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    Entries in culture (9)


    Korean Coffee Tour Group Coming to Portland

    As it has for centuries, coffee continues to bring people together from all over the world, including here in Portland. The first weekend in October, a group of sixteen Korean coffee professionals is coming to Portland for a tour of the local coffee scene. Sponsored by COFFEE Magazine, based in Seoul, the group is coming to Portland to visit cafés, talk to coffee industry people, and look for ideas to take back to Korea. As I wrote last November, Seoul has one of the fastest-growing coffee cultures in the world, with cafés seemingly everywhere. This is Portland’s opportunity to influence how that culture develops.

    (On a related note, today’s Oregonian has an article about the importance of trade with South Korea to the Oregon economy.)

    One of my espressos in Seoul last yearThe idea for the tour came from Jinsu Lee, a friend of mine who spent several years in Portland before returning to Korea. He wanted to maintain some ties with Portland, so he approached Mr. Song-dae Hong, the owner and CEO of COFFEE magazine, with the idea of  putting a coffee tour together. The proposal received a great response, and sold out. I am in charge of organizing the Portland leg of the tour, which runs from tonight through Saturday. After visiting Portland, the group heads to Seattle to attend one day of Coffee Fest, before leaving for Seoul on Monday.

    The group is sticking to a coffee-based agenda while they are in Portland. We have put together a long list of cafés and roasteries to visit in and around Portland, for both casual and educational visits. (If your café is on our casual stops list, I will give you a heads up at least one day before we visit, so you can pass the word on to your staff that a large group will be coming by.) The tour will be a great opportunity to share Portland with others, and should be a fun cultural exchange, too. If you’re sitting in your favorite café and a bus pulls up and unloads a large group of Korean tourists (and one six-foot-four American), come over and say hello!  


    The Coffee Test (A cultural lesson on dating in Korea)

    [Thanks to my friend, Ji-Yoon (Jade) Choi, another former Portlandian who moved back to Seoul, for telling me about this.]

    One of the fun parts of traveling is that you get to learn about other cultures. Being in an unfamiliar place forces you to follow new patterns. If you are open-minded, you gain a better understanding of how other people see the world.

    I learned several things that stretched my perspective while I was in Seoul (did I mention the lunch with squirming octopus chunks?). One interesting part of Korean culture I learned about is called the coffee test.

    In Korea, coffee has become part of the dating ritual, at least among the younger generation. When young couples go out to dinner, they often follow up the meal with a trip to a café for coffee and/or dessert. When the pair goes out for the first time, this café visit can be a strong indicator of the future of the relationship.

    Typically, the man pays for the couple’s dinner and the woman pays for the coffee. If the woman doesn’t like the man, however, she will make no move when it is time to pay for the coffee. When this happens, the man has failed the coffee test—he has the double misfortune of paying twice and of being rejected.

    While this test is a rather indirect way of communicating lack of romantic interest, it is effective. Therefore, gentlemen, if you ever take a Korean woman out for coffee after dinner and she doesn’t pay the tab, you’re probably not the one she’s looking for.

    You failed the coffee test.


    Caffeinated Seoul

    Last week, I went to Seoul, South Korea, to attend a friend’s wedding and participate in a reunion of sixteen present and former Portlandians (currently living in four different countries)—Gangnam style. The trip turned out to be a fantastic cultural, social and culinary experience. In between rounds of Korean barbecue, soju (a popular Korean spirit made from rice) and even some still-squirming raw octopus (not as bad as it sounds), I spent some time checking out the city’s coffee scene.

    Compared to Portland, Seoul is huge. Actually, compared to most places, Seoul is huge. The city has more than ten million residents and the entire metro area has more than twice that. In most ways, Korea is as modern as the United States, and in some ways—the efficiency of its public transportation or its communication networks, for example—more developed. Seoul’s specialty coffee scene, though not quite as cutting edge as Portland’s, is growing rapidly, with more good coffee available to Koreans than ever before.

    Korea is a very welcoming country, though the language barrier can sometimes be a challenge. My own Korean is limited to hello and thank you, but fortunately, I did not have to explore Seoul’s coffee on my own. Jinsu Lee, one of the team members who worked on our Caffe PDX project, organized the coffee tours. Cory Klatik, another team member, joined us for some of the coffee expeditions as well.

