Stumptown Coffee

"Barista," once upon a time, came right before "waiter" in the lexicon of temporary gigs. Perhaps the young gal pulling your shot of espresso was a writer. A grad student. Maybe an aspiring actress.

Nowadays, "coffee" can equal "career." That woman with the bouffant of bright blonde hair pulling your shot of Ethiopian espresso, with oversized glasses in a hue of pink that echoes her elegant shoulder-to-wrist tattoos? She is 31. And has a mastery of her subject as deep as the director of wine at The French Laundry.

Her name is Jules Manoogian, and she's one of a handful of experts responsible for changing the way you get your daily buzz. With a penchant for adjectives like "rad" and a pack of American Spirits close at hand, Manoogian might look like one of a hundred young baristas nonchalantly pulling shots on Faema E61, a gadget gleaming with retro chrome. But this Los Angeles native—who has worked at nationally known coffee companies like Chicago's Intelligentsia, Seattle's Victrola, and a pop-up shop in a motorcycle repair station with coffee so good it made the Los Angeles Times—boasts a legit title. Manoogian is the New York director of retail training and education for Stumptown Coffee Roasters. She is one of a growing crop of coffee cultists for whom beans are not a moonlighting gig, but a very serious culinary calling.

Some of the credit for Manoogian's success goes to Stumptown, the 10-year-old Portland, Oregon outfit that relocated her to NYC from California a year ago when it launched its much-hyped East Coast operations. The chain is considered by many to be among the best in the world at the modern art of roasting coffea Arabica, which it sources from small, sustainable farms, delivering beans cherished for their pristine terroir and layered flavors. In Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, and New York, where the beans are sold, they inspire extreme obsessiveness when brewed and poured into a mug—in Manhattan, for upwards of $2.25.

A little pricier than your corner deli fix? Well, coffee has several predecessors in this upward trajectory of taste and cost: Consider American grapes, hops, cacao, and grains. Wine, craft beer, varietal chocolates, and small-batch bourbon have all developed cult followings; coffee beans were perhaps the natural progression. Those who obsess about beans know producers, purveyors, and flavors as well as a cinephile knows his directors. Stumptown in particular has several high-profile fans: Top Chef host Tom Colicchio personally requested it poured in his Manhattan flagship restaurant, Craft.

The phenomenon is relatively new. "You might know where the broccoli rabe comes from and where the oysters come from and the pork chop," says Luke Dirks, who works with Manoogian on Stumptown's wholesale accounts. "But until recently, you were still getting that same really bad espresso." Now Stumptown and coffees of its caliber have found their way onto menus along with the byline of the chef's cheesemonger and the guy who grows her tomatoes. "The bottom line," says Dirks of the success of top-notch beans, "is [that] same attention to detail."

Next week: Part 2: Coffee as Champagne, A Coffee Boss, and a "totally fresh latte"...