Duane Sorenson: Responsible Coffee

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Duane Sorenson can sum up Portland in one short sentence: “People here are passionate about their bicycles and their coffee.” He should know. Less than 10 years after founding Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Sorenson’s influential business has become the final word on coffee in this caffeine-fueled city (and points beyond). But that’s not enough for Sorenson. His goal is to make Portland the most “coffee educated” city in the world.

“I don’t feel we’re there yet,” he explains. “But it’s always been my goal that the fine folks here be in tune with coffee processing–the brewing, the roasting–but also coffee farming and all the steps to making the finest coffee in the world.”

Those steps–from brewing the perfect cup to finding good beans–are something that Sorenson is not only in tune with, but working to change. By forging personal relationships with farms in Latin America and Africa, he’s been able to push the limits of quality while paying prices far above fair-trade levels. In 2004, Stumptown broke the world record for the highest price paid to a grower for coffee beans.

“I’ve traveled all over the world to work with farmers and I always make a habit of asking what I could do to improve their communities,” he says. “While I was in Rwanda, every person was saying [that having] a bicycle would make [their] life easier.” Realizing this need would resonate with Portland’s passionate cyclists, himself included, Sorenson founded the Bikes To Rwanda non-profit, which built two bicycle shops and put 400 bikes on the ground in the war-torn nation.

Of course, this all wouldn’t work if the coffee and cafés weren’t so damn good. Stumptown’s in-house roasters craft the sort of complex and unusual batches that please connoisseurs and occasional drinkers alike. The ambience isn’t lacking, either, as each location keeps turntables and stacks of vinyl on hand. Unsurprisingly, more than few musicians are working behind the counters. Sorenson counts The Thermals’ Hutch Harris and Jordan Hudson as former Stumptown employees.

Sorenson was born raised in Tacoma, WA, but frequently came down to Portland to skate Burnside. “When I was a kid, Burnside was the only skatepark in the Northwest,” he recalls. Skating sessions under the bridge at the legendary DIY park made a lasting impression on Sorenson. “After I had spent some time working with other people, learning to roast, I decided to open my own café,” he says. “Because of Burnside, I already knew that Portland was the place to do it.”

Favorite Portland artist:
The Thermals