson of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. “It may not appeal to as broad a customer base. That’s a tough line to walk. But probably less so in Portland than in Kansas City.” Sorenson has decided to strictly limit the amount of cafés Stumptown opens, but even with its ground coffee, there are questions. “Maintaining quality standards becomes harder as you buy more and more,” Ferguson adds. “There’s only so much of the best coffee on the planet to go around.”

Which is why Sorenson isn’t taking any chances. He may have already gone from barista to founder of arguably the best boutique coffee roaster in the world, but soon this coffee crusader will be on the road again — Portland’s own Juan Valdez, but with a Penguin shirt instead of a poncho.


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