The Story of Hair Bender

Mar 05, 2018

Hair Bender. HAIR BENDER. What’s in a name? A nod to our roots; wild, sweet and smooth. 18 years ago, Duane Sorenson first opened shop on Southeast Division Street in Portland, Oregon in a little space that was once home to a beauty parlor called Hair Bender.

Division Street

Back in 1999, Division Street was a little off the beaten path, and a little less frequented by those in search of the perfect cup of coffee. From the beginning, we were pathologically obsessed with this notion: produce the best and most ethically sourced coffee, roasted daily. We were riffing on a dream, swept up on a pilgrimage towards quality. Equipped with a small vintage Probat roaster and a Ford Pinto for deliveries, we got rolling fast. A record player had The Smiths, Blonde Redhead and Cat Power on constant rotation, and our baristas learned to pull shots of this righteous new blend of coffee called Hair Bender, as it was roasted just a few feet away. Art hung on the walls thanks to then-barista Wendy Swartz, who still curates the east side cafes to this day. The notion of cafes as gallery spaces was just becoming a thing back then (and we’re so stoked to be able to build on this concept with our Stumptown Artist Fellowship).

A free cup of coffee

When you’re trying to build community out on a little weirdo block, you have to show your neighbors that you’re there for them. Hair Bender was our welcome wagon, and our parting gift to anyone who stepped in our doors and asked, “What the sweet hell is happening in here?”. We were next door to a pool supply shop, a custom trophy store, and a warehouse where they rebuilt brake cylinders. It may have been the 90’s, but it felt like the 70’s. If you weren’t a shirtless, greasy dude in a mechanic’s apron you were in the minority -- and we were just a bunch of kids with bizarre-o haircuts and casts on our arms from falling off skate ramps. We wanted to make sure everyone felt welcome and invited, so we started giving away coffee to our neighbors. We discovered that if someone ventured in for the first time and you paid for their shot of Hair Bender, it made them feel at home. “Nah man, I got this one,” became our go-to phrase. We started with a culture of abundance, and we still open our doors each day with that mentality.

Coffee can be good...?

Portland was still a sleepy little town that nobody visited for any particular reason. Coffee hadn’t caught on yet here, but we had a mission -- show the world that coffee can and should taste good! It should taste different based on where it comes from and how it’s cultivated. It should be roasted just enough to express its innate flavor, and not burnt to a crisp. You shouldn’t have to add sugar or cream to it to make it bearable (though -- you do you, buddy). We had tried very few cups of coffee that expressed this -- that’s why we created Hair Bender.

Our shared origins

To create the perfect espresso blend, we worked backwards. We knew we wanted it to have an insanely elegant body, smooth like velvet, so we selected beans from Indonesia. We wanted it to have balanced sweetness, and feel structured -- something that would stand proudly on its own, translate perfectly into milk, or stretch beautifully in an Americano, so we looked to the Latin American region. We sought a lush floral element to make every cup taste fresh and new so we looked to crops from Africa. Lastly, we needed defined clarity and complexity so we blended these 3 legendary coffee growing regions together. While we keep the exact components of this blend close to our chest, it's always a harmonious combination of coffees from our partners in the African, Latin American, and Indonesian regions. With our little Probat, we labored to find the perfect roasting parameters that would coax out each bean’s full potential.

There are limitless nuances to a coffee's origin, and it’s incredibly important to us to meet the personalities working toward our shared passion. Sometimes you find out that someone in Colombia hand-prunes each individual branch and waters each plant differently based on 5 feet of gained elevation. Sometimes when you come around for the first time, you're treated like a long lost relative, instantly welcome at the dinner table in Burundi. And sometimes, after you finish a cupping led by some of the most accomplished women in the Indonesian coffee industry, they invite you to work off the caffeine while doing outdoor aerobics while playing “Despacito” over an intercom.

Hair Bender is a product of so many people’s hard work. Every cup brewed, served and enjoyed is a token of gratitude to those who have joined us on this path. We may be wily and weird, but we’re dedicated. Hair Bender is our signature, our hallmark, and it only could have happened in Portland. So, this one’s for you.