SoBo Made: Born to Roast Coffee

Editor’s Note – This is the first in a series of features about products and the people who make them on the South Baltimore peninsula. Our part of the city has long been a manufacturing and production hub. Although much of that work vanished years ago, that creative and industrious spirit endures here in firms large and small.


Pfefferkorn’s Coffee Inc.

If there is anybody in South Baltimore who has coffee literally running through their veins, it is Patti Pfefferkorn-Griffin and her nephew Chris Pfefferkorn. Coffee is probably in their DNA, too.

Patti and Chris and three previous generations of Pfefferkorns have been roasting, blending, packaging, and selling coffee in Baltimore since 1900. That’s right, for over 120 years.

Patti – master roaster, blender, and principal coffee buyer – has been working in the family business for 40 years. Chris – sales manager and roaster – has spent nearly half of his 35 years in the business.

Patti Pfefferkorn-Griffin and her nephew Chris Pfefferkorn are the latest of five generations of Pfefferkorns who have roasted coffee in Baltimore.

From their unassuming warehouse at 1200 E. Fort Avenue in Locust Point, Pfefferkorn’s Coffee Inc. produces 9 house blends, 12 “country of origin” specialty coffees from Brazil to Ethiopia, over a dozen flavored coffees, and 5 decafs. You can walk right into their front office weekdays and pick up a pound or two, ground to suit your personal coffee-making style.

Pfefferkorn’s Coffee may be, as Chris quipped, “Baltimore’s best kept secret” in part because its customer base was until recently 90 percent restaurants and the food service industry, not consumers. But when Covid shut down restaurants far and wide last year, Pfefferkorn’s had to pivot to retail big time.

“Things have really changed a lot for us,” said Chris. “Our retail has gone through the roof. We are in a couple of grocery stores, including the Graul’s Market chain of independent Maryland groceries, and several farmers markets. And we sell from here, cash and carry.”

Right now, customers can order by phone or email or by walking in the door. Online ordering will be up and running by the end of February, according to Chris. And the Pfefferkorns are in the planning stage of converting some of their office space into an outlet-store-type experience once Covid restrictions ease.

“Like wineries and breweries, we’re seeing the consumer market change,” Chris adds. “People want to buy local and have a more direct relationship with their roaster. We’ve adapted to that, and we’re still here.”

As a fifth-generation coffee roaster, Chris knows his coffee and is ready to sing the praises of his blends, note for note, like a sommelier critiquing a favorite wine.

“Our Mason-Dixon blend has been a big grower. It incorporates dark-roasted coffees and medium-roasted coffees that are blended after the roasting process, which gives you all those beautiful dark toasty notes that you look for in a dark roast, but all the smooth, sweet breakfasty notes you look for in a medium roast. Sometimes a dark roast can be a little harsh on the back end, and this blend is not a bitter coffee.”

“Green” coffee beans (top) as they arrive at the factory, and beans right out of the roaster (bottom).

Pfefferkorn’s has been roasting coffee at its current Locust Point location since 1995. They’ve been on the South Baltimore peninsula since 1969, when the operation moved from downtown Baltimore across the harbor to the 400 block of Grindall Street near Federal Hill Park. The large garage that housed the roasting room still stands, converted into residential units.

Their Fort Avenue building is divided into a warehouse holding the imported green, or unroasted, coffee in large burlap sacks and a roasting room where the beans are roasted, ground, and packaged in a series of hulking machines.

On my tour of Pfefferkorn’s Coffee in January, Chris had preloaded their large roaster with 500 pounds of coffee beans to make their best-selling Breakfast Blend. A smaller roaster nearby, affectionately called “Baby Bear,” handles smaller batches of up to 26 pounds.

The Pfefferkorn’s largest roaster can roast 500 pounds of coffee in 20 minutes.

With the flick of a switch, Chris turns on the massive roaster. The temperature gradually rises to 400 degrees as the coffee tumbles round and round inside for 20 minutes. It’s a one-person operation, but Chris is fully engaged: eyes, nose, and ears. He periodically scoops beans out of the roaster and holds them to his nose to judge how the roasting is progressing. Near the end of the process, he listens for a distinctive cracking sound as the beans expand in the heat.

When the roasting is complete, Chris turns off the roaster and opens a small door to let the beans slide down a chute into the “cooling bin.” Here the machinery stirs the dark mass and air is forced through it to lower the temperature. This step halts the roasting process in the hot beans, Chris explains.

Just-roasted coffee beans slide into the “cooling bin” to lower their temperature and halt the roasting process.

An air pump lifts the roasted coffee beans out of the cooling bin and up a chute in the next step. On high-production days with as many as three employees on the roasting room floor, the beans would go straight to the 10-foot-tall grinder. But today Chris directs the beans into a holding bin to be ground later.

You can grab a cup of Pfefferkorn’s Coffee at several peninsula restaurants, including Locust Point mainstays like Hull Street Blues, LP Steamers, and Barracuda’s.

The cash-and-carry store is open Monday-Thursday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Friday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. You can order curbside pickup or shipping by phone (410-727-3354) and email (order@pfefferkornscoffee.com). – Steve Cole

Customers can pick up fresh-ground coffee weekdays at Pfefferkorn’s factory on E. Fort Avenue.

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