Words: Taylor Boyd
Photos: Darcy Bacha
When Wille Yli-Luoma walked out the door on his esteemed snowboard career, he shut it and locked it. He didn’t desire to linger around this sometimes fickle, often ego-driven industry. But as they say, when one door shuts, another opens. And for Wille it was a glass garage door, like many boutique coffee bars have, on Portland’s East Burnside.
I heard about Heart before I lived two blocks away from Wille’s first location. I knew that a guy I had posters of as a kid started a coffee shop. What I didn’t know was what good coffee tasted like. 7-Eleven drip was good as anything that came out of an AeroPress, Chemex, or the like. As long as it cut through the perpetual hangover of my early twenties, I was down.
I began stopping at Heart daily to grab what I believed to be an overpriced, albeit conveniently located, jolt of caffeine on my skate to the Salomon office. Then one day I filled my to-go mug at Heart before a drive up to Mount Hood. When I pulled into Government Camp I stopped for a refill that I couldn’t drink. I guess that’s the day I became a coffee snob.
Five years later, I’m sitting with Wille while his production team—most presumably skateboarders by their respective single ragged shoe—are monitoring roasting machines and packaging beans. Heart has two storefronts in addition to the roastery we’re at, and the coffee has won numerous awards, including a coveted Sprudgie. Sprudge is a publication Wille explains as “the TransWorld of coffee,” making Heart’s 2016 Sprudgie the coffee equivalent of our Rider Of The Year designation. It’s a global award and was one of numerous steps in putting Heart on the brown-stained map of the coffee world.
Like ascension through snowboarding’s ranks usually starts at the shop level, such is the path with coffee—most good roasters get their start as baristas. Wille’s entry was atypical. “Coffee people knew me from going into their shops and asking questions. They’d ask where I worked, and I’d be like, ‘I don’t work anywhere. I just really like coffee.’ I got a commercial espresso machine in my kitchen that took up half my counter. Then I got a roaster and put it in my basement. So people came to my house and were like, ‘What is this?’ And I’m like, ‘I just like coffee.’”
I ask Wille how he went from tinkering in his basement to running a world-renowned roastery. “I had this guy from Norway who’s known as the coffee guru: Tim Wendelboe. Someone told me, ‘Tim Wendelboe wants to come visit.’ I was like, ‘Who the fuck is that?,’ which would be like asking, ‘Who’s Terje?’ So he came and tasted our coffee, and he’s like, ‘This is bullshit.’ And then he tastes one and goes, ‘This is the best roast I’ve tasted in the United States. This is what I’m looking for.’ He told me I was on the right path and had a career ahead of me. I started sending him coffee, and he’d just rip it apart.” This put pressure on Wille to improve Heart’s coffee.
Wille stopped measuring himself against coffeehouses down the street and compared his work to roasters across the world. “Eventually we figured out our own style. You get good at something and you want to do it your own way. Like with snowboarding, you see a trick and you’re like, ‘That’s cool, but I actually want to do it differently.’ You slowly start getting to the point where you learn enough about something that you’re no longer just following what people are doing. You’re doing it your own way. That happened to me like two or three years ago, when we started taking our own path.”
Coffee is a commodity whose consumption transcends culture, socioeconomic status, and geography. And production of the beans happens in equatorial regions at nearly every longitudinal line with land beneath it. The cold, first-world destinations that pulled Wille across the globe during his snowboard career have been replaced with hot, third-world locales from which Heart’s beans are sourced.
When asked about the ethics of his sourcing, Wille admits he’s seen the worst of it. “Sometimes we don’t buy from places after we see the working conditions. We’re like, ‘Okay, we can’t support that.’ We try to buy the best beans, but sometimes after we visit places, we end up dropping some of the best products because we don’t like the conditions. It’s a bummer; you like something a lot, and you show up and see kids working and you’re like, ‘Oh, man.’ I just call home, and I’m like, ‘This coffee’s off the menu. We’re not going to talk about why it’s off the menu. We’re done. We’re never going to have this coffee ever again.’”
Both coffee and snowboarding rely equivalently on image. Within each industry quality is part of the equation, while branding and marketability comprise the rest, and Wille admits, “Coffee is a very ego-based thing. I thought I would leave an industry like that—snowboarding—and leave all the bullshit and drama. Come to find out it’s just a different type; I couldn’t escape it. But I’ve realized that’s life. Just ignore what doesn’t matter and focus on what does.”