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Portland (Maine)

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The Coffee Spot Guide to Portland

Portland Head Lighthouse in South Portland, MaineI first visited Portland, Maine in 2013, albeit for a few hours at the end of a day spent driving up the New England coast. I was back again in 2015 at the start of my coast-to-coast train trip, this time for a whole day. However, since 2019, I’ve become a more regular visitor, coming over to see Amanda.

Along the way I’ve come to know Portland’s small but thriving speciality coffee scene, with each of the city’s coffee shops offering something different. Portland is also home to a number of excellent roasteries, although the city’s coffee shops use roasters from across New England and beyond.

As a regular visitor, I’ve been able to watch how the city has adapted to the on-going COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve been particularly impressed with the leadership shown by the speciality coffee sector and the way that they have constantly put the safety of their staff and customers first. This led to long periods when shops were either closed or only open for takeaway custom and even at the time of writing (December 2022), it is reassuring to find so many staff and customers alike wearing masks.


Header image: a view out across Casco Bay from the Eastern Promenade, which runs along the top of Portland’s East End.


Coffee Spots

Bard Coffee

The label on a bag of Bard Coffee's High Tide Espresso blend: medium roast, a blend of Central America and East Africa coffees, tasting notes of sweet red berries, orange-like citrus with a creamy body and a dark chocolate finish.As part of my current US trip, I paid a visit to Portland, Maine, partly to check out the local coffee scene and partly because it made a cool addition to my overall journey. What I found was a thriving coffee scene which I’ll cover in the next few months, starting today with the lovely Bard Coffee.

Bard Coffee occupies an amazing location next to Tommy’s Park, a lovely green space right in the heart of downtown Portland. For once got my timing right and arrived two weeks after Bard had reopened following a major refurbishment. Normally, it’s the other way around, with me arriving just before a refurbishment or, better still, in the middle of one!

Bard roasts all its own coffee, with a good selection available at any time. On espresso, there’s the seasonal High Tide blend or the decaf Lo-Fi blend, while on bulk brew there are two coffees of the day, a light- and dark-roasted single-origin. Finally, you can have any of five single-origins, plus decaf, through the Kalita Wave filter, with one of the single-origins available through the Chemex. This last one is chosen to highlight the difference between the Chemex and Kalita brew methods.

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Little Woodfords (COVID-19)

The front of Little Woodfords on Congress Street in Portland, Maine, proudly flying its Progress Pride flag.I’ve been a fan of Little Woodfords in Portland, Maine, ever since I first visited in the summer of 2019. I was therefore rather worried when I heard, in July 2020, that it was forced to move from its original location in Woodfords Corner to a much smaller spot on Congress Street in downtown Portland. Fortunately, while this has meant an inevitable change of character, the friendly, inclusive welcome of the original, plus the awesome coffee from Vermont’s Vivid Coffee Roasters, remains as Amanda and I discovered on our visit last month.

The offering is much as it was as before, 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 on a seasonal basis, and there’s also tea, hot cocoa and several latte-based specials. If you’re hungry, there’s a small, vegetarian/vegan breakfast menu, with various toppings on bagels/biscuits. While Little Woodfords has a small indoor seating (standing?) area at the front, it’s currently takeout-only due to COVID-19, although you’re welcome to sit outside, where you’ll find a bench out front, with a couple of picnic tables down the side, which catch the afternoon sun.

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Meet the Roaster: Speckled Ax

The Speckled Ax roaster, a refurbished 20 kg Petroncini roaster from the 1970s, in the Walton Street roastery, with the tell-tale woodpile against the wall behind it.Regular readers will know that I have a soft spot for Portland’s coffee shop/roaster, Speckled Ax, which I first visited in June 2015. Back then, there was just the original coffee shop on Congress Street, with the roastery out in South Portland. However, Speckled Ax has been busy in recent years, opening its flagship Thames Street coffee shop in 2020, and then, a year later, moving the roastery to its new home on Walton Street, where it also opened a neat coffee bar.

On my return to Portland at the start of this year, I caught up with Matt, owner of Speckled Ax. I’ve already written about the coffee bar, so today’s Meet the Roaster is all about the roastery. Although an outstanding roastery in its own right, consistently turning out some excellent single-origins and blends year-on-year, Speckled Ax’s particular claim to fame is as one of a handful of wood-fired coffee roasters in the USA (reminiscent of Witney’s Ue Coffee Roasters in the UK). The magic happens in a large, industrial unit behind the coffee bar, where you’ll find the 20 kg Petroncini, a refurbished Italian roaster from the 1970s, its fire box filled with local kiln-dried wood.

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Smalls

The front of Smalls, on the steeply-sloping Brackett Street in Portland, with its door deeply recessed between two windows.Smalls, which opened in January, is the latest addition to Portland’s small but thriving speciality coffee scene, a chance discovery which I made on Google Maps when planning a trip downtown at the end of last week. Located on Brackett Street in Portland’s West End, it’s a stone’s throw from the Casco Bay Bridge and a 15-minute walk from the Old Port and the heart of downtown.

