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The Northwest Buzz

On one of those sacred, sunny, Sunday mornings in Portland, a delicate layer of steam coats the windows of Ladybug Organic Coffee Company. The inside of the spacious shop is warm with a cozy couch near the fireplace and a tidy area for children. The irresistible aroma of coffee permeates the air, and friendly baristas turn out espresso drinks with a relaxed, consistent rhythm. It's not Starbucks, but like that behemoth of coffee, Ladybug is a product of the Northwest's passion for the perfect cup.

"It's a cultural thing," says Angel Bennington, who with her husband, Jonathan, opened Ladybug in the up and coming St. John's neighborhood this year. "If you go to Texas, you sometimes can't even find a Starbucks, but here there's so much great coffee that people can be picky and choosy."

Matt Lounsbury, who works for Stumptown Roasters, agrees that with the growing sophistication of the café culture in the Northwest, people are getting and then demanding a better coffee experience. "They care where their coffee comes from and what makes it unique. People are becoming more conscious consumers and more savvy," says Lounsbury.

The story of coffee started with an Ethiopian shepherd, some time around circa 800, who noticed that when his sheep ate the berries of a particular shrub, they started getting rambunctious. The shepherd partook in munching on the shrub's fruit and discovered that he enjoyed his newly increased energy as well. A holy man, who knew the shepherd, admonished him for eating the berries, until he tried them himself.

In the 10th century, Ethiopians started cultivating coffee as a crop. Eventually, it was the Arabs who created our treasured elixir, turning it into a drink by boiling it with water around circa 1100. They called it "qahwa," which loosely translated means to prevent sleep. The French brought coffee to the Western Hemisphere, planting it first in Martinique. In 1727, the first coffee plantation was planted in Brazil. And now the Northwest is pioneering the coffee culture and rapidly steering coffee into a sustainable crop.

"What's really great about organic," says Bennington, "is there's so much behind it. It's great for everyone, every step of the way from the person who plants the coffee to the drinker." Coffee has the potential to wreak havoc on the soil where it grows, and let's face it, coffee growing nations are among the poorest. So how can an eco and socially conscious Northwesterner truly enjoy a cup of coffee with that on their mind? Easy"¦ change the world!

Pura Vida coffee in Seattle is the largest distributor of fair trade coffee in the states. That means that they buy coffee grown in the shade. Shade-grown coffee is grown under a canopy of diverse species of shade trees, like it was for many years before coffee became so popular around the world. In contrast to sun-grown coffee, it requires less chemicals and pesticides and does less damage to the surrounding environment. In addition, the farmers and their families aren't exposed to the harmful chemicals historically used on coffee crops. As their mission statement says; "Pura Vida is rooted in a desire to empower the poor in coffee-growing regions of the world," and the company believes in using "capitalism as an agent of compassion." Before Pura Vida hand roasts their small batches, they make sure that everyone along the way has received livable wages. Now, coffee drinkers can enjoy every drop with a clear conscience.

Stumptown coffee also features a number of fair trade-certified and organic-certified coffees. And sometimes they take the process a step further and direct trade with growers on family farms. These growers may not have fair trade certification because they aren't part of a cooperative. "We're coming face to face with them at least twice and typically three times a year." At the cupping room at the Stumptown annex on Southeast Belmont Street in Portland, you can taste some of the different flavors of coffee from around the world. "The Panama Esmeralda is getting the most fanfare and attention," says Lounsbury.

Not only can buyers choose how their coffee's been grown now, but brewing a personally tailored cup of coffee has never been so easy — or confusing! "If there are 10 different kinds of coffee, at some point people are going to be able to make choices about what they want," explains Bennington. Connoisseurs can buy a bag of whole bean or ground coffee at their nearest grocery store and take it home, but that said, the flavor of coffees varies dramatically depending on region of origin, roast and grind. Beans grown in Madagascar don't taste like beans grown in Bolivia, and then there's the roast. Roasting has the greatest influence on coffee flavor. A light roast contains more caffeine and has a sharper, more acidic flavor, while French and Italian roasts are respectively darker with subtly burnt undertones. Spanish roast is the darkest.

"The café culture in the Northwest is one of the most sophisticated in the world, rivaled only by a few others in Scandinavia," says Lounsbury. Maybe that's because here, like Scandinavia, during the cold, wet winters we have to create our comfort. "People combat the rain with an extra cup of coffee," he says. "In the "biz" we call it coffee drinking weather."

The Northwest Buzz