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Galvanizing Steel City’s Coffee Community with Pittsburgh Specialty Coffee Week

At 11.8 per 10,000 people, Pittsburgh famously has the most bars per capita of any U.S. city — a stat that is not likely to make the front page of its tourism brochures. Incidentally, it also has the second most pizzerias per capita, at 9.9 per 10,000 people. In fact, if you look closely at most cultural and economic indicators — museums, tech money, restaurants, etc. — Pittsburgh is decidedly per-capita-strong, more than holding its own with the Phillys, Bostons and New Yorks of the world.

The same applies to specialty coffee. While the Steel City (pop. approximately 305,000) is not likely to overwhelm visitors through sheer volumes of shops and roasters, it nonetheless has a healthy and growing number of quality-focused coffee people catering to an equally growing consumer base. Many of those coffee people are collaborating in Pittsburgh’s second annual Specialty Coffee Week, featuring numerous consumer-facing events this October 19-25.

Participation from the industry has grown since last year’s inaugural event, a fact that lead organizer Phil Johnson, the roaster and green buyer for at Pittsburgh’s Commonplace Coffee, attributes to an increasingly galvanized professional community.

Thus far, this year’s event will include participation from roasters and retailers including Commonplace, 4121 Main, KLVN Coffee Lab, 21st Street Coffee, Constellation Coffee, Espresso a Mano, Caffe d’Amore and Tazza D’Oro, with sponsorship help coming from Baratza, Hario, Turner’s Dairy and Aeropress-maker Aerobie. Organizers have also done well to define weeklong specials at each of the participating shops, and to firm up an event list that includes an all-you-can-drink “espresso jamboree,” a seminar on green coffee sourcing, a home brewing workshop, a latte art throwdown and its competitive foil, a “worst coffee competition.”

We recently caught up with Johnson via electronic mail for his thoughts on the direction of PSCW and Pittsburgh coffee as a whole.

How involved were you in the inaugural PSCW organization? 

I guess Pittsburgh Specialty Coffee Week is largely my brainchild. I drew up a prospectus last year and showed it to a few shops and had some positive feedback; I was also doing a bunch of other things at the time, so a lot of the leg work was taken care of by a friend who was working on some event planning.

Are there any lessons learned from last year? Or any differences in how people in the industry have responded to PSCW’s return?

This year, people seem more interested in collaboration, which is great! One of the goals of PSCW is to build the coffee community here, so I’m really pleased that we’re seeing some cross-pollination. I think I wanted to take more of an active hand this year to keep the focus on specialty coffee. I hope next year to brainstorm some ways to expand the network to get other shops that aren’t as involved.

Can you say how many consumers were involved last year?

I’m guessing that 500 people participated in some context, whether it was from industry folks or attendees.

What’s your current perception of Pittsburgh specialty coffee in general? Is it growing? If so, in what directions?

I’ve heard people in Pittsburgh reference Mark Twain when discussing trends — “When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Pittsburgh because it’s always 20 years behind the times” — although he may have been talking about Cincinnati. In some ways, it’s true, but I think when you look at larger markets, there are simply more customers.

Pittsburgh itself is really only about 300,000 people, and much of that is in more isolated areas because of neighborhood geography. The hipper, cooler neighborhoods are proving that there is demand for specialty coffee, and we’re definitely seeing growth. We’ve had one or two additions in the last few years of people who are really pursuing specialty, and there’s a new roaster opening up outside the city as well that will be focused on microlots, as far as I know.

I don’t think we’re at a point where people will pay $7.50 for a coffee on a regular basis at a brew bar, but we are at a point where people aren’t flinching to spend $18 on a 12oz bag of retail coffee.


1 Comment

Rich Westerfield

Phil Johnson is a beautiful man.

Pittsburgh is as hip or as old-school as you want it to be. We are still churning out sullen baristas incapable of a smile or pleasantry, however.

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