Raising the Bar on Coffee
It’s Cupping Time!
Every Thursday at 4:30 pm a member of Highland Park’s Tazza D’Oro
staff holds a coffee cupping – first cousin to wine-tasting except the buzz is a bit different, First there's the dry aroma evaluation (sniff), then the pouring of hot water over the grinds and a wet aroma evaluation (sniff), and then the actual tasting -- flavor evaluation, body, and finish.
If it all sounds a bit hoity-toity, that’s the brave new world of coffee. Cuppings. Community. Barista art. And in the process, a better cup of coffee.
By general consensus, Pittsburgh, a-swim in some 150 coffee shops, many of them independent, hosts a dozen or so coffee spots that meet the crème-de-la crème standard. 21st Street Coffee
In the gourmet bustle of The Strip, 21st Street Coffee
brews one cup at a time. For owner Luke Shaffer will have no truck with urns bubbling away all day, transforming precious mocha into mud.
Courtesy of the Clover machine, a $10,000 bauble that regulates time, temperature, and water, Shaffer pulls individual French press cups – the Intelligentsia coffee beans all ground to order. Dialing in a recipe, he “extracts the subtle flavors,” he says. “With Clover, you get the fragile notes and nuances.”
A flick of the fingers, a wiggle of the wrist, and 42 grams, 40 seconds, and 205 degrees later there emerges a cup of pure heaven. “We take extra care,” he says, “so you can enjoy it more. If you’re going to have one cup of coffee today, it should be very good.” (News flash: the company that produces the Clover was just sold last week to Starbucks.)
Made in Seattle (where else?), the Clover creates a Columbian with a medium-to-full body, robust flavor, and chocolaty-plum finish. “It makes your mouth light up,” Shaffer says. So do the surroundings, more or less, a small, full-windowed corner, Smallman Street, church-bell soundtrack courtesy of neighboring St. Stanislaus.
A Penn State
mechanical engineer, Luke and wife Alexis, an industrial engineer, had lived in North Jersey for six years, but wanted to come home – and open their own business. “We enjoyed coffee and wanted to learn about it,” he says. “It was something we could become passionate about.”
Unlike neighborhoods like Highland Park or Brighton Heights, Shaffer feels that The Strip is perfect for him. “The Strip is Pittsburgh’s gourmet food destination,” he says. “We have to be the destination for quality coffee. If we get people’s attention, they’ll buy something better.”
How much better? By general agreement, the world’s best coffee is Panamanian Esmeralda, which recently sold for $200/lb. After Shaffer bought three pounds, he offered it at $22/cup – nearly 11 times his average price -- and sold out. “I want people to like what they like,” he says.
Swimming in Clover, a visitor is asked about all this joe jive -- latte art, community enrichment, gourmet flavor notes, yadda yadda. Pondering, he shrugs. “Helluva cup of coffee,” he says.Mining the Potential
“Our goal,” offers Rich Westerfield, genial co-owner with wife Melanie Westerfield, of Aldo Coffee
on Mt. Lebanon’s Washington Road, “is to raise the level of conversation and appreciation of what coffee can be.”
Under the pressed tin ceiling, the mellow tones of Chris Botti, and walls adorned with burlap coffee sacks and Tuscany prints, Aldo serves up a fine cuppa joe – and real barista art when they make lattes. Rosettes. Garlic bulbs. Tulips. Hearts – just about anything in a cup. (For some startling views, look for latte art on YouTube.) Belle Battista just won the Mid-Atlantic Regional Barista Competition
in D.C.–we’re not kidding here—and is off to a national competition in Minneapolis. Last year, Melanie was a finalist.
Then there’s the coffee itself. “It is said by chemists,” Westerfield says, “that there are twice as many flavor compounds in coffee as there are in wine.”
Then there’s community – local, friendly, fiercely independent. Westerfield, a former corporate trade showman, fits the profile perfectly. A Connecticut native, he’s been at it for some three years. Equipped with a wry sense of humor, pony tail, and casual threads, this new generation of café indies comes from other walks of life, eschewing corporate crispness for the 21st-century version of opening a bait-and-tackle shop in the Florida Keys.
Locally, upper-end coffee shops “have become a central place,” Westerfield says, for many the magical Third Place – after home and work. Priming the French press, Aldo, for example, brings in ska bands and steel drums. One church actually meets there monthly. “Coffee houses bring people together,” he says. “They’re oases of community in a city.”Muy Simpatico
Similarly dedicated to changing the world one cup at a time, Ward Payne serves ‘em up at Simpatico Espresso
, in the Regional Enterprise Tower – the former Alcoa Building on Sixth Avenue, Downtown. Pursuing the perfect latte, Payne is similarly on a crusade, preaching the gospel, explicating the mysteries. A Seattle graphic artist and former software creative director, Payne fell hard. As a part-time barista at La Prima
, “I decided I wanted to jump in the business,” Payne recalls. A wiry, intense man, he opened up two years ago, he says, “with the passion to make coffee right.
“Why do we drink coffee?” he asks. “Flavor, certainly, but also community.” Gesturing at the RET’s cavernous lobby, “this has potential,” he says of its chairs, WiFi, and computers. “To have people come in, order a coffee, and enjoy it. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
If Ward Payne is the gourmet coffee community’s high priest, then Brad Richards is the clown prince. At The Vault
, he serves high-test java that refuses to take itself too seriously. Far off the beaten path, on Brighton Heights’ California Avenue, The Vault is in a former bank building, “built for safety,” Richards quips, “not for coffee.”
It’s a rainy Tuesday, and we’re drinking Indian Monsoon Malabar Viennese Roast, dreamy and dark, making us think of painted veils and exotic locales. Under its blue awning, multi-colored walls, and down-home ‘tude, one Vault sign offers to “angry up” coffee with espresso. Then there are such non-pc amenities as raspberry-filled Twinkies and manhole-sized choco-chip cookies.
Richards, who moved back home after living in Washington, opened The Vault some three years ago, encouraging people from all walks of life to partake. “We have no demographic,” he says. “It’s become the neighborhood congregating place. We’re forming our own utopian society.”
Working to rebuild what he calls “a dead business district,” Richards has seen local businesses double, streets repaved, and sidewalks overhauled. “The neighborhood has taken a turn for the better,” he says. “There’s a lot to be said for what specialty coffee can do to a community.”
Abby Mendelson’s latest book, Ghost Dancer, a collection of short stories, is available at amazon and bn.com.
Preparing to brew
Luke and Alexis Shaffer
Pouring a latte
Latte, milkAll photographs copyright Brian Cohen