Interview / Photography by Aaron Levy
Kopi (Indonesian for coffee) has found its own lane in a city that has no shortage of coffee shops.
Inspired by the tastes, smells, and sounds of Indonesia and Malaysia, the Portland-born Joshua Vineyard - known by his artistic moniker XUA - along with his girlfriend Nacko Nack, opened the business in September 2015. The east-Burnside cafe offers a small menu of coffee beverages, notably the ginger-infused Kopi Jahe and Vietnamese-inspired Kopi Saigon, and several Southeast Asian flatbreads called Rotis.
Xua is a musician at heart and he told me that Kopi is really just an extension of that same creative spirit. We talked about the challenges of mixing business with creativity in a city that is seemingly bursting at the seams with both coffee shops and Asian cuisine.
On the fascination with Indonesian and Malaysian culture:
"I first traveled there in 2010. I wasn’t planning on going to Indonesia, and then I ran into these travelers in Penang in Malaysia and ended up getting some good advice on places to go. I flew right into Yogyakarta which is right in the center, east of Java. It’s really rich in culture, really interesting. Totally different than what we associate with Indonesia. Bali is what most people think about with Indonesia. I was just going to go for a couple weeks and I ended up staying for a month. I started going island hopping and digging the culture in 2010. In 2014 I brought Nacko back there and we spent some time in Bali and spent some time in Lombok and Java and ended up in Banyuwangi, which is a really cool kind of bizarre kind of town.
Most of the time when you’re over there it’s instant packets, everyone drinks instant coffee, but every once in a while you’ll find someone who has a weird generator shack setup where they’re roasting coffee with palm oil or ginger and ginseng and doing weird stuff with it. In Yogyakarta they have the Kopi Joss which is the charcoal coffee where they put the charcoal in it. I ended up in Flores - and there was a volcano - we did an all-night hike and ended up at the peak. At the top there was this lady serving Kopi Jahe and I just sat there and kept drinking it and thought it was an awesome combination of flavors. That was really the first time I had Kopi Jahe. I ended up in Chiang Mai for a while and had the Coffee Oliang which was funky and wild.
The tastes and smells of Southeast Asia are just as striking and just as memorable as the sounds and sights are, if not more. The tastes are stunning. It’s all based on these really strong jungle aromatics. It’s very, very different. As I started experimenting with the menu, I realized a lot of these aromatics pair so well with good coffee. They just do well together. Coffee in itself is an aromatic in some ways. That got fun really quick.
Indonesian people are just sweethearts. There so interested in talking to you. That makes it a lot easier to kick ideas back and forth."
On operating a coffee shop next to Portland’s most popular brunch destination:
"Within a couple weeks of developing the business plan, this spot fell into our laps. We were going to start it with a cart and move to a brick and mortar and do the whole Portland cart-to-house sort of thing and we magically ended up with this place. We figured if we just spent all the money we had, we could do it without partners and struggle big time for the first few years. But we’d have a space to work with artistically, we could bring people into the space and have it be very different, and experiment with different recipes and even some food. With Screen Door next door, we were really able to try some funky stuff. I can really go far out with a special for a weekend and see if it works. The first couple months as we were just cleaning the place up, it was fun to really dial in the menu and get really creative with it. Whatever’s here is going to have a big Saturday and Sunday. It’s a lot of foot traffic and people wanting to get coffee in that hour long line or whatever."
The hardest part of small business in Portland:
"The hardest thing is just confidence. I wouldn’t want to do anything that’s not weird. I want to do something strange and new, but you have to have a blinding confidence in it. There are so many mornings where you wake up and if it doesn’t work, you’re just fucked. You have no money, you’re just fucked.
Having a cafe or coffee shop, it’s a longer term thing. It’s not like an album really where you work on it for a year or year and a half. A painting can take a month or two. When you have a long term, leased out piece of property, you have to create a product and make that product the same way every day; that’s definitely been an interesting thing, creatively. You have to at some point divorce yourself from the vision of the thing and look at it as a business. That’s been really new for me. It’s a business and an art project, does that make sense?"
On the Portland coffee scene and what it lacks:
"I can’t blame it. It’s worked unbelievably. Stumptown, Heart, Coava… it’s fantastic, it’s great. The more you travel, the more you realize how spoiled we are here, especially with coffee. Portland’s got to be one of the top cities of coffee in the world. It’s fantastic and been an awesome success. There was a certain type of coffee shop when I was growing up here that was funky and weird and also really cool, even though it wasn’t so delicious. There were definitely a lot of awesome cool shops here in the 90’s. I sort of miss those hole-in-the wall, Northwest coffee shop kind of places. Those were always a refuge from the bars and chock full of artists and stuff like that. Growing up in the suburbs, we’d come in to go to the coffee shops and go to open mics and whatever.
There’s a preciousness to it that’s awesome and results in a really great product but probably limits creativity in some ways and it’s become procedural and clinical in its execution so a lot of the places aren’t necessarily comfortable. I think it’s important to have a comfortable place to drink coffee in so you can be creative, but then it limits your pallet in what you’re working with. Here we’re working with ginger, lemongrass, kaffir leaf and coconut milk - really incredible flavors. We’re working with them on a natural level as opposed to syrups or whatever. We’re trying to infuse them and bring them out in the drinks in a hybrid sort of way. It’s been really fun creatively. It’s because we’re not so precious about the bean and not so beholden about the idea of coffee being so precious. But it couldn’t have existed without the last ten years of people honing in on what good coffee is."
On what’s next:
"I would love to do something more traditional, some serious Makan. There’s no real Indonesian or Malaysian places in Portland, I think those are really good foods.
I want to get into some sort of bottling. I could see a product line sooner rather than later. I think there’s a really good market for our Kopi Jahe and Kopi Saigon lattes. I’d really love to do a product line of our kaffir coconut dark French roast and Kopi Jahe. Some gourmet can or bottle of it. I’d like to do that next. I would love to do a small product line that combines Asian flavors with coffee."
Kopi Coffee House
2327 East Burnside St.
Portland, OR 97214