    Prior to the trip, I knew coffee was very popular in Korea—this summer Reuters published an article that detailed how quickly the number of cafés has grown in Seoul. Regardless, the sheer volume of cafés shocked me. In some parts of the city, each block has three or four cafés. Sometimes they are literally next door or on top of one another.

    One of Seoul's more interesting cafe iterations


    Click to read more ...


    PDX Animal Art

    Here are three examples of some animal art seen recently around PDX while looking for some coffee.

    Does anyone besides me find this first one a little creepy? I don't know if it's the color of the owls or the manner in which they seem to be confronting the crow, but the whole scene is unsettling.

    Have you seen Hitchcock's The Birds?

    This toro was seen outside a Taquería on E. Burnside. 

    Ferdinand, perhaps?Anyone a fan of George Orwell's Animal Farm? These were the pigs that were 'less equal than the others.' They eventually left the farm to go look for fortune elsewhere. They found it on NW 23rd (I don't really know that, but it makes a good story).

    Insert humorous caption here


    Searching for Sightglass Coffee, or ‘the “honkey” incident'

    Another story from San Francisco:

    Anthony Salas, a barista at Paper Tiger Coffee in Vancouver, suggested that we try out Sightglass Coffee while we were in San Francisco. Always up for trying new places, we followed his recommendation. It turned out that finding the café was as memorable as the café itself.

    Sightglass Coffee is located on Seventh Street, close the heart of downtown San Francisco. After lunch at the wharf, we hopped onto the cable car and rode it over the hill to Hallidie Plaza (For the record, the cable car is overrated—not much more than tourist transportation. I would estimate that 95% of the people on the car were tourists, and the other 5% were the driver and the ticket-taker. Call me a cynic, but it was not the “San Francisco treat” that you have seen on television). From the plaza, we walked down Market Street and turned onto Sixth Street. We could have walked one more block to Seventh ,  but I wanted to get off of Market because it was loud from all the traffic. Our chosen route made for a more interesting story, though at the time it was a little unsettling.

    To give you a little background, when traveling, I do my best to not look like a tourist. Granted, this is not always possible, but I try to not saunter around gaping at tourist attractions, snapping lots of photos and being more conspicuous than necessary. I try to act like I know where I am going, and I do my best to avoid using maps in public. Tourists can be targets for mischievous or malevolent people, so it’s best to not look like one.

    We probably should have done a little research about this part of the city before we went, because it would have been good to know its reputation. On Sixth Street, it was pretty much impossible to not look like a tourist. Theoretically, it could have been the safest part of San Francisco, but the neighborhood looked like it was going through a rough time. There were lots of shops that looked run down, with paint peeling off the walls, as well as many empty storefronts covered with old posters and graffiti. The shops that were open included several pawn shops and convenience stores. Groups of young black men stood around, crowding the sidewalk and watching us as we went by. It reminded me of walking around Datong, China, where the local people stared at the unfamiliar faces (us) passing by them. Even worse, I had a camera around my neck, flashing “TOURIST!” in big bold letters to everyone on the street.

    I felt out of place, and asked myself if I was nervous because we appeared to be the only white people there, or if the area just gave off the impression that it was unfriendly. It was probably some of both. It can be unsettling when you visit a place where you stand out so much.

    That said, I don’t think my uneasiness was much different than what people from outside Portland feel when they visit downtown and have to pass through the groups of homeless people crowding the sidewalk. Walking around downtown Portland doesn’t bother me anymore, but I have spent a lot of time there. Sixth Street in San Francisco was completely new to me.

    To add to my unease, one of the things we saw as we were walking was likely a drug handoff. I could be mistaken, but seeing two men approach each other on the sidewalk and discretely pass a small paper bag between them without saying anything seemed a little suspicious. I commented to my wife that it didn’t look like they were sharing doughnuts. She agreed. We kept walking, pretending not to notice, or at least to not care.

    The most memorable incident of our side trip took place a couple blocks later. As we came to the corner, a tall black man dressed in a red hat and a blue and white sweat suit looked at us in disapproval. He was talking to a group of men, and as we approached, he stepped out directly in front of us.

    “. . .and someone like this honkey,” he said, glowering at me.

     “Oh, sh--,” I thought.

    My heart jumped when he said that, though I tried to not show any fear. We stepped around him to the left, hoping that he wouldn’t try to stop us. If he had, I’m not sure how I would have reacted. I wasn’t looking for a fight, just a coffee shop. Fortunately, the man made no other moves to block us—he had already made it clear enough that we weren’t welcome in his neighborhood. We kept walking, glad to soon reach our destination.

