LOCAL BREW: THE HISTORY OF PITTSBURGH’S BEST COFFEE SHOPS
It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago, you may have had to head a couple neighborhoods over to get a good cup of coffee in Pittsburgh. Now, there’s a place to get a great cappuccino on just about every corner, from the pocket-sized, floral shop hybrid 4121 Main to Ace Hotel‘s lounge-worthy lobby coffee bar.
Pittsburgh coffee lovers owe a lot to veteran coffee shops like La Prima and Espresso a Mano for promoting coffee culture and teaching baristas a lot about making the perfect cup, but there are a ton of new shops that are keeping things fresh and bringing great coffee to just about every neighborhood. Here’s a bit about the story behind some of your favorite spots for your morning cortado.
If you’ve ever sat outside in the Strip on a Saturday morning and watched coffee lovers young and old trickle in and out, cappuccino and sfogliatella in hand, then you’re familiar with the appeal of La Prima Espresso. This longtime Pittsburgh coffee roaster has been in business since 1988, when owner Sam Patti set out to sell premium espresso machines out of a storefront on the corner of Penn Avenue and 21st Street. Today, the Italian-style espresso bar does a booming business serving perfect cups to Strip District shoppers, as well as offering house-made, old-school Italian pastries and sourcing coffee to many of the city’s best restaurants. You can now find three La Prima outposts (the original Strip location, Nova Place, and CMU), but we’re still suckers for a latte at the original.
On the other side of town, Tazza d’Oro opened the doors to its Highland Park cafe in 1999. The friendly coffee shop has a focus on good coffee and bicycle culture, which makes it a destination for locals on long bike rides or a work commutes. With rigorous training for its employees and acclaimed Counter Culture beans (it was one of the first in town to stock them), it’s no surprise that this neighborhood cafe has grown into one of the city’s favorites. Today, you’ll also find a location on CMU’s campus and newly minted shop in Millvale.
In Indiana, PA in 2003, The Commonplace was born on IUP’s campus. What would eventually become one of Pittsburgh’s most popular local cafe chains began as a small roaster, providing beans to both their own newly opened shop and other smaller shops in the area. The roaster grew and eventually expanded to Pittsburgh, where Commonplace Coffee Co. now owns and operates four separate shops, including one in Smallman Galley’s larger chef incubator. Over the next 15 years, Commonplace became one of Pittsburgh’s most recognizable names in coffee, selling its own branded merchandise and providing its signature blend of coffee beans to restaurants and individuals around town. If we were placing bets, we’d put our money on these guys becoming the roaster that expands its reach far beyond Western PA — their bright roasts make a spot-on cold brew that’s just too good to keep all to ourselves.
While Commonplace was taking over other areas in Pittsburgh, up-and-coming Lawrenceville still didn’t have a go-to coffee shop of its own. Matt Gebis quickly saw the open spot in Lawrenceville’s burgeoning restaurant scene and decided to fill it. Gebis worked for La Prima for five years before opening Espresso a Mano, his Lawrenceville coffee destination, in 2009. He credits the longtime Pittsburgh espresso outfit for much of his success and know-how. “I learned a lot working there and tried to continue learning even after opening a Mano, be it through personal experience or training from my coffee roasters that I carry here (especially Counter Culture Coffee),” Gebis said.
While you’ll find the same attention to coffee quality at Espresso a Mano, the bustling Butler Street hangout (and now the new South Side shop) have more of a “third place,” work-on-your-laptop vibe. “I wanted to provide another place to get excellent coffee, while trying to blend the old school approachability and service that I learned from La Prima with exceptional coffees. At the time, there were few options for great coffee in Pgh; Tazza d’Oro was doing great things, 21st St. coffee had just opened shortly beforehand, Aldo coffee was still in business in Mt. Lebo. So, I really just wanted to provide another place where people could get great espresso and coffee.”
After a serious car accident in 2015, the Pittsburgh coffee community banded together to raise funds to help support Braden Walter while he was out of work from his job at Espresso a Mano. That level of community support made Walter realize that he wanted to deepen his career in coffee, which led to his opening the Redhawk Coffee Truck and later, the brick-and-mortar Redhawk Coffee location on Meyran Avenue. In a college neighborhood mostly inhabited by Starbucks and the like, Redhawk is a breath of fresh, local air where you can find numerous coffee options from local and far-flung roasters (and if you haven’t had one of their in-house bottled Vietnamese iced coffees, we suggest you do so ASAP).
In 2016, Pittsburgh made national headlines when Ace Hotel opened in East Liberty — and brought with it nationally renowned Stumptown Coffee. Until then, local coffee lovers had to travel to larger cities like Portland or New York to taste what is often regarded as some of the country’s best coffee, but now you can treat yourself to some of the Portland roaster’s immaculate beans simply by popping into Ace’s gorgeous lobby bar (or, if you’re like us, bringing along your laptop to camp out for the morning). Aside from the great coffee, you can also count the pastry selection from James Beard-nominated chef Casey Renee and the seamless transition from coffee to happy hour cocktails around 4:30 p.m. as reasons why we’re there so often.
In more recent years, Pittsburgh’s coffee scene has gained even more momentum — and with it, creativity. Constellation Coffee brought the bright white decor, Ceremony Coffee and one of the most Instagrammable windows in town, while the adorable 4121 Main mixes the perfect cappuccino with custom floral arrangements and gorgeous gifts. If you’re looking to pair a drippy egg sandwich with your Stumptown Coffee, then head to Pear and the Pickle , which also features a mini market serving the Troy Hill neighborhood. We’re not partial to playing favorites when it comes to where we grab our morning cup, and we certainly don’t think the recent coffee boom is going to end any time soon; when it comes to great coffee in Pittsburgh, we say bring it on.