Roasters Heat Up Coffee Culture in Central Oregon
The 1980s threw one challenge after another at Winfield and Joy Durham. The husband-and-wife team (both Oregon natives) had weathered a recession that dominated the early ‘80s, spent about six years trying to eke out a living in Alaska, and eventually returned to Oregon so they could raise their children—Justin, Jared, and Jesse—in the quiet community of Sisters.
While in Alaska, the duo discovered the life-changing magic of quality coffee while roasting coffee and running a shop in the city of Sitka. So when they decided to return to Oregon, Winfield and Joy figured the concept of craft coffee might find a home in Central Oregon.
Justin, then eight years old and today the CEO of Sisters Coffee Company, remembers his parents hearing it all from skeptical neighbors while remodeling a 600-square-foot cabin at the west end of Hood Avenue. “Why would I pay $3 or $4 for a coffee drink when I can get it for 10 cents at the local diner?” one asked. “You’ll be lucky to make it through the winter selling coffee, that doesn’t make sense,” another remarked. (It’s easy to forget now, but the coming coffee craze was still in its infancy. In 1989, Starbucks had opened just 55 stores; today, that number is more than 30,000.)
It wasn’t an overnight success—sales would slow dramatically whenever the Santiam Pass closed in winter, and Winfield took odd jobs pouring concrete to get through the lean times—but the gambit paid off: Today, Sisters Coffee Company roasts more than 300,000 pounds of coffee per year and runs two cafes–one in Sisters, on the site of that original cabin (now demolished), and another in the tony Pearl District neighborhood in Portland.
The Durham family’s success wasn’t a one-off stroke of luck, but rather a flashpoint that helped usher in the arrival of—and appetite for—craft coffee in Central Oregon. Since then, local roasters have developed relationships with growers all over the world and have elevated the humble cup of coffee to one of the region’s best-loved beverages. Here’s a look at some of Central Oregon’s most popular (and pioneering) coffee roasters.
Today, Justin runs Sisters Coffee Company with his brother Jared (director of retail) and his sister Jesse (director of operations). Together the trio has worked not just to pour a fine cup of coffee, but to enrich and improve the lives of everyone involved with making that cup in the first place—including farmers, pickers, and more.
For instance, Sisters Coffee Company has for years purchased coffee from the all-women Rwanda Nyampinga Cooperative; those regular purchases allowed the 235-member cooperative to invest in training, quality control, business management, and new supplies. In turn, that investment made it possible for Sisters to purchase more than 15,000 pounds of coffee from the cooperative in 2019. Today, those beans are used in the company’s espresso blend.
Led by Bend native Dave Beach, Backporch Coffee Roasters opened in 2009 and has since become a regional leader in the practice of direct-trade purchasing, where the roaster cuts out the middleman and buys directly from growers.
It started long before Backporch launched, back when Beach met a struggling Brazilian grower while working for another (now defunct) roaster; Beach tried to purchase the farmer’s coffee but was rebuffed by his superiors, who balked at the higher price.
It hinted at a deeper problem that Beach knew could be solved with a larger investment in direct trade: “Farms down there [in Central and South America] are just getting overgrown with weeds, and people can’t afford to work the farms, let alone pick the coffee or hire people,” he says.
So when Beach launched Backporch Coffee Roasters in 2009, he made a point to form relationships and buy coffee directly from farmers in the likes of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Costa Rica.
By paying a bit more per pound, Beach is genuinely helping growers and producers—“Financially, I sleep better at night knowing the farmers are making a good wage,” he says—and appealing to a more discerning coffee drinker. “You have people who get excited when you put out a new country,” Beach says. “It’s becoming something a bit more like wine; they’re craving a certain country, whereas before they might have craved a certain roast.”
It’s no exaggeration to say a sense of place is imbued in every cup of coffee Bellatazza serves from its cafe in downtown Bend.
On one level, Bellatazza reflects the city in which it was born by purchasing milk, chai, chocolate, and baked goods from other Bend companies.
But on a deeper level, Bellatazza makes direct trade a core part of its mission, purchasing from a plantation in Guatemala and supporting two Guatemalan children that the company has “adopted” over the years. (That entails in-person visits twice each year, regular interaction with their parents via social media, and paying for the children’s education and supplies.)
That sense of place is also reflected in the coffee Bellatazza produces, where tasting notes get far beyond the basics. The company describes its Ethiopian beans, for instance, with comparisons to wine and by calling out notes of blueberry, orange, and apricot.
Everything you need to know about Bend-based Strictly Organic Coffee Co. is right in the name.
Most obviously, Strictly Organic takes pride in roasting and pouring coffee that’s certified organic through both Oregon Tilth (which strives to make the broader food system more equitable) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But the company’s commitment to sustainability and the environment goes beyond what it pours into your cup. Simply Organic’s cups, utensils, and to-go containers are all biodegradable; the company uses 100% organic milk products; its coffee grounds and food waste gets recycled as mulch for farmers; paper and plastic products are recycled; 95% of all incoming box materials are repurposed for outgoing mail orders; and orders are even delivered via bicycle to restaurants, offices, and individual customers in downtown Bend.