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Nov 25, 2012 02:04 AM

Buying coffee beans in the burgh

Hello all. I'm looking for recs for the best places to buy coffee beans in pgh (or south of the city). More specifically, I'm looking for light roasts, high quality, and - if I'm very lucky - affordable pricing.

I've been buying regularly from Presto George in the strip district. I dig the shop and like their offerings, but they don't offer anything lighter than a full-city roast.

I've also bought intelligentsia beans from 21st Street Coffee & Tea in the strip. Very good, very high quality, lots of light roasts. But also fairly pricey. Great for special occasions, but it starts to add up if you drink as much coffee as I do.

So I'm wondering if there are any places selling good, recently roasted light roasts at moderate prices. Suggestions?

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  1. I've stopped drinking coffee for the most part, but I did have an enjoyable cup not long ago at Dozen. I don't recall the brand name, but I'm sure they'd be happy to share that with you. They used to carry Intelligentsia, but my friend who likes coffee said he prefers this brand. I don't recall how light a roast it was, nor do I know the cost.

    1. Coffee Tree has many different beans that are roasted locally. They have a location in Mt Lebanon. I never buy beans so can't comment on price.

      1. My favorite Pgh roaster by far is Zeke's ( on Penn Ave in East Liberty. Really wonderful stuff and a really good roasting palate. I've found that I've really liked their coffee, even stuff that's a little darker than I typically prefer. Not cheap, but small batch, wonderful, and local.

        Other than that I find that Whole Foods has a nice selection of decent coffee that's not over-roasted, pretty fresh, and at what I would consider a good quality/price ratio.

        I like La Prima and a few other local shops for their espresso (and the associated roasts), but always seem to be a little disappointed when I pick up a medium roast for french press there.

        1. A thread after my own heart...

          Right now I believe the best local-roaster bet for moderately priced light/medium roasts is Commonplace. They've come a long way in the past couple of years, improving both the sourcing and QC of their roasting operations. Zeke's isn't even in the same area code as to bean/roast quality, IMO.

          CoffeeTree's La Minita is good, but I usually feel they could do a better job of developing more flavor if they used a drum roaster vs the Sivetz air roaster they use. They used to often sneak in a Cup of Excellence coffee now and again that would be really good, but not sure if they're still doing that. Was always surprised they never promoted the really good stuff when they had it.

          Dozen uses 19 Coffee from Washington (former LaPrima sales/roaster). 19 is pretty good but there's some overlap with Commonplace and in those head-to-head comparisons, I think Commonplace wins. But 19 has a couple of excellent coffees out there. The Bali Blue Moon is low-acid, full bodied, sweet and the Ixil A'achimbal is a great Guatemalan nobody else around here carries. You can get the beans a lot of places, but probably best bet is Orbis in Mt. Lebo as they don't keep beans on the shelf for more than two weeks.

          If you like Intelli, I'd also suggest buying whole bean at Espresso a Mano in L'Ville. Most of what they have is Counter Culture, but also Ritual and sometimes others. Apparently they don't mark up on shipping costs so their prices are a buck a bag or more lower than what you'd pay for Intelli at 21st/BigDog/Orbis or Coava at Marty's Market or Verve at Tazza d'Oro. Once the Ace Hotel opens in E. Lib, they should be offering Stumptown (all the other Ace Hotels have Stumptown cafes).

          3 Replies
          1. re: Panini Guy

            Thanks. I will definitely try out some of your recs. Anything specific you recommend trying out at Commonplace?

            1. re: Panini Guy

              Just for reference, what are we talking in $/lb when we say moderately priced? I would say moderate @ $8-10/lb, mid-high@$10-14/lb, high @$14+ -- does this sound about right, or am I way off the mark here?

              My sample size is a little small, but I typically find the Commonplace beans/roasts too acidic for regular drinking (esp their espressos) unless it's a latte/cap/etc. -- the espressos are delicious in their own way I suppose, but a little outside my preference/tastes. To be honest, haven't had any pour-over/press/drip made with their beans. Not trying to be a hater -- in fact, super glad to now have a Commonplace shop within walking distance of home -- but just wondering if anyone else finds the more acidic beans/roasts all that great outside of the dairy-based drinks. Perhaps I should pick up some beans soon and give them a try.

              Once we start talking Intelligentsia/Stumptown/etc., I would agree that we're in a whole different ballpark, but I really like supporting the smallerl local guys whenever I can, esp when the QPR supports it.

              Thanks Panini Guy, lots of great information about what's available around the burgh. Didn't even know about 19 Coffee, which maybe shows how out of the loop I am with the current local coffee scene.

              1. re: skoledin

                skoledin - I'm probably one of the worst people you could talk to regarding price as I'm one of those who firmly believe almost all coffee is underpriced. So to me, $10/lb is supermarket quality (bad), $16/lb should get you a reasonably good tasting cup and $22/lb is 'the good stuff'. Which is also why most of the 'top end' microroasters package in 12oz bags - $17 sounds better than $22.

                IMO, more education on the coffee value chain needs to be made available on the internet as the average consumer really has no idea what goes into growing/harvest/processing/exporting - the parts with all the work that get little money from their efforts. It's the roasters and retailers who make the money. I'm not even going to try and explain it here, but the price of bag of 'specialty' coffee is more or less directly related to the cupping scores it receives relative to the current 'C Market' price, which is based on 'exchange grade' beans (think foil packed office coffee quality).

                So the price you pay really is related to quality in the cup - better stock, higher elevation (harder to get to), better processing, fewer defects, etc. The better the coffee, the lighter you can roast it as there's no need to roast darker to hide flaws in the beans.

                That said, it's challenging to roast light and get full flavor development. If a coffee tastes 'grassy' the roaster screwed up. If an espresso tastes like a lemon drop, the roaster screwed up. So it's 'safer' to go a little darker and bring lower tones into the flavor profile, which is what most roasters around here do, at the cost of acidity. Even though I mentioned I like what Commonplace is doing, they're still a work in progress if measured against the Intelligentsias and Stumptowns.

                I can only tell you that after a year of drinking Intelligentsia and Stumptown I couldn't believe that I liked what I used to drink. It ruined me (although I can surprisingly still drink Dunkin' black).

                I usually recommend people who don't like acidity start with a good Sulawesi or Papua New Guinea (or Bali Blue Moon from 19 which is similar to a PNG but maybe a bit cleaner) and just taste what's in the cup to get a sense that it's not 'just coffee' in there. Then move up to some dry process Ethiopias, then El Salvador, wet process Ethiopias and finally Kenyas. You can detour through other regions, but IMO, most Central/So Americans outside Colombia and Brazil are fairly similar with El Salvador at the top end (some would say Guatemala, but there are big differences between Antigua an Huehuetenango).

                As to recommendations, I haven't had anything from Commonplace's current roster, but I'm interested in the El Salvador, the Mexican Pacamara and the Burundi (aka 'poor man's Kenya). They have tastings now at the new roastery (where you can also pick up a growler of East End!). They tweet hours for dropping by the roastery @thecommonplace . I think they'll make you a cup of anything they've got (although I'm not sure on that). As for 19 Coffee, I'll vouch for the Guatemala Ixil, the Bali Blue Moon and the Sulawesi Toraja.

                Glad to see interest in local roasters. If we can get more of you guys around here we might eventually end up with a local roaster as good as the other national names mentioned!

            2. Thanks for the replies all. If there are any other recommendations out there, keep em coming.