Making coffee a family business
Paul Thornton has lived and breathed coffee in Portland for more than three decades.
But in all his jobs — and even during a stint as president of the Specialty Coffee Association of America just four years ago — Thornton's name has not been on his own business.
Until this past month, when Thornton Family Coffee Roasters opened at 12420 S.W. Millikan Way, just one block east of The Round in Beaverton.
It's not a coffeehouse in the usual sense.
Thornton, his daughter and son-in-law obtain raw coffee from growers through their supply chain, roast the beans and develop the flavors in-house, and then sell wholesale to specialty retailers or private labels that seek custom blends.
However, the public can buy packaged beans there — and Thornton Family Coffee Roasters offers a walk-up window, tasting sessions and roasting explanations.
While several places in Portland offer similar experiences, Thornton says his is the first on the westside.
"We've been involved in this high level of coffee culture and we are very passionate about it in Portland — one of the best-known cities in this country for phenomenal coffee," he said.
"It seems this could be a really big deal in Beaverton."
Thornton compares it with craft brewing and winemaking, and the farm-to-table food movement — both big in Oregon — with one main difference.
"Coffee growers are out of sight and out of mind," he said. "What we want to recognize is the producers of some of these great coffees. It's tricky to do. But it's our plan, and we're sticking to it."
Thornton started with Coffee Bean International, which owned a small group of shops known as Coffee People, back in 1982. He was head coffee buyer, roastmaster, and director of coffee for Farmer Brothers from 2008 through the end of 2015.
Along the way he got involved in the Roasters Guild, and in 2008, he joined the board of Specialty Coffee Association of America. He became its first vice president in 2011, and president in 2013-14.
Just after his presidency, he was asked by the association's trade publication in a July 2014 interview about the future of coffee.
"I'd like to see specialty coffee recognized by the general population, so they know what it is when they taste it.
"I'd like to see coffee roasters and baristas work closer together to learn more about the connection between properly roasted and prepared coffee, and to define what the word 'properly' means.
"I'd like to see consumers allowed to decide what is fresh by having roast dates on coffee packaging."
Thornton began to make that dream a reality only a couple of years ago, when he was joined by his daughter, Rachel, and son-in-law, Chris Verhaalen, both baristas who had worked for coffee producers on Hawaii's Kona Coast.
For their fledgling business, they acquired two roasting machines. One, which dates back to 1915, is used for roasting small batches of beans for sampling. The other, which Thornton describes as a "workhorse," is a refurbished 1995 Petroncini roaster with a 15-kilogram capacity. During an eight-hour day it can roast up to 600 pounds of beans.
Thornton says he would like to be among the pioneers of a fourth wave of coffee, following Folger's — the largest selling ground coffee in the United States — and Starbucks, which became the first coffee-only destination.
"The third wave is a connection with a barista who is making a craft beverage and delivering it out the window," he said. An example, he said, is Public Domain at 603 S.W. Broadway, Portland.
"I want to be the fourth wave," he said. "That is a roaster who works in tandem with the barista to develop specific flavors and tastes that are delivered to somebody out the window."
In Thornton's view, it means having baristas who are good at customer service and craft beverages, "with an approachable attitude so that people are not intimidated."
It also means educating people about how coffee beans are prepared and roasted, how flavors are developed and how consumers can taste them without becoming confused.
"We want to make sure it makes sense to the consumer," he said.
"What is more important to me is that we want to educate people that this business is something that doesn't already exist in this town."