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Pittsburgh has not always been like it is today. It’s affectionately known as the Iron City or Steel City, because it was once so choked with coal smoke that you could look directly at the sun at midday without squinting. Referred to by 19th century biographer James Parton as “hell with the lid off” Pittsburgh represented at once, the furnace and strip mine of America. Industrialists set up shop here in the epicenter of the world’s industrial revolution; they would first strip the city and surroundings of its resources and then jettison those resources as black soot, through their smokestacks into the city’s skies. The steel mills of Pittsburgh drove America’s growth as the world’s industrial power, helped defeat Nazi Germany and built the modern American city as we know it today.
These days Pittsburgh’s reputation is on the rise again. It often makes the New York Times list of the most desirable or up-and-coming cities; but for those of us from the 412 area code, we’ve always known it to be cool. And that’s also true about the Atelier de Fer (“the workshop of iron”), which is a French riff on the craft coffee roaster’s Iron City roots, as owners Matt and Vanessa Marietti seek to bring France’s café culture, to their hometown. They’ve opened up shop in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, the city’s longtime commercial center for produce and grocery wholesalers, which these days has become a dining and entertainment hotspot.
“My wife and I have always shared a love for coffee, wine and café culture” says Matt. “More specifically, the roles that cafés can play in people’s lives. We wanted a space where people could come together. Living in London for a previous job we saw how important pubs are to that culture—as a place to meet, the same role that cafés fill in France. We believe that we could use more of those kind of places in our hometown—so we bailed the corporate world and moved home to Pittsburgh to open de Fer.
“As for coffee, we’ve always loved drinking it, but I also have a deep appreciation for the fact that when done right specialty coffee can make a positive economic impact on the regions and communities where it’s grown. It’s also something that universally brings people together—so it made sense for it to be the backbone of the business. Pittsburgh already had some great coffee, but I think compared to some other cities, specialty coffee wasn’t the big focus—so we wanted to help introduce our neighbors to great coffee.”
The de Fer coffees are dialed in. Light touches from Matt at the roaster mean their single origins are truly coffees that show a strong sense of place. “Lately, I’ve been especially fond of a new washed Colombian Caturra that we purchased from a farm called Tio Conejo. It’s the first coffee we’ve purchased direct from the farm, which is nice—but the coffee is delicate, bright, juicy and extremely complex. It was tough to roast because it’s flavors were so numerous and difficult to release in the proper balance. But once we nailed it, it was worth the work that went in. We like to keep a portfolio of about four to six coffees going at any one time that, taken as a group, at least scratch the surface of the extremely broad possibility of flavors that coffee can deliver. Our goal is to demonstrate the breadth of what’s possible. Often people think ‘coffee tastes like coffee’—we like to shatter that notion.”
Pittsburgh long had a strong Italian-American community with a significant immigrant population dating to the 1890s, and so espresso has long been important. La Prima Espresso has had an espresso machine showroom and coffee shop in the very same neighborhood since the late 1980s. This early presence of a coffee culture has allowed Matt and other roasters to build on that foundation. “The Pittsburgh coffee scene is really exploding right now. There’s always been great coffee here—with La Prima and then Commonplace (established in 2003) leading the way for years as roasters and cafés, but now you don’t have to go very far out of your way at all to find great coffee here. It’s no longer hard to find a shop with well-trained baristas, good equipment and great coffee, and that’s the thing—because, at the end of the day, it’s what everyone wants; it’s just a matter of how far out of the way they were willing to go for it.”
Matt and his wife though are hoping that their investment in their community builds upon itself, creating a community of people, as well as appreciation and education. As Pittsburgh’s star continues to rise, Matt hopes that the trend continues and that the community that coffee can create also supports one another. “My hope for the local scene is that all the cafés that have opened recently and those opening in the future stay committed to doing things a sort of ‘Pittsburgh way.’ This city has a storied history of manufacturing top quality goods but it’s also not into trying to be something it’s not: staying down to earth and give the local roasters a try. We’re not San Francisco or Seattle, but there are several roasters in town now who’s coffee I would put up against any of the big names.”
From issue 90. Buy it here.