Todd Edwards (right), owner of three Ole Latte carts, has partnered with Culmination Brewing to make a coffee beer for the Baker’s Dozen festival this March. Edwards highlights the importance of building relationships with other businesses and customers. Also pictured: Dave Fry, hotel manager at Sentinel (left) and Alex Thompson, barista. Photos by Andi Prewitt
By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
When you meet Todd Edwards, founder of Ole Latte, there are a number of roles he could highlight when introducing himself: entrepreneur, small-business owner, originator of a Portland coffee shop on wheels. But when you meet Todd Edwards, he’ll likely open with this: “world changer, humanitarian and life advisor.”
That might sound mighty ambitious for a guy who runs food carts, even one who continues to expand his brand. But if you spend just 20 minutes outside of his original location on Southwest Alder Street and watch him work, you begin to understand why he’s not just another Portlander serving one of the city’s staple beverages. As he glad-hands regulars and greets everyone with a broad smile, it’s easy to see him as more of a mayor-like figure — at least for that patch of bustling asphalt in the heart of downtown. Edwards’ support for other small businesses along with a deep concern for customers — including those with the means to pay and those without — set him apart from others in his line of work. And in his continued effort to advance connections with new industries, Edwards has found himself collaborating with makers of the region’s other beloved beverage: beer.
Ole Latte has teamed up with Culmination Brewing to produce a new brew for the second annual Baker’s Dozen festival, which takes place Saturday, March 12 at the brewery on Northeast Oregon Street. The event brings together the stuff of a slack-jawed, drooling Homer Simpson’s dreams: coffee, beer and doughnuts. Edwards became involved thanks to Steven Shomler, a man who facilitates many networking opportunities in the fields of food and beverage. Shomler, who authored books on the Portland food cart scene and the city’s breweries, connected Culmination and Edwards, who was then asked to provide the coffee component for a festival beer. And while this would be his first foray into the world of beer making, Edwards already had some clear ideas about his contribution.
“I said I really want to do something different. I mean, I’m not a brewer, but I’m a coffee roaster. And I’ve seen a lot of coffee in coffee beers out there — a lot of stouts and a lot of porters,” he described. “So we’re going to go a lot on the lighter side and so that way it’ll make it a little more pronounced on the forwardness of the coffee.”
Tomas Sluiter, owner of and master brewer at Culmination, confirmed that the Baker’s Dozen beer will be an English mild ale blended with cold press called Ole Molee. Edwards wants attendees to pick up the fruit-forward flavors of his Corazon Del Toro, a heavy-bodied espresso blend with a juicy mouthfeel. And if you’re noticing that the description of the coffee sure sounds a heck of a lot like beer or wine, you’re right. The three have plenty in common and Edwards, who previously had no background in coffee roasting, actually aspired to open a wine shop. The Corazon is a nod to his years of experience with wine, which included working in restaurants and leading seminars on proper tasting techniques and pairings. Eventually, he knew he wanted to set out on his own and had a little bit of capital to get started. A wine shop that showcased Northwest varietals — particularly those from low-volume producers — seemed like the perfect fit. He even entertained the idea of opening in the mornings to serve coffee. But a brick-and-mortar store proved to be too risky. That’s when the trusty food cart rolled into his life. The vehicle that’s launched many a culinary career in Portland was much more feasible for a startup. However, he had to abandon the wine concept and continue with coffee alone.
“But when I started researching more and more into it, I found out the translation between wine and coffee was completely harmonious. It worked exactly the same,” explained Edwards. “It had a little bit different dialogue, but when you talk about the notes of coffee, it’s like the same thing you talk about with the notes of the wine or the body or the acidity. And these are all like — the verbiage just came completely across. It was seamless, so it just made sense for me.”
Edwards initially brought on Ristretto Roasters, and as he learned the process Ole Latte took over. Now the business roasts in a warehouse off Southeast Clinton Street, providing enough product for three carts — the original on Southwest Alder Street, the second near Portland State University and the third, most recent addition in Happy Valley, which may sound like an unusual location, but the suburban pod of Portland-style food carts has attracted plenty of business without city-level foot traffic.