One of the things I really admire about Portland’s speciality coffee scene is its diversity. No two places are the same (even when they’re part of the same group) and Smalls only adds to that. The front of Smalls is part coffee shop, restaurant and bar, while at the back, it’s a lovely little store, selling groceries, gifts, candles and personal care products, with an emphasis on reuse and local produce.

I can only really speak to the coffee shop part of Smalls, which serves Variety Coffee Roasters from Brooklyn in New York City. The Lucky Shot seasonal blend is on espresso, while there’s also decaf and a batch brew filter option. If you want to try more of Variety’s range, Smalls has a selection of retail boxes offering a variety of single-origins.

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Speckled Ax, Congress

A square with the motif of an axe buried head-first in a tree-trunk above the word COFFEESpeckled 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 batch-brew until 11am if you’re in a hurry.

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Speckled Ax, Thames (COVID-19)

A lovely cappuccino, made with the Honduras El Cedro, a honey processed coffee, served in a classic white cup at Speckled Ax, Thames Street in Portland, Main.On my first trip to Portland, in June 2015, Speckled Ax was one of three coffee shop/roasters that I visited (along with Tandem Coffee and Bard). Back then, Speckled Ax had a single coffee shop on Congress Street, but two new locations have recently opened, a coffee bar on Walton Street (attached to the new roastery which opened in 2021) and a large café on the waterfront at Thames Street (which opened in 2020).

I’d planned to visit Portland in March 2020, but sadly the COVID-19 pandemic ruled that out, preventing me from returning for another 18 months. However, the travel restrictions were eased in November 2021, and I was finally able to return to America and to Portland, where I paid a long overdue visit to the new Thames location.

Speckled Ax occupies a spacious ground floor unit with views across Thames Street to the harbour. At the time of writing, the space is effectively split into two, with a takeaway section to the right, while the seating is at the front on the left. There’s a limited coffee menu (which still manages to offer two espresso options and two on batch brew filter), while the kitchen provides a concise breakfast and lunch menu.

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Speckled Ax, Walton

The sign over the door, proclaiming "COFFEE" at Speckled Ax, Walton Street.If you’ve been paying attention for the last two weeks, you’ll know that I’m back in Portland, Maine, where, weather permitting, I’m catching up with the local coffee shops. Top of my list was Speckled Ax’s new roastery/coffee bar on Walton Street, which opened last year. It’s out beyond Back Cove, north of Portland’s compact city centre, just over the train tracks from Forest Avenue, the main north/south drag.

Home to Speckled Ax’s new roastery (which has its own Meet the Roaster feature), there’s a small takeout coffee bar attached. Unlike the other Speckled Ax locations (Congress and Thames), with their multiple options on espresso and filter, here it’s just the daily batch brew or espresso, although, of course, plenty of retail bags of coffee are available to buy. There’s no seating, although when COVID-19 allows, there will be a small standing bar at the front. For now, it’s takeaway only, so don’t forget to bring your own cup.

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Tandem Coffee + Bakery

A dual-hopper Malhkonig Coffee Grinder with three bags of Tandem Coffee Roasters coffee in front of it, each with Tandem's logo of a stick-figure tandem bicycle.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.

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Meet the Roaster: Tandem Coffee Roasters

A light bulb in the shape of a tandem bicycle from the wall of the Tandem Coffee Roasters RoasteryI 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.

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Tandem Cafe & Roastery

A light bulb in the shape of a tandem bicycle from the wall of the Tandem Coffee Roasters RoasteryWhen 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).

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The Proper Cup

The front of The Proper Cup on Forest Avenue, Portland, the central double doors flanked by a pair of windows with the words "The Proper Cup Coffee House" written across the top.The Proper Cup, on Portland’s busy Forest Avenue, has been on my radar ever since it opened in 2018. Located on the west side of the street, it principally serves the local neighbourhood, but is on the route of the No. 2 bus and, if you’re walking around Back Cove along Baxter Boulevard, a small diversion along Dartmouth Street will bring you out opposite The Proper Cup. After being takeaway only for a long time during the COVID-19 pandemic, The Proper Cup had a complete makeover before reopening earlier this year to reveal a bright, uncluttered shop with the counter on the right, window seating at the front, plus tables and a sofa on the left.

The coffee is from New Hampshire’s Flight Coffee Co., with the Liftoff blend and Ground Control decaf on espresso, all the shots pulled on a lovely Slayer espresso machine at the end of the counter. Meanwhile there’s currently a Zanzibar Peaberry from Tanzania on batch brew filter, along with a range of teas, iced coffee and some seasonal house specials. If you’re hungry, a selection of sweet and savoury products from a pair of local bakeries are available in a display case on the counter.

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Map

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