These posts are, in more ways than one, a first for the Travel Spot. They cover the first trip I made after starting the Coffee Spot (and long before I had the idea of the Travel Spot). Unsurprisingly, while I visited plenty of coffee shops, I didn’t make any notes about the trip itself, so they’re a combination of memories, sparked when I stumbled across my photos from the time.
This post, the first of three, covers the initial part of the trip, which began in late February 2013 when I flew to Boston. I spent a few days in the city before taking various day trips around New England with some friends. Finally, I caught the train down to New York City, where I also spent a few days.
Amanda and I had plenty of options to get from Portland (Maine) to Atlanta, the most obvious one being to fly. However, neither of us is a great fan of flying internally in the US, and, since we had time, we decided to look at other options. One alternative was driving, something Amanda’s done before, although it’s a one-way trip of 1,200 miles, which amounts to about 19 hours behind the wheel, so I ruled it out.
That left the train, a mode of transport which we both enjoy. It wasn’t the cheapest, nor was it the quickest, but it definitely sounded the most enjoyable, so we booked tickets on Amtrak’s Train 19, Crescent, from New York to Atlanta, building our trip around that.
Little Woodfords is in the Woodfords Corner neighbourhood of Portland, just west of Back Cove. The staff at Tandem Coffee Roasters tipped me off when I was visiting Amanda last summer and, while we popped in on that trip, I didn’t have a chance to write it up. As a result, on my return to Portland last week, I made it a priority to call in, visiting one sunny Tuesday morning.
Little Woodfords occupies a bright, spacious spot on the busy Forest Avenue, close to its junction with Woodford Street. It’s fairly small, but feels much bigger thanks to the high ceilings (I would guess at least 4 metres) and a tall bay window that runs the full width of the store front, catching the midday and afternoon sun.
The coffee’s from Vivid Coffee Roasters in Vermont, with a single option on espresso, batch brew and flash brew (a pour-over over ice, akin to a Japanese iced coffee). The coffee changes every six months, Little Woodfords working with Vivid to select the particular bean/blend. There’s also tea, hot cocoa and several latte-based specials. If you’re hungry, there’s a small breakfast menu, with various toppings on bagels/biscuits, complete with gluten-free options.
Although a big advocate of cuppings, I rarely get the chance to attend them, so when an opportunity comes along, I tend to grab it with both hands. I was visiting Amanda in Portland last summer when the barista at the Tandem Coffee Roastery mentioned that the roastery holds public cuppings every Friday at noon: naturally, I had to go. Ironically, having not been to a cupping for a while, this was my second one that year, both in the USA.
In case you don’t know, a cupping is where several different coffees are tasted using a standard methodology, which allows their taste profiles to be compared without the brew method, etc, influencing the results. They’re a regular part of any roaster’s life, often used to assess new samples before deciding which beans to order. However, in this case, the cupping was part of Tandem’s quality control procedure for its production roasts.
Increasingly, roasters are opening up their production cuppings to the public. It’s a great opportunity to get to know more about a roaster and the coffees on offer, as well as a chance to develop your own palate. I thoroughly recommend that you attend one if you can!
It was four years before I returned to Portland, flying out last summer to visit Amanda. Naturally I took the opportunity to catch up with Tandem, Amanda and I calling in for coffee (I also popped back to the roastery the following Friday to attend a public cupping). Much of what I found was very familiar, in particular the intimate coffee bar. However, plenty had changed, including the roastery, which had relocated to the building next door.
Since I’m back in Portland (visiting Amanda, naturally) I thought I’d mark the occasion with this Coffee Spot Update, covering both the coffee shop and the roastery.
Welcome to the third instalment of the first Travel Spot of the new year, documenting my first trip of 2020. Part I saw me flying from London Heathrow to San Jose on 3rd January, while Part II saw me take the relatively short hop from San Francisco to Phoenix. Now, after two weeks in Arizona (one for work, in Phoenix, and one travelling in Northern Arizona), Part III sees me flying all the way from Phoenix to Portland (Maine), my final stop before making my way home with British Airways.
Although I’d have loved to have done the trip by train, it would have taken a minimum of three days and cost an awful lot more than flying. I did a similar journey in reverse in 2018, when I went from Providence to Tucson by train, but that time I allowed myself a leisurely two weeks for the journey with plenty of stops along the way. With time against me on this trip, I ruled that out and decided to fly. Since you can’t fly directly from Phoenix to Portland, I was faced with various combinations of airlines/routes, eventually settling on going via Atlanta with Delta (my favourite US airline).
