BY ED MURRIETA
PORTLAND — Walking into Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Duane Sorenson greeted a barista in singsong hipster patois.
“How’s it going?”
Dressed in a hooded white sweat shirt, quilted green jacket, blue jeans and black Adidas high-tops, Sorenson sat on a second-hand sofa sipping coffee.
Thick-rimmed glasses framed deep-set blue eyes. A wispy brown beard spread across the meaty plains of his gentle-giant face.
Sorenson looked like many other customers in the coffeehouse, but despite appearances, he isn’t some indie rock geek hunkered over a latte and a laptop. Sorenson owns the joint, along with five other Stumptown coffeehouses and a roastery that supplies nearly 200 cafes and restaurants in this coffee-soaked city. As founder of 9-year-old Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Sorenson is among a small group of artisans and entrepreneurs who are jolting the business of beans by nurturing relationships with coffee growers, demanding training standards for baristas and turning on consumers to varietals.
Born and raised in Puyallup, Wash., Sorenson, is both unassuming and larger than life. A caffeinated, down-to-earth 36-year-old man-child in grunge couture, he not only rolls up his sleeves to befriend family farmers in developing nations but also pays premium prices for their beans in exchange for promises to improve their crops.
“Most of my employees are ex-bike messengers,” Sorenson said, shrugging off any fundamental differences between the guys who pull shots of Stumptown espresso and the guy who calls the shots for Stumptown’s business. “I tend to recruit the tattooed, hard-core types.”
Outside the coffeehouse — Stumptown’s first, the one Sorenson opened in 1999 — a hard-core-looking guy hailed him on the sidewalk. Sorenson extended a large, friendly hand and gave the man what looked more like a hand hug than a handshake. They chatted about Stumptown’s business and Sorenson’s children.
“Awesome,” Sorenson said to both inquiries.
“That was John,” Sorenson said as the man walked away. “He drove our Slayer bus.”
Slayer would be the death-metal band that rocked Salem in 2006, when Sorenson rented a bus, bought a keg of beer and took Stumptown’s employees to the show.
“I’m a big Slayer fan,” Sorenson said, “and I’m definitely into treating our employees well.”
Concert tickets aren’t Stumptown’s only perks.
“The health care benefits!” gushed Sierra Collom, a Stumptown barista of seven years, referring to the paid medical, vision and dental insurance that all of Stumptown’s 130 employees and their families receive.
“One of my first goals before I took a paycheck was to make sure all of my employees had full health care provided by Stumptown,” Sorenson said. “I personally believe the government should provide that, but that’s not gonna happen any time soon. So I felt it was my responsibility.”
Sorenson grew up in a blue-collar family. His father, Duane Sr., made sausage at Bavarian Meats in Seattle. His mother, Vicki, works in health care. Sorenson got his first job at age 7, picking green beans and strawberries to earn money for school clothes.
“We went through some tough financial times,” he said. “I had to work. It was the only way to get clothes on my back. It was totally my start of business school.”
Early hardship sowed the seed of future empathy. On coffee-buying trips to Central America, Africa and Indonesia, Sorenson listened to the needs of farmers.
“Rather than sitting at my computer and typing away and demanding the best coffee, I go there and work with them and show them I’m willing to help rather than make demands,” he said.
One way he helped: He introduced farmers in Central America and Indonesia to African methods that dry coffee beans more evenly and quickly, preventing them from molding and fermenting.
“In Ethiopia and most of Africa, they dry coffee on screens,” Sorenson said. “The norm in Central America is drying coffee on concrete or clay patios. I’ve taken pictures and video of these screens to producers in Central America and Indonesia to see if it’s financially possible to build these screens, which it has been. It’s really improved the quality of some of these producers.”
Talking with growers in Rwanda, “I asked what their particular challenges are,” Sorenson said. “They said, ‘A bicycle would completely change my life.'”
Rwandan farmers already had bicycles to transport coffee from the hills where it grows to the flats where it’s milled — but their hand-hewn wooden bikes were primitive compared to the extended-frame cargo bicycles they received from Bikes to Rwanda, the nonprofit organization Sorenson founded in 2006.
