The first sip burns, but in the best of ways. A splash of half-and-half, maybe some granular sugar. Cinnamon? Honey? The next sip goes down smoothly, the heat accentuating the dark, oaky roast, the creamy hint of chocolate, a dash of salt, a punch of caffeine.
Coffee is a ritual as much as it is a beverage, and one that 54 percent of Americans over the age of 18 partake in every day according to the National Coffee Association. Such a market springs up coffee places on every corner, a cafe or two claiming every block — and Eugene is no different. But with so many different beans, roasts and locations, what is it exactly that keeps customers returning to a single spot to get their coffee fix?
Barista Shea Ford, 26, is a four-year veteran of the coffee trade at Eugene Coffee Company who believes that baristas “sell the experience, not just a cup of coffee.”
“I support and believe in what I do,” Ford said. “That shows through when you make someone’s coffee. It’s not just what it tastes like — it’s the whole package.”
That package includes friendly service, a pleasant conversation and a genuine smile with your cup — an easy feat for the baristas at Eugene Coffee Co., who excel in reading their customers moods to establish a relationship.
Ford enjoys putting a personality behind the coffee shop’s fair-trade blend, a product of Cafe Mam, a local roaster of organic coffee from Chiapas, Mexico and Guatemala. Fair trade ensures that the price paid for coffee by roasters is cohesive with a livable wage for farmers and their families. Knowing this enables Ford and the Eugene Coffee Co. baristas to stand proudly behind their coffee when serving.
“It’s not an act,” Ford said. “The experience is more on a human level rather than just ‘this is my job, I serve you, you pay money.’ It’s more than just coffee. I care about the people that come in here.”
A cup of Eugene Coffee Co. coffee is smooth and nutty, occasionally a bit chocolatey. A medium roast, the coffee can be enjoyed black without being bitter.
The coffee shop is cozy, comfortable and cheerful, a quiet place in the midst of the busy intersection of 18th and Chambers. The atmosphere is much different than the one offered at Vero Espresso, a sprawling, open cafe with faux Victorian furniture, huge windows and charmingly creaky wood floors.
The 13th and Pearl location, a favorite among University of Oregon students, offers direct trade coffee from Stumptown Coffee Roasters. Stumptown, based in Portland, provides coffee purchased directly from the farmers who grow the beans across the globe.
Matt Markus, 31, has been working at Vero since it opened more than three years ago.
“Direct trade ensures that the most amount of money and resources go back to the farmer,” Markus said. “Stumptown sets up a relationship with the farmer. I think that is the best way to start your best cup of coffee.”
Vero coffee, all medium to light roasts, provide, according to Markus, “a more complex flavor profile.” The coffee is more citrusy than most, and provides a sweet, almost sour taste that is unusual but not at all unwelcome.
Markus, who wants to eventually work directly for Stumptown, is enthusiastic about the product he serves. “A lot of people can just clock in, but when you’re passionate about it, you provide that extra variable or satisfaction for not only the customer, but yourself.”
A man who knows well about satisfaction in serving coffee is Miguel Cortez, manager and barista at Espresso Roma. Cortez has been serving coffee out of his East 13th Avenue location since July 7, 1990.
“I train my people to be friendly and fast,” Cortez said. With Cortez, the name of the game is consistency.
“The coffee is always the same,” he said. “The same service, the same taste, no matter who makes it.”
Cortez gets his coffee from his roaster brother-in-law, Alberto “Beto” Mendoza, who can make a consistent roast from any coffee bean. Mendoza roasts out of California for all the Espresso Roma locations. He has been roasting since the early 1980s.
Roma coffee tastes the same today as it tasted two decades ago, according to Cortez. When he opened, the coffee shop boom had not yet hit Eugene.
“There were a few places,” he said. “But they did not know how to make real coffee.” Cortez took it upon himself to introduce Eugene to the proper cup. Roma coffee is strong, rich and flavorful, perfect for the mornings when it’s more difficult than normal to crawl out of bed.
Cortez said he didn’t notice any drop in business when the Starbucks opened next door; he said this is due to what he believes to be superior coffee and service. Such characteristics keep customers coming back, even a few who have been coming in every day for 22 years.
“I’m always working, day and night, no matter what,” Cortez said. “My wife and I work no matter how tired we are. I don’t want to let anyone go without drinking coffee. How can I go take my break when I see all the people waiting for coffee? I prefer that my customers come first, then me.”
Perhaps it’s the consistency, hard work and experience provided by Roma that makes an excellent cup of coffee. It might be the strong pride and uniqueness behind Vero’s beans that determines the quality of a cup. Maybe it’s things like Eugene Coffee Company’s smiling service and friendly connections between barista and customer that keep people coming back.
Between atmospheres, taste, service, speed and origins, the factors that dictate the “best cup of coffee” cannot really be narrowed down to a single solitary beverage. In any case, the Eugene coffee community is one with many levels, which, while they revolve wholeheartedly around a simple cup of Joe, make up so much more.