La Prima Espresso’s Strip District location, one of the most popular coffee shops in Pittsburgh, has been a neighborhood landmark for decades. A necessary stop for weekend market shoppers and daily Downtown commuters alike, their authentic Italian-style espresso is always worth the trip.
You don’t have to circle the block in search of parking in order to enjoy it, though. La Prima’s hand-roasted beans are available at many Giant Eagle and Market District stores. From Miscela Bar—their award-winning flagship espresso—to Buon Natale, a limited-edition Christmas blend, local coffee and espresso lovers are filling their homes with the same pleasant aromas that waft down 21st Street.
How does La Prima make it possible to create a coffee shop-quality experience in your own kitchen? Twenty-five pounds at a time.
Since 1993, La Prima has roasted their own coffee. In 2012, they expanded to a wholesale roastery in the North Side neighborhood of Manchester to help serve more customers. It’s in this “torrefazione” location that a small team produces roughly 100,000 pounds of coffee per year. They use the same 25-lb. roasters that the company originally roasted with, and they bag it all the old-fashioned way.
“We do everything here in-house,” head roaster Chuck Connors, said. “There’s a human hand touching every bag that goes out the door. From making the bags to filling them by hand to roasting all the coffee in the two machines here in the building.”
This individualized attention is applied from the start of each batch because the team at La Prima knows it results in a better-tasting cup at the end. That’s the essential appeal of local coffee. When it’s roasted in small batches, the unique flavor of the beans, rather than the brand, takes center stage. You get to taste it at its freshest and to take satisfaction in it not being some mass-produced commodity. It’s made with love, not on an assembly line.
“When you’re buying from a local business, you’re supporting someone’s livelihood. You can walk in to a local business and see the owner and the people whose lives you may affect. It’s just more of a personal connection,” Connors said.
Knowing that your neighbors made the coffee you’re drinking contributes as much to the positive feelings you get as the warmth and caffeine do. Knowing where that coffee comes from helps too.
La Prima takes great care to responsibly source and roast their beans. They’re certified as an organic roaster by Pennsylvania Certified Organic and they also do their part to make sure coffee farmers are supported. In many cases they use Direct Trade coffee, which means they purchase beans directly from farmers, so they know where the money is going. And about 60 percent of their coffee is Fair Trade Certified, meaning farmers are getting a fair price.
“Because of the price of coffee being determined by a commodity market, it can really put the farmers in a bad spot where some of them aren’t even making enough to cover their expenses,” Connors explained. “Things like fair trade and direct trade are so important because if the farmers can’t cover their expenses they’ll move to a different crop and then you’re not getting coffee anymore. There is no coffee if there are no farmers.”
All the more reason to pick up a bag of La Prima beans. You’re not only helping the local economy and community, you’re also supporting farmers in other far off communities. Fair Trade and Direct Trade are important things to look for, but roasting coffee isn’t all serious business. A big part of the job is using beans of all types to experiment.
“We have fun playing around with which coffees work well together and trying to find the right flavor profile for the season or whatever situation we’re creating the blend for. That’s one of the fun parts of the job,” Connors said.
While you can’t go wrong with a smooth and sweet shot of Miscela Bar espresso, all three of their espresso blends make a great cup of coffee, too, which means you have more ways to enjoy the blend of your choice.
When properly ground, Miscela Bar, La Prima Bar and Bar Italia are equally amazing served via French Press, cold brew, pour-over or any other style you prefer. Plus, La Prima always has new blends to try, such as Buon Natale, the aforementioned blend crafted specifically for the holiday season.
“We wanted a bigger-bodied coffee to help get you through the winter nights,” Connors said.
They spent hours roasting and sampling to arrive at a bold blend merrily flavored with notes of cranberry. It’s proven to be a popular choice for holiday partyers and people looking for a delicious way to warm up, so we recommend picking up a few bags while they last.
But if it runs out, don’t worry. La Prima has been making premium-quality espresso for more than 30 years, and there’s surely more delicious coffee to come.