    Looking back on our misadventure, I doubt we were ever in any real danger. We were uncomfortable, but no harm came of it. After all, the man made no physical contact with us. All he did was call me a honkey, which is actually kind of funny. I haven’t been called that since the days when I used to play a lot of basketball. There was always lots of creative things said in the heat of the games.

    All in all, our quick trip to Sightglass was a memorable one. We found some pretty good coffee and we came away with a story to tell.



    Caffe Trieste (SFO) - not just a café 

    What is it that makes a café a “local place,” or even what I would call a “neighborhood institution?” In my previous post about Xpression Coffeehouse, I wrote about how the owners want to make their café a place where the neighborhood gets together. But how does a café reach that goal? There may not be a single answer to that question, but I do know that some places are successful while others are not.

    Last week, I visited the original Caffe Trieste in San Francisco, and it is a place that definitely has “it.” The café is the proverbial place “where everybody knows your name.” Although no one knew my name when I was in there, I was confident that after a few visits, many of them would.

    Having great coffee is not the only way to become a neighborhood café. The first day I went to Trieste, in fact, I thought my espresso was barely drinkable. If I were going to base my experience solely on the coffee, I would not have gone back the second time. However, my pastry was excellent (it tasted a lot like a chocolate chip cookie) and the environment was fun, interesting, and full of character and quirk. I wanted to go back.

    Click to read more ...


    A 'Tastea' Experience

    Today, I wasn’t in the mood for espresso. Well, actually I was, but I wasn’t in the mood for anything but great espresso and I didn’t feel like getting on a bus to go find some. It’s not that I mind driving so much, it’s just that when I travel around the city, I prefer to walk or use public transportation when possible. Call it my small protest against the car culture. We should not have to drive a car to get places if we don’t want to.

    Some days, however, it just takes too long to get anywhere on the bus and I don’t feel like wasting time, even to find great coffee. Today was one of those days, so I chose to go to a nearby café and try something new.

    Instead of espresso, I decided to ‘turn over a new leaf’ and order tea (no extra charge for the pun). Looking at the café’s list of teas, I found a couple that looked interesting, including one that was called “Formosa Panfired”. The name was appealing—I like a lot of pan-fired things (or at least pan-fried)—and I asked the barista on duty what it was like. He responded that he “had no idea” and that he didn’t really drink tea. While I think that anyone who works at a café ought to try all the beverages so at least they have opinions, you could argue that he deserved a pass, since it was a coffee shop.

    He brought the tin of tea leaves over to me and it smelled good, so I decided to try it. For the record, I do not know what type of vocabulary tea tasters and tea drinkers use to talk about their tea, but I’ll try to describe it anyway. If you are someone who is excited about tea and would like to comment or share your knowledge with us, please know that you are invited to do so.

    Judging by the tea’s name, I assume that it was from Taiwan (Formosa, or “beautiful”, is what the Portuguese explorers called Taiwan when they passed by the island five hundred years ago). A quick check of a tea vendor’s website revealed that pan-fired tea has been steamed and then rolled in iron pans over a charcoal fire.

    The tea was a green variety that seemed fairly sweet (without sugar). It had a pleasant, grassy taste (like dry alfalfa hay), medium body and some mineral undertones that reminded me of the way a chunk of quartz tastes. Along with the earthiness (grass + rocks), there was just a hint of bitterness or “crispness” too, similar to the bite that certain olive oils have when you taste them. The bitterness increased over time, probably due to the fact that I didn’t take the tea out of the cup after a few minutes of steeping.

    Tea drinking is associated more with Eastern society than with Western society (though the British might disagree), so learning about them is a way to learn about other cultures, something that is very valuable. For example, green tea is especially well-revered in Japan, where the people attribute the long Japanese life expectancy to their high levels of green tea consumption. Ceremonial green tea preparation is a centuries-old tradition that anyone traveling to Japan should see. Tea is important to China too. When I was in Beijing last summer, there was tea available at nearly every meal.

    Although I only drink teas once in a while, I plan to further explore tea in the future and share my findings with you through Caffeinated PDX. After all, if I’m not willing to walk or ride the bus across town, I’m going to have to find an occasional substitute for espresso. Tea is “caffeinated” too, so it fits with the theme. Right now, I don’t have the same standards for tea that I do for coffee, so I won’t be disappointed if my tea isn’t great. We’ll see if that changes over time.