Coffee quality can be objectively measured, to a point. There are professionals who evaluate a coffee just as one would a wine. They study the flavor profile; the cleaner and sweeter it is, the higher it will rank on a 100-point scale. Top specialty roasters buy coffees rated 85 or above, but once you’re that high in the rankings, how much of what you’re tasting is real and how much perception? Sarah Allen, the editor of Barista magazine, says that a top roaster like Stumptown goes to such extraordinary lengths to find the perfect coffee that it becomes personal. “It’s like when you think to yourself that your child is special in a way no other child is,” she says. “That’s how people like Duane feel about their coffee.”
Which means, of course, that he won’t let just anybody buy his beans. Sorenson approaches potential clients like he’s on a blind date, and he’s not afraid to say “sorry.” “I don’t want to sell my coffee to everyone,” he says. “It’s not for everyone. I don’t have the fucking time for it, man.” The Chelsea café Tbsp qualified for Stumptown earlier this year; its owner Melissa Chmelar had called Sorenson after drinking Stumptown at another café and realizing “I felt like I was cheating. This is like a religion.”
All would-be vendors attend mandatory barista training as well as a three-hour class that includes a PowerPoint presentation and a video about El Injerto, one of the Guatemalan coffee farms Stumptown works with. Hudson likes to point out a shot of an El Injerto picker bent beneath a 150-pound sack of coffee berries. “That’s what I think about when people ask for a free refill,” she says.
Since Stumptown’s move to the city, twenty accounts have signed on, including Milk Bar, Marlow and Sons, and Frankies Spuntino. The food blogs are paying close attention to the roaster’s infiltration; some have even mapped cafés, color-coding them depending on their specific roastery allegiance. Sorenson’s rapid expansion has produced at least one defector. When Ninth Street Espresso, Stumptown’s first and highest-profile partner in New York, switched to Intelligentsia beans last month, it caused a small uproar. Ninth Street’s owner, Kenneth Nye, says bloggers made too much of it; he simply wanted to get back to proprietary blending, which Stumptown doesn’t offer. “Some shop owners take comfort knowing that there are a dozen shops using the same product,” says Nye. “We never did. For us, it was a very weird transition to have a coffee that was available so readily in so many places.” Sorenson sees things differently. “I wouldn’t let him put a sticker over the Stumptown bag,” he says. “That’s our coffee, man.”