“Knowing from experience how important it is to mill coffee as soon as it’s picked, I was inspired to do something more than pay them above fair trade price,” Sorenson said, noting that the cargo bikes’ payload is triple that of the primitive wooden bikes.
In just over a year, Bikes to Rwanda has raised donations and purchased 500 of the Chinese-made bicycles at $150 each. To ensure the bicycles’ sustainability, the group built repair shops on Rwandan coffee co-ops.
Stumptown’s generosity and ethics are not unique. Coffee roasting competitors like Intelligentsia Coffee Roasters and Tea Traders of Chicago and Counter Culture Coffee of Durham, N.C., have their own direct relationships with growers. In South Sound, Sumner-based wholesale roaster Dillanos and Olympia’s Batdorf and Bronson also have direct relationships with farmers. All wear “Fair Trade” and “Certified Organic” stickers. There’s even a similar bike program, launched by Project Rwanda in 2005.
“From an industry standpoint, all of us specialty roasters are working to promote high-end specialty coffees, which benefit the growers in developing countries,” said Phil Beattie, director of coffee at Dillanos, whose new One Harvest project “helps everyone along the supply chain reap the benefit.”
Dave Griswold, president of Portland importer Sustainable Harvest Coffee, said roasters like Stumptown have changed the business. In the past, beans were a commodity: Growers sold to cooperatives, which sold to brokers, which sold to importers, which sold to roasters. All beans were dumped into big containers. Varietals were unknown.
“It’s been fun to see these new roasters that Duane typifies really getting out there and beating the back bushes to find great coffees and great relationships,” Griswold said. “Ten or 15 years ago, buyers didn’t travel nearly that much.”
Ed Leebrick, proprietor of Lighthouse Roasters in Seattle, taught Sorenson how to roast beans in the mid-’90s. After Sorenson struck out on his own, Leebrick didn’t think he’d see his former protege working in Seattle again.
“Back when he started working for me, we had this little verbal agreement that he would never do that,” Leebrick said, referring to the two Stumptown cafes and roastery that Sorenson has opened in Seattle. “I’m not real pleased about it. I sort of took it as an insult when I first heard about it, but it’s a free market.”
“This is where I’m from,” said Sorenson, who worked at a number of now-defunct Seattle coffee shops (only Joelle’s Espresso Cafe remains). “I spent a lot of my training learning about coffee in Seattle.”
Hurt feelings and broken promises aside, Leebrick said Stumptown does “a great job of sourcing and roasting coffee. They’re really good at their whole marketing angle. They’re clever and independent, pretty aggressive.”
Connie Blumhardt, publisher of Portland’s Roast magazine, said, ” Stumptown is at the top of the Portland scene. They’re mysterious. They’re cool. They’re trendy. They have a great reputation of being a company that imports, roasts and sells some of the best coffee in the world, which is not an easy thing to do.”
Sorenson’s biggest marketing coup, the one that Sarah Allen, editor of Portland’s Barista magazine, said “really made Portlanders take ownership of the company,” was creating a community within the community. Stumptown growers visit Portland, where they star in meet-the-grower events. Stumptown’s Annex, a cafe that Sorenson opened for tastings and bean sales, has the air of a wine store, where varietals’ hints of peaches, orange blossoms and violets (Guatemala Fine El Injerto) or notes of cannabis, star anise and blackberry cobbler (Sumatra Lake Tawar) are evaluated and dissected. Stumptown’s newest cafe, in downtown Portland’s Ace Hotel, features five Clovers, the $10,000 Lamborghinis of single-cup coffeemakers.
“Stumptown is just like the kinds of people Portlanders want to be around: cool and smart with a wicked sense of humor,” Allen said.
“It’s pretty simple,” Sorenson said. “We don’t sell T-shirts or salads or sandwiches. All we do is sell coffee. We’ve been able to provide our employees and our producers a better life.”
Roasted in small batches, Stumptown coffees retail from $15-$35 per pound. Last year, Sorenson paid $47.06 per pound, or more than $100,000 for an entire lot of Los Golondrinas, the winner of the 2007 Nicaraguan Cup of Excellence competition.
