What's Brewing: Aldo Coffee takes ambitious steps in roasting coffee

Six years ago, when Rich and Melanie Westerfield opened Aldo Coffee on Washington Road in Mt. Lebanon, Pittsburgh's progressive coffee scene was in its infancy. Pittsburgh had some good coffee, but there was no real drive to discuss or improve quality.

"No one else was talking about coffee," said Mr. Westerfield. He built the cafe website on a blog format (because they "couldn't afford a website") and, surprisingly, a conversation began about everything from whether Mt. Lebanon would ever accept a stand-up espresso bar (it wouldn't) to what it meant for a coffee to be ethically sourced.

Aldo baristas entered competitions and even won some. By 2007, they had established a reputation, one evidenced by a steady stream of coffee aficionados traveling from the city to the suburbs for a shot of espresso or a traditional cappuccino.

But while Aldo flourished, so did the Pittsburgh coffee scene. Voluto, 21st Street and Espresso a Mano opened, said Mr. Westerfield.

By 2009, the city had a plethora of excellent options, and city dwellers didn't need to brave a bridge and a tunnel for a wide variety of single-origin coffee beans or competition-quality espresso.

"We have this cafe. It serves a purpose for the very local community. For us to grow, we had to have more than that."

The announcement was slow in coming, but seemed inevitable, based on Aldo's interests and skill set: Stop relying on the name brand roasters such as the Chicago-based Intelligentsia and Portland-based Stumptown to show their commitment to quality. Instead, start sourcing and roasting on their own.

Mr. Westerfield made his first foray into roasting soon after opening Aldo.

"I'm a skeptical, DIY kind of guy," he said, so when he saw a reasonably priced, good quality home roaster on the market, he jumped at the opportunity to learn. At trade shows, he'd pick up samples of beans and try them, a pound at a time.

"We got to the point where if we ran out of coffee [before a delivery], I would roast a pound or two to get us through," he said.

Early in 2009, Ed Wethli, owner of Kiva Han Coffee, invited Mr. Westerfield to roast a few days a week at his facility in Cranberry. They formed a partnership under the brand name La Verdad. Aldo Coffee began to sell La Verdad coffee, along with the coffees it typically carried.

A few months ago, Mr. Westerfield and Mr. Wethli amicably parted ways. Mr. Wethli held on to the La Verdad brand, and plans to continue to explore direct trade coffees under a new Kiva Han direct-trade label. Meanwhile, Mr. Westerfield set plans in motion to begin roasting at the cafe.

Setbacks followed: Delivery delays, mechanical malfunctions and a relatively steep learning curve in adapting to the roaster. But on Nov. 17, a blog post announced that Aldo would begin focusing its retail efforts on marketing its in-store roasted coffees over those roasted by Intelligentsia and Stumptown.

The change is not without risks. "People are attached to brands," acknowledged Mr. Westerfield. And for good reason: Stumptown and Intelligentsia source some of the finest beans and roast some of the best coffee on the market.

The Aldo cafe space isn't the ideal location for a coffee roaster, either. Installing ducts to vent smoke and particulates from a coffee roaster would have cost tens of thousands of dollars, not to mention requiring permits that might have been impossible to secure. So Aldo was restricted in using roasters that remove all emissions internally. Its roaster looks and behaves differently than the kinds that Mr. Westerfield had worked with in the past, so it has taken some time to develop different roast profiles (like recipes) for the different beans.

But there were good reasons for the change. "What are the main things people are looking for?" Melanie and Rich asked themselves. Customers want local, sustainable and high quality.

"By bringing roasting in-house, we could achieve all three things simultaneously," Mr. Westerfield said. At the same time, removing a middleman allowed them to lower their expenses. Aldo Coffees will typically cost a dollar or two less a bag than the coffees the cafe sold previously.

Roasting his own beans gives Mr. Westerfield more options. Roasters like Intelligentsia and Stumptown are focused on producing coffees and espressos that will be brewed by the cup or as a traditional espresso drink. But Aldo's audience is much larger and more diverse than just people who take their coffee black.

At any given time, customers at Aldo can get a quick cup of drip coffee from a press pot, a well-made espresso, a traditional cappuccino, or a large variety of milk-based espresso drinks. They also can choose from a larger variety of single-origin coffees brewed by the cup on a Clever Coffee Dripper or as a press pot.

What Aldo is not compromising on is the quality of its beans. Aldo is too small to engage in direct relationships with coffee farms that define the best of the specialty market. But new businesses have sprung up to meet the demand created by small cafe roasters. CoffeeShrub, a 2009 outgrowth of the highly respected home roaster supplier Sweet Maria's, sells a frequently changing variety of in-season beans in smaller amounts. This creates a new market for their farmers, who are able to secure better prices for their high-quality crops, while lowering overall costs for the import company.

The development of cafe roasters has grown faster in other cities, particularly in San Francisco, where there's a passionate preference for local businesses over chains.

Pittsburgh also has locally leaning tendencies, which Mr. Westerfield hopes will work in his favor. This past summer, he started selling iced coffee, brewed coffee and beans at the Slow Foods farmers market that's open Saturdays in the Strip District. "Farmers@Firehouse confirmed we were going in the right direction and we did have a market," he said.

Aldo also is offering a variety of classes this winter, including the basics of home brewing, some for food professionals who'd like to learn more about cupping, and those for baristas to improve their skills. Classes geared toward the public are usually free.

The cafe's next step is unclear. "We're not ever going to support another coffee shop [with this roaster]," he said. In the future, anything is possible, but right now, they just want to focus on the taste of the coffee.

"One of the best feelings I have,' said Mr. Westerfield, "is when I'm home in the morning, I'm not thinking about it. I make a cup of Aldo coffee and I think, 'Oh, this is pretty good.' "

Correction/Clarification: (Published December 17, 2010) Aldo Coffee owner Rich Westerfield and head roaster John Casamassa were pictured in front of the coffee roaster in the "What's Brewing" feature. Their names were incorrect in the caption.

China Millman: 412-263-1198 or cmillman@post-gazette.com . Follow her at http://twitter.com/chinamillman .


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