The coffee's on

New column to keep up on Pittsburgh's perking coffee community

It's an oft-heard refrain that Pittsburgh exists in a bubble of sorts, and that trends -- good or bad -- tend to hit us years behind other cities or even pass us right by.

While there's certainly some truth to this statement, there are plenty of exceptions. And sometimes those exceptions don't get the attention they deserve because we're too quick to assume that anything happening in Pittsburgh must already have happened everywhere else.

At the Regional Barista Competitions held in Cranberry earlier this month it became clear that the Pittsburgh coffee community is not just impressive for a city of this size; the Pittsburgh coffee community is just plain impressive.

Not only did our cafe owners, baristas and roasters hold their own in contest and conversation with a group of some of the country's most influential and respected coffee professionals, but just as important, the local coffee-drinking community proved so enthusiastic that the Cranberry competition was the best attendance of any regional barista competition ever.

Coffee Talk
Blend vs. single-origin: Blending beans is the art of combining coffee beans from multiple origins, either to create a house blend for a cafe or company, to create a coffee with a consistent flavor available year round, or to create a cheaper product by gaining flavor from expensive arabica beans and bulking up the mix with cheaper robusto beans. Single-origin coffees and espressos are made from 100% arabica beans from one distinct region; in the cup, each exhibits a unique profile of aroma, flavor, acidity and body.
ristretto-style espresso: A style of espresso favored by more progressive cafes; it typically involves a more viscous, shorter shot, produced by using a finer grind to "restrict" the flow of water through the ground coffee.

Although only one Pittsburgh barista made it to the finals and ended up not placing, her potential win would merely have been a symbol of a separate accomplishment: It's clear a growing number of Pittsburgh cafes are on the cutting edge of coffee and espresso, and, despite the treacherous economy, our coffee scene continues to thrive and expand. While they are by no means recession-proof, cafes are still doing a high volume of business. Just try to find a seat on a Sunday afternoon--you're in for a long wait. Many independent cafes saw business increase in 2008, and owners seem cautiously optimistic about 2009.

While I've occasionally written about coffee in the food section, the dining section and in my Sunday column, "On The Menu," the scope and number of developments demand greater and more focused coverage. Starting today, on the fourth Thursday of every month the dining section will become the coffee section. Each month, with the help of coffee professionals and passionate amateurs, I'll explore a different topic in the wide, wondrous world of Pittsburgh coffee.

When cafes are the focus, I won't ignore elements such as whether there are comfortable chairs and quality snacks. After all, these aspects encourage socializing and help make cafes oft-cited examples of the "third place" that is all the more necessary during tough times. But the focus will be on the coffee, which is, after all, the fuel that drives everything else.

In the past five years, a sizable number of new cafes have opened in Pittsburgh focused on sourcing and serving the finest espresso and coffee available. As these new cafes opened, older cafes joined in, re-examining and evaluating every aspect of coffee preparation from barista training to brewing methods to bean selection.

There are differences, of course, but for the most part these cafes emphasize freshness. Most receive weekly deliveries of beans just a few days after they've been roasted and use brew methods that allow them to brew individually for each customer; they focus on a lighter roast of coffee that emphasizes the taste of the bean, rather than the taste of the roast; and they emphasize drinks that taste of coffee rather than sweetened syrups or other flavorings.

Unexpectedly, while these cafes have common goals and even similar palates, the quest for the best-tasting coffee has led to a renewed diversity in types of beans, roasters and brewing methods. At local cafes you can sample beans roasted by local roasters such as La Prima, Coffee Tree and Kiva Han. But, thanks to the varied choices of local cafes, you also can sample a growing number of specialty beans from some of the best regarded roasters in the country such as Intelligentsia, Counter Culture, 49th Parallel and Batdorf and Bronson.

You can explore blends vs. single origins. You can sample coffee made using a French press, a chemex pot, a Clover Coffee Maker and an individual pour-over system. In the summer, you can try iced Americanos, cold-brewed iced coffee and shakeratos.

The goal of this column will be to help readers learn about the great and varied efforts of Pittsburgh's coffee experts to get the best, most balanced flavors out of every cup of coffee and every shot of espresso, as well as where they can try different types of coffee beans and different brewing methods themselves.

Topics will range from profiles of new cafes to an introduction to coffee cupping to explorations of coffee growing, processing and roasting. As always, I hope readers will share their questions and ideas for topics.

Along with the main column, you'll also find The Buzz, which will be updated weekly on the Web site and will include listings about different varietal and origin coffees available at Pittsburgh cafes, as well as coffee cuppings and classes.

And if you're thinking that "it's just coffee," and wondering what all the fuss is about, head over to that cafe where you've noticed that they take coffee a little too seriously and give them a chance to convince you. You can't go from vanilla lattes to double-ristretto espressos in a day. But give it a little time and you, too, will experience one of those "Aha" moments when you lean over a cup of naturally processed Ethiopian Yergacheffe and your senses are filled with the aroma of blueberries. Or you slurp a shot of expertly pulled espresso and are overwhelmed by its natural sweetness.

There's a whole lot of pleasure to be found in a "plain old" cup of coffee.

Dining critic China Millman can be reached at 412-263-1198 or at . First Published February 26, 2009 5:00 AM


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