Over nearly a decade in business, Heart Coffee Roasters has established itself as one of the most meticulous and forward-thinking coffee companies around. Not only do they responsibly source their coffee through direct relationships with growers, they also put in the work in each step of roasting, testing, and preparation to ensure an exceptional cup of coffee lands in front of every customer.
While Heart coffee is becoming more widely available in grocery stores and other coffee shops, the best way to try their product is in one of their three cafes in Portland. Their newest café in the Woodstock neighborhood relies heavily on natural materials and a minimalist approach to decor, which serves to highlight the true star of the show: the coffee. We caught up with Heart Coffee Roasters Willie Yli-Luoma to discuss the new café and his coffee philosophy.
You recently opened your third café, this time in the Woodstock neighborhood. What’s new or unique about this spot in comparison to your other cafes?
"This cafe has food and it’s a lot larger than the other cafes. We also wanted to get away from all the cafes close to downtown Portland."
Everything a customer encounters at a Heart café—from the roast and preparation of the coffee to the new food menu at the Woodstock location to the décor—feels very intentional and carefully considered. Was it challenging to come up with a design for the new space that you were happy with or did it come about naturally?
"We started with a designer and did some layouts, but in the end, we went back to the same materials we used in the past. We did have an architect work with us on the layout, his name is Joe Karman. We were lucky to have the building be close to our aesthetic from the start."
Why did you choose Schoolhouse fixtures for the new space?
"They are simple, clean and timeless. The simple design just appeals to us."
You had a notably different career prior to owning one of the best coffee roasting businesses in the city (some say the whole world)—being a professional snowboarder. How did you get into coffee?
"I was just a consumer and a real coffee nerd. I got really into coffee when I moved to Portland and ended up buying a home espresso machine and a grinder. One thing lead to another and next thing you know I had a commercial espresso machine in my kitchen with a Mazzer Robur [professional coffee grinder] on my counter. I also had 2 sample roasters in my basement."
Do you think coffee roasting is a creative endeavor?
"Yes and no. I don’t think roasting is an art form, it’s very black and white for me. It’s either good or bad. People talk about different styles of roasting, but I think there is a right way and that is it. So to be more clear there can be more creative sides to the business, but not so much the coffee. A lot of hard work and repetition."
When was the moment you decided to make the leap and open Heart?
"I was at the airport on my way to Chile to go snowboard, but I got a bad feeling about it and decided to not get on that plane. I went home and bought the UG-15 that we are still roasting on."
Why did you choose Portland to be the home of your first café?
"I moved to Portland for snowboarding reasons, easy to travel from and close to the nature. The climate is similar to Finland and Sweden where I spent most of my life. It just ended up being home and it was good to have competition to push the quality."
Do you feel the design tradition of your home region influences your cafes? How is coffee culture different in Finland and the United States?
"I’m sure my homeland has some influence on the cafes, but so does my wife. The cafes are sort of extensions of our homes, how we like to live. Coffee culture in Finland is different because people never take coffee to go, you take the time to sit down and drink your black cup of drip coffee. Finland is also very much into filter coffee vs espresso. The espresso culture has gotten bigger there in the past 10 years, but when I grew up there it was only black filter coffee everywhere."
What do you look for when you’re watching a barista make your cup of coffee? How can you tell that they do or don’t know what they’re doing?
"I honestly don’t like to watch them make my drink unless it’s at our cafe. I know what goes into making a good drink and most of the time watching the preparation will already ruin my experience. When people tap the portfilter with their tamper I know the espresso is going to channel and I guess that is one of my biggest pet peeves. I guess there is a lot I could list here, but I rather just not see the preparations and hope for the best."
What’s next for Heart?
"No big plans, just keep doing what we are doing and hope people appreciate the work that goes into it."
Photography by Ellie Lillstrom