[O]n a typically drizzly day in Vancouver, Washington, Ryan Palmer sits at a vintage, daisy-printed table in Torque Coffee Roasters’ vast café and roastery. While patrons filter in out of the rain, the shop owner details with wry humor the difficulties of owning a coffee company in the shadow of Portland’s colossal coffee scene. “We could light ourselves on fire,” he says with seriousness. “We get no media over here…magazines are the exception,” he adds politely.
The thirty-five-year-old shop owner goes on to describe a macabre incident that took place last spring, when one of Torque’s employees was held up at gunpoint. “Nobody said a thing,” Palmer laments. “My barista got shoved in a walk-in refrigerator by a guy wearing a Scream mask, and zero shits were given that day.”
While the barista is fine, Palmer’s sentiments might be apt. When incidences of note occur at cafés in Los Angeles, New York, or Portland, which sits just over the Columbia River from Vancouver, they are usually thoroughly circulated via Twitter and the Internet’s ample coffee blogs. In the coffee realm, the industry’s biggest stars garner attention the way Hollywood celebrities do—without really trying at all. Meanwhile, outside major metropolitan areas, smaller players dwell out of sight and often out of mind.
Despite its humble surroundings, the roastery, which opened its doors almost three years ago, is making a name for itself. At February’s Big Western competition in Los Angeles, in which barista Chad Bledsoe competed on behalf of the company, Palmer was surprised to meet attendees already familiar with Torque. “When we’re in Vancouver we have a much lower profile,” he admits. “But I can go to LA and they already know all about me.”
“Our goal is to really form a good solid base here. We won’t be just a Vancouver company forever.”
It’s less surprising when you consider that Palmer’s career in coffee dates back to the late nineties. He worked in Los Angeles for Lamill; at Ceremony Coffee Roasters in Annapolis when it was still Caffe Pronto; coordinated events that helped organize the Denver barista scene; and most recently owned and operated a bottled cold brew coffee business called Meriwether’s. Growing up, his father sold the kind of instant cappuccino machines often found at gas stations. Making light of this earliest introduction, Palmer calls his latest project a “repayment to the coffee world.”
At a glance the roastery is unique in several ways. First, its sheer size: The café resides in a former auto repair garage, with gigantic east-facing windows, immodestly high ceilings, and a bar area the size of most urban coffee shops. A vintage Vittoria Lido roaster sits in one corner. Adjacent to the table where he’s sitting, Palmer draws an invisible line where there will soon stand a wall cordoning the company’s office and cold-brew bottling area. Even with the partition the room will be huge, but the space isn’t mechanical or cold. Touches like quirky mosaic art, retro furniture, multi-use mason jars, and a rack of hand-screened T-shirts (“The ’Couve: It ain’t Portland”) lend Torque an affable flavor lacking in most Portland shops, where the aesthetic is typically stripped down and serious.
The café’s other noticeable virtue is its earnest detail. Near the entrance a sleek espresso machine heads a long, central counter with a recessed pastry window, ending in a clean pour-over bar where metal-handled jars catch single-origin roasts. Mugware and bags of beans bear a simple, classic logo. (“We have our own font,” says Palmer.) The attention to detail extends behind the bar where coffee, tea, and espresso are meticulously brewed, and syrups, chai, toddy, and chocolate sauce are all crafted in-house. Even teas are internally sourced. Palmer bought a local tea company last year, now headquartered down the street, and sells Torque all its blends.
A block away from city hall, a few more from the county building, and walking distance from the city’s port, Torque’s ample space is put to good use. The café functions as Vancouver’s everyman roastery—albeit offering the quality of a big city operation—and the people watching is wonderful. Aside from providing a central meeting place, Palmer and his staff also participate in local causes, from an annual back-to-school book drive to the sponsorship of several local sports teams, including women’s roller derby and youth cyclo-cross. Several nearby breweries tap ales laced with Torque’s roasts, a popular food truck enjoys a semi-permanent home by the shop’s entrance, and free parties like WesFest (a celebration of all things Wes Anderson) give locals an outlet for social nerdery.
A Portland native who moved to Vancouver in high school, Palmer envisioned Torque as an opportunity to give back to the community. He’s realizing that dream in what seems to be as many ways as possible. “Our goal is to really form a good solid base here,” he says, adding, “We won’t be just a Vancouver company forever.”
To that end, plans are already in the works for Torque’s second and third locations. The first of these expansions, slated to open this fall in Vancouver, will serve coffee alongside wine, pairing the subtle flavor similarities between the two amidst much fancier architecture, including tiled archways, exposed wood, and floor-to-ceiling windows. Palmer also describes a yet-to-be-secured third location, likely in Portland, where patrons will bike-through for their coffee. When asked how he’ll manage spillage for his two-wheeled guests, Palmer shrugs, feigning indifference. “We’ll figure it out.”
Reading through a veil of irony, it’s clear he means it.
—Regan Crisp is Fresh Cup’s associate editor.