“When I was in Nicaragua, everyone was talking about Duane and Stumptown,” said Javier Valle Garcia, a former roaster for the Nicaraguan Cup of Excellence who is now a roaster at Stumptown. “Everyone wants to work with him because nobody in the world pays for coffee what Stumptown is paying. He pays two, three times normal.”
Valle Garcia, 23, is the son of a Nicaraguan coffee farmer. He has 2 acres of his own beans growing back home. He and his family hope to grow for Stumptown one day.
“Fair trade is OK,” Valle Garcia said, referring to the practice of paying growers at a set price above the commodity price, “but the producers need more. Duane is over fair trade. Stumptown is bringing in profit. Indirectly, more people are making a little more money because of that relationship between the producer and a roaster like Stumptown.”
In another case of putting his money where his coffee is, Sorenson hired Valle Garcia and Jean Bosco Safari, a 30-year-old Rwandan roaster, arranging for their work visas and paying their legal expenses. Both Valle Garcia and Safari send home part of their pay to help their families.
“Life here is pretty much better,” Safari said. “I stay because I love the coffee industry and the better materials for work.”
STUMPTOWN IN T-TOWN
Stumptown doesn’t make everyone happy. Sorenson said he turns down the majority of requests to serve and sell Stumptown coffees “because they don’t have the right equipment, or they may not be interested in taking the care with the coffee that I feel the coffee deserves. We probably sell to 30 to 40 percent of the people who want to sell Stumptown coffee.”
The lucky chosen minority commit to intensive training at Stumptown’s facilities. If a cafe doesn’t already have $4,000 La Marzocco or Seneso espresso machines, Stumptown is an authorized dealer of each.
Pat Brown is an owner of Satellite Coffee in Tacoma, the only cafe between Portland and Seattle that serves and sells Stumptown coffee. Satellite opened in November. Sorenson hooked him up with a La Marzocco.
“People don’t really know Duane’s a hometown hero, but they’re about ready to,” said Brown, who resembles one of those tattooed bike messengers Sorenson likes to hire. “Stumptown is just a no-brainer once you find out about it. It’s not going over anybody’s head. People who haven’t been exposed to coffee of this caliber really notice the difference.”
Brown noticed something else. At his birthday party last year, someone mysteriously paid for $500 worth of pizza and beverages.
When asked if he picked up the tab, Sorenson smiled like the extra-large elf that ate Santa’s cookies.
“I have everything I need and want,” Sorenson said. “I feel lucky that I can go out right now and buy all the records and sneakers that I want. That makes me happy. My kids are taken care of. I’m able to see the smiles on my employees’ faces. That’s everything that I need. ”
Awesome, man. Awesome, indeed.
Who: Duane Sorenson, age 36
Occupation: Owner and founder Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland in 1999.
Employs 130, with eight cafes in Portland and Seattle and nearly 200 wholesale accounts in Portland. “My day is filled talking to people about coffee, sharing coffees and bringing people closer to the coffee producers. I’m on the road about two weeks out of every month.”
Coffee-buying travels include Yemen, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Indonesia, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Panama. Privately held, Stumptown is “worth a couple of million bucks.”
Currently resides: Portland and Seattle
Education: Attended Sunrise Elementary, Ferrucci Junior High and Gov. Rogers High School in Puyallup. Dropped out of Seattle University in senior year for a job purchasing coffee. “I studied history and biology. I wanted to be a teacher. I fell in love with coffee, though.”
First job: Picking green beans and strawberries, at age 7 to buy school clothes
First barista job: Shakabrah Java in Tacoma, for six months after graduating high school in 1991
Family: Married his junior high sweetheart, Jereme Morrell, in 1995; divorced in 2007. “We’re still best friends,” he says of his ex-wife, an occupational therapist who lives in Portland with their daughter, Ava, 5, and son, Angus, 3, who’s named after the guitar player in Sorenson’s favorite band, AC/DC. His older sister, Tonya, manages Stumptown’s main office in Portland. His parents live in Sumner.
His five iPod favorites: AC/DC, Devotchka, Miles Davis, Murder City Devils, Vampire Weekend.(c) 2008, The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.).Visit The News Tribune online at http://www.thenewstribune.com/
(c) 2008, The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)