The Absolute Best Coffee in Portland, Maine
The Portland, Maine that Mary Allen Lindemann and Alan Spear gambled on, way back in 1994, was a very different city than the Portland, Maine we know today. When the duo opened their first coffee shop on a seedy stretch of Congress Street, which they will tell you used to be known colloquially as the Porn District, the downtown of Maine's largest city was dangerously close to half-empty, saddled with a now-unimaginable 40% vacancy rate. There was no bright future assured, no sure thing to point toward, not yet—this was a time, you may recall, when the average American simply did not do downtown, not unless absolutely necessary.
Lindemann and Spear believed, however. In Portland, in the power of coffee to grow community. A quarter of a century later, Portland is one of America's most easily-appreciated cities of its size, and Coffee By Design is one of Portland's most favored coffee providers. Contemplating a cup of their sparkling bright Colombian on a recent Monday, a morning when the weather outside was equally inspired, I could see why. Here was a marvelously complex thing—crisp, but also quite fruity, almost dancing on the palate, tingling the tongue with what felt like a hit of minerality, assuming the mind wasn't playing tricks on me. This was a coffee you might like to drink by the pool on a summer afternoon, while everyone else drank their ice-cold rosé—that's how refreshing it was.
This particular gem, it turned out, had made its way here from a tiny finca, smaller than a football field, deep inside a remote indigenous peoples reserve, which one of the team had encountered on a visit to Colombia last year. To say that Coffee By Design takes sourcing seriously is to put it mildly; their passion for sustainability, specifically for fair wages for growers, is up there with some of the best-known industry leaders. In 2016, CBD, which is what plenty of people seem to call them around here, joined a growing group of coffee roasters certified as B Corporations, which are expected to adhere to strict standards of accountability in matters of social and environmental responsibility.
There are now four Coffee By Design shops in the area, which is plenty, considering Portland's modest size, and my stop at their Diamond Street flagship, out in an industrial corner of the city's East End, was just one of stops I would be making that day, as part of my research for the next edition of Food & Wine's Best Coffee in Every State survey.
As you might expect from a city with so many dark, cold days on the annual calendar, there's no shortage of coffee in Portland. Who, however, was doing it best, or better than most? To answer that question, I scheduled stops at five prominent local roasters: Tandem Coffee, Coffee by Design, Bard Coffee, Speckled Ax, and Rwanda Bean, as well as the following shops where fine coffee was said to be sold: Coffee ME Up, Little Woodfords, Union Bagel and Rose Foods.
What makes a winner? You can read more on the process both here and here, but briefly: I will typically visit anonymously, preferring to experience each shop the way any consumer would. I will, however, order as many drinks as I can without attracting too much attention, in order to learn as much as possible.. Often, and this was frequently the case in Portland, these visits are mere spot checks on places I'm already quite familiar with—in some cases I'll have visited many times before. After nine stops in one memorable and educational day, here are the four I'd recommend most highly, right now.
One of the most fashionable roasters in New England right now, the one pretty much everybody in the coffee industry under the age of 40 will immediately reference when you talk about Maine, this labor of love from Blue Bottle grads Will and Kathleen Pratt has been a star of the Portland scene since 2012. While the vintage service station on Congress Street is far and away the most popular place for Tandem's loyal fans—both local and visiting from elsewhere—to pay tribute, I prefer the diminutive cafe space inside Tandem's modest, East End roasting plant. Here, underneath the big Colonial-style windows, soaking up the morning light if you're lucky, you feel as if you're part of the family, rather than unwitting fodder for somebody's Instagram feed, not that there's anything wrong with that. The choices on the occasion of my visit were simple, beginning with a cup of the Stoker, their "kinda dark" blend, designed as a sort of evangelistic tool, an outstretched hand to Dunkin'-obsessed New Englanders. This is a thoroughly enjoyable, very straightforward coffee, one of the most balanced I've tried from the new wave of dark-ish roasts, and I had plenty of time to think about how much I liked the stuff while the conscientious barista worked to dial in the day's espresso, a Colombian from estimable producer Astrid Medina. Three tries later, I'd say both my shot and cappuccino came out fine, if still short of the mark. I'd have happily waited around for perfection, in order to experience what was clearly a spectacular coffee at its very best, but the morning rush had already begun.
So close to Tandem's East End roastery you could throw a coffee bean and hit one from the other, CBD's sizable Diamond Street flagship is already a hive of activity around nine o'clock on a Monday morning. Stepping in here is like stepping back a decade or more, in terms of shop design—concrete floors, accent walls in warm, rich 1990s tones, an abundance of local art on the walls. (This location only opened in 2014, as it happens.) There is nothing old-fashioned, however, about some of their coffees—as described above, the Finca El Llano Colombian was one of the finest cups of coffee I have tried since the 2019 survey was released in March. Pity then, that a double espresso and a frill-free cappuccino barely merited a second glance.
Around since 2009, this is easily the best-located coffee roaster and cafe operation for visitors, right in the city's Old Port district, at the heart of absolutely everything. I long ago lost track of how many times I've stepped inside this shop, and cannot recall a time when I didn't leave satisfied. Today was no exception, though here, for the first time that day, espresso outshone cups of coffee (I tried two here, and while they were absolutely fine, neither were really competing with what I'd just had.) After years of experience, Bard remains one of the city's most dependable destinations for a proper espresso drink.
Way up in a part of Portland most casual visitors do not typically encounter, at least not at first, this cheerful multi-roaster has been serving its neighborhood since 2017, working to a standard that I have not observed at any of the non-roaster shops around town. Also, this one had no qualms about looking to other cities and states for their coffee—an apparent rarity in hometown-proud Portland. There was a Sumatran of some sort on the boil, so to speak, and I said yes, I'd like to try some—out came the second absolutely epic cup of the day, something so juicy, so sweet, and special. Was that really pineapple I was tasting? The knowledgeable barista on duty swung the bag around for my benefit, and there it was, first spot on the tasting notes: Pineapple. (I'm not that good at tasting notes, to be honest—try this coffee, and you'll see for yourself, the flavor is awfully hard to miss.) Grown in Sumatra's lush, volcanic Kerinci Valley, this thrilling honey process coffee (read more about that here) took an already unique Sumatran coffee to a new, utterly enjoyable level. The roaster, it turned out, was the up-and-coming Vivid, in northern Vermont. As luck would have it, my next destination.