Coffee roaster learns city's tastes with slow expansion into Pittsburgh market

At one time TJ Fairchild was more likely to arrive at a cafe with a philosophy book than a digital scale or a refractometer. Now, seven years after he and his wife, Julie, opened the first Commonplace cafe near the Indiana University of Pennsylvania campus, Commonplace Coffeehouse and Roastery has expanded to include three retail locations, consulting services and a flourishing wholesale business.

In Pittsburgh, Commonplace Coffee doesn't yet have the name recognition of powerhouse local brands like La Prima, but if its current rate of expansion continues, that could quickly change.

"A year ago we weren't even here," marveled Mr. Fairchild, who had originally planned to focus on expansion into the Central Pennsylvania market. "Pittsburgh kind of came to us."

J'eet, a cafe in Lawrenceville which serves sandwiches, crepes, salads and desserts as well as coffee, was Commonplace's first Pittsburgh customer. Marc Stern, J'eet's owner, responded to a Craigslist add for a used espresso machine. The first time Mr. Fairchild visited Mr. Stern, he didn't even have coffee samples with him.

"At first it was definitely about the relationship," he said, "and then the more he had our coffee, the more he enjoyed it."

Espresso machines are often a point of entry for Commonplace. Mr. Fairchild has a partnership with David Sutfin, who provides maintenance and repair services for espresso machines throughout Western and Central Pennsylvania through his company, Espresso Analysts.

For Mr. Fairchild and Mr. Sutfin, understanding the way that machines interact with the bean is essential to producing a consistent cup of coffee or a shot of espresso that lives up to the potential of the beans.

"It's frustrating when you see a cafe that is using good quality beans, where the baristas are taking a lot of care, but the equipment is holding the operation back," Mr. Fairchild said.

Today, coffee drinkers can try Commonplace's espresso blends or single origin coffees at cafes such as J'eet or Espresso A Mano in Lawrenceville, Buena Vista on the North Side, Arefa's in Squirrel Hill, and Make Your Mark in Point Breeze. Since entering the Pittsburgh market, Commonplace has tripled its roasting output.

Just a few weeks ago, Dozen Coffee started serving a custom blend from Commonplace.

James Gray, co-owner of the mini-chain, learned about Commonplace from a former employee who now works at Right by Nature. "He said, 'James, you have to try this coffee," recalled Mr. Gray. He called Mr. Fairchild, who came into the Lawrenceville shop and set up a tasting. "He made a special blend just for Dozen," said Mr. Gray, "and it was literally the best coffee I've ever had."

Switching from Chicago-based roaster, Intelligentsia, to Indiana-based Commonplace was in line with Mr. Gray's general philosophy of sourcing locally when possible. But he was careful to test out the new blend on customers before switching, since many were big fans of Intelligentsia.

For the most part, Mr. Fairchild has managed to avoid encroaching on other roasters' territory. New cafes make up a substantial portion of his Pittsburgh customers and a number of the cafes (such as Espresso a Mano) offer coffee and espresso from several local and nationally based roasters.

But Mr. Fairchild isn't afraid to compare Commonplace to other roasters. "What we have to bring to the table is a little bit different. There are enough shops that are looking outside of Pittsburgh because they're looking for something different."

Last August he moved the roastworks out of the original retail store into a nearby warehouse space. The new space includes a practice espresso bar for barista training and a table for cupping. Mr. Fairchild uses cupping, a ritualized brewing and tasting method, to evaluate the proper roast level for his coffees.

He also uses the highly controlled technique of profile roasting to bring out the optimal flavors of single-origin coffees, rather than simply roasting to a specific temperature, such as "city roast" or "French roast."

One major difference between Commonplace and larger, more acclaimed specialty roasters such as Intelligensia or Counter Culture, is that Mr. Fairchild doesn't yet engage in direct trade, which involves sourcing beans directly from specific farms and paying a premium price for better quality coffee.

"I'd definitely like to move into direct trade," said Mr. Fairchild, who, for now, relies on buying from Cup of Excellence auctions, which allow roasters access to some of the world's best coffees without the added expense of international travel and time away from day-to-day business, not to mention the years it can take to develop the right contacts.

In many ways, Mr. Fairchild seems to represent a middle ground, offering the benefits of a local, smaller-scale roaster with more time for individual customers, along with a modern point of view about roasting and brewing.

At Espresso A Mano in Lawrenceville, owner Matt Gebis serves coffee and single-origin espressos from Counter Culture in North Carolina and coffees from La Prima, but the house espresso is a custom blend from Commonplace. "They're really, really passionate about coffee," said Mr. Gebis, who emphasized how much fun it is to work with Mr. Fairchild and Mr. Sutfin.

Being a local roaster has the substantial benefit of making more face-to-face interaction possible.

Recently, a Pittsburgh cafe owner called Mr. Fairchild, complaining that his coffee tasted terrible and he didn't want to use Commonplace beans anymore. Mr. Fairchild immediately drove from Altoona to Pittsburgh.

When he arrived, he used his refractometer to measure the total dissolved solids in a cup of coffee. He got a 0.99 reading. When coffee is properly brewed, the reading ideally should be 1.3.

First he checked the brew weight and the water temperature and volume, all of which could cause under-extraction. All of them were fine. Then he looked at the grinder.

"The calibration was way off," said Mr. Fairchild.

After making a minor adjustment to the grinder, they retested the coffee. The total dissolved solids rose to a 1.21 and the cafe owner and his staff no longer thought the coffee was weak or watery.

Some might have been annoyed, but for Mr. Fairchild, this was a successful visit, because the cafe owner and his staff now had a better understanding of the whole process.

"That's really what we're striving to do," said Mr. Fairchild, "to increase quality and lift the mystery of the roast. ... We want to invite the customer into that experience."

China Millman: 412-263-1198 or . Follow China on Twitter at .


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