Hair Bender is Stumptown Coffee’s most popular product, outselling all of their other coffees and being featured as the espresso choice in specialty coffee shops all over the country. Named for a long-shuttered beauty parlor that housed the first Stumptown location, Hair Bender was the very first blend that Stumptown-founder Duane Sorenson introduced to the world. In fact, they still have the Hair Bender sign hanging in their headquarters.
Hair Bender is a blend that is comprised of three rotating components: coffees from Indonesia, Latin America, and East Africa.
Welcome to my Table, here in the corner of this cafe. Today we’re sipping the Hair Bender, from Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland, Oregon. Feel free to pull up a chair.
origin: Indonesia // East Africa // Latin America (components vary)
Whoa. Opening up this bag of Hair Bender, my nose is greeted by an aroma that I really wasn’t expecting. It’s much more abrasive than I thought it would be. It’s savory and spicy and herbal and earthy and a little bit funky, too; it’s even a little roasty. There are some nuances of bittersweet dark chocolate, but the overwhelming aromatics are wood, earth, cooking spices, gas, and roast.
The flavor follows the nose. Again, there are minimal notes of dark chocolate fudge and even toffee, but this coffee is decidedly earthy, savory, and herbal with big flavors of earth, dirt, cedar, tobacco, clove, cooking spices, and pepper. It’s full-bodied and features a thinly creamy mouthfeel, but it has an abrasiveness that bites at the tongue and an astringency that leaves behind a dry finish and lingering funky aftertaste. It’s almost as if Stumptown dialed back the African and American components and doubled down on the Indonesian component, because the cup doesn’t taste all that different than a musty/funky/earthy/spicy Sumatra. As the coffee cools, the very faintest nuances of black cherry, apple, and citrus flavors emerge and there’s a very slight citric acidity.
It’s been a really, really long time since the last time I reviewed Stumptown Coffee here at the Table—not since February of 2013. And I actually haven’t even tried any of their coffees in the three years since the last time I reviewed them. But my last interactions with their products were very positive. At the time, I would have considered Stumptown one of my favorite roasters in the country.
I recently moved to the far northwest Chicago suburbs; I thought for sure that this area of the world is a real specialty coffee desert, so I was surprised to find that a shop near me serves and sells Stumptown Coffee Roasters. Since it’s been so long since I last tried them, I decided to pick up a bag of their Hair Bender. More surprising than finding specialty coffee in my new area, was how pedestrian this coffee was.
This coffee was roasted specifically to be served as espresso, so it’s a bit of a heartier roast to begin with; and I’m just fine with a heartier roast—if it’s done well. Hair Bender was not done well. It was bitter, abrasive, and a little acrid, and it honestly didn’t taste much different than anything I could get from a big chain grocery store.
I don’t know if this drop in quality has anything to do with being bought out by Peet’s Coffee last year, or if this one coffee was just an anomaly. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if Stumptown is still roasting exceptional their single origin coffees to perfection and I just happened to pick up the one coffee they sell that’s meant to appeal to the masses (considering that this coffee is their #1 seller across the country, this could very well be the case). I, however, was left disappointed.
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Andrew is a husband, father, dog lover, craft beverage enthusiast, content creator, and niche market Internet celebrity. Formerly of A Table in the Corner of the Cafe and The Pulitzer Project and contributor to Barista Magazine and Mental Floss, he’s been writing on the Internet for years.