Speckled Ax joins fellow roasters-cum-coffee shops, Bard Coffee and Tandem Coffee Roasters, to form a small and vibrant specialty coffee scene in Portland (Maine). Speckled Ax started life as a roaster in 2007 (under the name “Matt’s Wood Roasted Organic Coffee”), with the coffee shop following five years later in 2012, prompting the name-change to “Speckled Ax”.
Situated on Congress Street, just west of the centre of Portland, Speckled Ax is long and thin, with the counter at the back and tables along either side. There’s a neat seating area in the window at the front, with benches clustered around a tree stump. This acts as a coffee table, instantly reminding me of the window-seating in Menagerie Coffee in Philadelphia.
Speckled Ax’s particular claim to fame is that it is one of just a handful of wood-fired coffee roasters in the USA (reminiscent of Witney’s Ue Coffee Roasters in the UK). Speckled Ax offers one or two single-origin espressos, plus decaf, in the shop through its Synesso espresso machine. There are usually three more single-origins available as filter, through the syphon, V60, Chemex or Aeropress, depending on your particular requirements. There’s also bulk-brew until 11am if you’re in a hurry.
A highlight of last summer’s (brief) visit to Portland was Tandem Coffee Roasters, the roastery doubling as a lovely, intimate coffee bar. I was staying on the opposite side of town and Google Maps suggested I’d pass Tandem Coffee + Bakery on my way. So off I went, keeping an eye out for said bakery, only to walk right past without noticing!
My excuse? I, fool that I am, was looking for something bearing a vague resemblance to a bakery. Instead, I should have been keeping an eye out for something bearing a striking resemblance to a gas (petrol) station… Obviously. I discovered my mistake at the roastery, so on my way back, I paid more attention: there, right where Google Maps said it was, I discovered the bakery, occupying an old gas station.
Just as Tandem Cafe & Roastery’s a roastery with coffee bar attached, so Tandem Coffee + Bakery’s a bakery with coffee shop attached. And lovely outdoor seating. It doesn’t have quite the same range as the roastery, just a house-blend and single-origin on espresso, the same single-origin on Aeropress and another on bulk-brew. Being a bakery, there’s also multiple savoury and sweet things to feast upon.
I first came across Tandem Coffee Roasters in Boston, where I enjoyed a cappuccino at Render Coffee, made using Tandem’s seasonal Time and Temperature espresso blend. I also met with Larry, owner of Boston’s Pavement Coffeehouse chain, who sang the praises of Tandem’s co-founder, Will (an ex-Pavement employee). That pretty much sealed it for me, and when, a few days later, I popped up the New England coast to Portland to start my coast-to-coast, Portland-to-Portland train trip, I naturally sought out Tandem’s roastery.
What I found wasn’t just a thriving roastery, but an excellent, friendly coffee bar too. The coffee bar aside, which features in its own Coffee Spot, this Meet the Roaster post focuses on the roastery side of the business. When I first visited in 2015, the roastery was in one half of a single-storey, L-shaped building, also home to the coffee bar. These days, it’s become so busy, it’s had to relocate to a separate building just behind the first, where a 35 kg Loring roaster takes pride of place, roasting all of Tandem’s coffee, for use in-house in the coffee bar and Tandem’s bakery/coffee shop on Congress Street as well as for Tandem’s growing wholesale business.
When I first came to Portland in 2015, to start my coast-to-coast train journey from Portland (Maine) to Portland (Oregon), I very nearly didn’t make it to Tandem Coffee Roasters. I’d arrived late in the morning and had settled into my hotel before realising that (in those days) Tandem closed at 2 pm. By then, it was already gone noon and Tandem was at the other end of town!
I made it, of course, and was very glad that I did, Tandem becoming a firm favourite of mine, along with the likes of Bard Coffee and Speckled Ax. There are, in fact, two Tandem Coffees in Portland, the Cafe/Roastery (the subject of this Coffee Spot) and Tandem Coffee + Bakery (cunningly disguised as a gas station on Congress Street).
Returning to the Cafe/Roastery, this consists of, unsurprisingly, a coffee shop and, in a second, standalone building behind it, the roastery, where Tandem roasts all its coffee on a 35kg Loring. The coffee shop is the focus of this Coffee Spot, while the roastery has its own Meet the Roaster feature. These days, by the way, the coffee shop is open until four o’clock each afternoon (except Sunday, when it’s closed).