Blending Arts and Caffeine with Stumptown Coffee Roasters

by Liv Ryan

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Stumptown coffee is a staple for us in New York and LA. It's well known and well loved not just by the coffee-shop-freelancer crowd, but by improvisers looking to perk up before their shows -- not to mention the countless screenwriters, sketch comedians and standups who somehow manage to find time to work on their material between gigs and day jobs.

All of which made Stumptown a perfect sponsor for the 20th Annual Del Close Marathon, where the brand's original cold brew blend and Nitro Hair Bender were welcome additions that helped thousands of performers refuel. And what started as appreciation for an old standby became admiration for a brand that puts corporate responsibility and community support at its forefront, offering creative scholarships and opportunities to its employees, promoting art in its brick-and-mortar locations, and using documentary film to spread the word about their sustainable trade partners.

We talked to Stumptown Marketing Director Mallory Pilcher to learn more.

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What’s your experience with improv?

All of my improv experience is watching a lot of it and admiring people who go up there and perform every night. But the way we operate on the creative team at Stumptown, it feels like everything we’re doing is improv. So I guess my experience with improv is really filtered through the lens of my coworkers and how we work together.

What do you know about the comedy scenes in the places Stumptown has a footprint?

The comedy scene in Portland is small but mighty. I go to a ton of shows at Helium Comedy Club and I go to a lot of these free standup shows on Wednesday nights in Portland; those are always fun to see people work out their new material. And New York really seems to be where a lot of cool work happens.

How often are you creating new blends at Stumptown?

We try to think of products that would be interesting to us that we would get really excited about when it comes to coffee. We’re always sourcing coffee year-round from all over the world, so sometimes we’ll be embarking on a new relationship with a new coffee producer, or we’ll be looking at a new part of the word where we haven’t ever sourced coffee. We tend to reserve any new blends for super special occasions, like if we’re doing something for a really great wholesale customer that we work with or for the holidays or something like that.

But with the coldbrew line, we get to flex that muscle a little bit more because it’s more based in beverage, so to me it’s reminiscent of bartending and cocktails, and trying to think of how we can make new drinks and what those drinks could be. With coffee its all about making sure we’re sourcing something and then expressing its origin. How can I make this thing from this specific part of the world taste most like itself? 

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Tell me about the Stumptown Artist Fellowship.

Super amazing program that we initiated with the opening of our downtown Portland cafe. We have a longtime curator, May, who's incredible; she also runs an amazing gallery in Portland called Nationale. We wanted to double down on the fact that we're a coffee shop and that most artists are really looking to show their work in a gallery space -- a space where people are going to come look at their work and want to purchase it. So, in order to support those artists that we really want to support, we decided to start a fellowship which gives a stipend to an artist to show with us in that space, and they’ll generally produce a show that runs over the course of two months.

Most of the work is pretty large format because our walls are so massive and our ceilings are so high. May does an incredible job of curating. She is absolutely one of the greats. And we get to see a lot really interesting and provocative work, and the community therefore gets to see that as well. It gives people who might not normally interact with art the opportunity to do so -- folks who maybe can’t afford to go see art all the time, or who are really busy.

Why do you consider fostering creativity in your community to be important?

I’d say it’s more important now than ever before. In my past life I was an art therapist; I used visual art to kind of help people work through issues that they were experiencing, and be able to talk about it in ways that they could explain themselves without having to use just normal vocalized interaction. I think that people have a lot of different ways of experiencing the world. It’s really best accessed by whatever way they feel is easiest to express, and that comes in a lot of forms -- and the closer you can get to understanding someone’s experience of the world, the less chaotic and miserable the world generally is.

Art has this really magical way of kind of circumnavigating that, either by making you laugh with comedy, or showing you something beautiful with visual art, or playing a really incredible piece of music that’s powerful and kind of changes you. The more we can support people who operate in those different shifts, the easier it is for people to find commonalities and get along and exist with each other. It’s still the fastest way to make friends and connect over something you love.

I think there are a lot of young people making work that’s really challenging the paradigm and helping shift norms and progress people into new ways of thinking. Generally, young people don’t have tons of money and it's a lot to get young people to stay engaged in the arts when they’re busy hustling and trying to survive. I think giving them the opportunity and the access to art is super powerful and really can have an impact on people when they’re young.

In your experience, what makes a team successful?

Having the courage to fail together. That’s the biggest one. Just having really radically honest communication as much as possible. I care about my coworkers so much and in a way they’re like family to me -- we’re like a big dysfunctional family -- because we all care so much about what we’re doing and having the type of relationship where you an be dead honest with somebody. It's important to be able to tell them, “I don’t like that idea,” or, “That’s not gonna work because of this,” or, “You’re not thinking about it in this way," without anybody taking it personally.

Which of your blends would you recommend to a performer for a pre-show caffeine buzz?

I would say maybe like Hairbender or Holler Mountain depending on your vibe. If you’re really trying to get amped up, go with the Hairbender because it's super complex. If you’re used to drinking your coffee with cream and sugar, go with the Holler Mountain and you’ll be just super stoked. 

Liv Ryan is a comedian and an intern at Upright Citizens Brigade. She currently attends Wesleyan University.