Beyond moving the traditional coffee shop to a cart, Edwards’s experimentation also extends to his products. He turned to Mother Nature when looking for ingredients to use in a new syrup, which will also be on display at the Baker’s Dozen. Of course, anyone who’s walked into a cafe has undoubtedly noticed rows of Torani bottles lining a wall. Syrups come in dozens of flavors, but Edwards wanted to bring a taste of Oregon’s terrain to his concoction. So he went foraging — in his neighbors’ yards. Fortunately, Edwards has a good relationship with the people on his block and there were no calls to 911 when they spotted a man running around their property with clippers and a bucket.
“But it was still entertaining to see me,” Edwards recalled, laughing. “People are like, ‘What are you doing?!’ It’s like, ‘It’s all research! It’s all science. It’s all for science!’”
The inspiration for this project in trial and error came from a survivalist-style TV show. Edwards “watched some guys in the middle of nowhere making a pine tea. And I thought, ‘That is the most weird thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life.’” The men stripped a tree, threw part of it in hot water and boiled it down, producing a tea that was the essence of the woods where they were camping. Edwards went through multiple plants for his syrup — juniper, hemlock, spruce — unsatisfied with the results. With his very last sample, he finally found one he was happy with. It was the Douglas fir from his own backyard.
“It just came out really well in the coffee and it makes like you’re drinking a Christmas tree in a coffee cup,” Edwards described. “So we’re going to find out what people think of how it’s going to be in beer, too.”
Most of the tree parts are used in the process — from pine needles to the pitch. Steeping takes 18 hours and the liquid is then filtered. Looking back on the creation of his Douglas fir syrup, Edwards realized he had the makings of a “Portlandia” skit: a guy rooting around yards for the perfect plant that’s showcased via a specialty food truck.
“And, you know, Douglas fir tree in their coffee or their beer — everybody is kind of just, that’s unique,” he said. “And I guess that tags it as weird for Portland, so that’s the cool thing is like, ‘Oh, there it is. There’s Portland being weird again.’”
Working with local businesses like Culmination is nothing new for Edwards. The Ole Latte website features a list of collaborators. For instance, Solabee Flowers & Botanicals provides a weekly delivery to help adorn the Southwest Alder Street cart. Boys Fort sells bags of Ole Latte coffee. But partnering with the brewery to make a product introduced some challenges since a coffee roaster and a brewer bring separate concerns to the table.
“We both have extreme focus with what we do and we have a different intention with each thing,” Edwards said of the experience. “So now we have to figure out, you know, well — what is your process and how am I going to complement that so we can work together and pair it well — so we’re not trying to override each other on flavor profiles and highlights so we can have a nice marriage.”
Although Edwards is new to beer brewing, he shares many of the traits that are prominent in that industry, including collaborating, supporting and staying rooted in community. Some of those characteristics are demonstrated by the way he and his baristas interact with customers. Rather than conceiving of the exchange as a transaction, he likens it to “coffee dates” between two people.
“I’m not an assembly line, so it’s interesting, you’ll always see all of my shops — you won’t go from one end to pay for your drink and go to the other end to get your drink,” he explained. “You’re going to get your drink out of the same exact window or the person that you just gave your money to. It’s a one-to-one thing.”
But that wasn’t enough for Edwards. He also wanted to give back, which led to Ole Latte’s Suspended Coffees program. There’s no precise record of how or exactly when the practice began, but it’s believed to have origins in Naples, Italy at least as far back as 100 years ago. It can be summed up as a pay-it-forward system that helps the less fortunate. Patrons buy an extra beverage that’s “suspended” or “pending” until claimed by a stranger who needs it. One of Edwards’s baristas told him about the tradition. About five minutes later, the business owner had erected an old chalkboard on the facade of his cart describing Suspended Coffees. Contributors get a 10 percent discount on their order. The only rule is one item per person, per day. The menu goes beyond coffee to include everything from cocoa to cookies. Edwards said the program has helped him cultivate relationships with the homeless who are, at best, ignored and often even scorned.
“They don’t need to tell me any story about why they’re getting something off the board. But they felt inclined that they wanted to,” said Edwards. “And it was kind of great to be on the recipient end of being able to hear that somebody just needed to talk about what was kind of going on in their day and made them feel better.”
And that’s what Edwards means when he introduces himself as world changer, humanitarian and life advisor. Sure, you could just call him a guy who sells coffee. But as with beer, sometimes the strongest bonds begin at a bar over a beverage. You can be sure that Edwards will be at the Baker’s Dozen festival this month strengthening his connections with the community.
“That’s the way that we’re going to look to change the world. We’ve got to start locally,” Edwards said. “And if I can model my business with kindness, then that’s what I’ll do.”
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