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Coffee Tree expands taste options

| Wednesday, March 20, 2013, 3:56 a.m.
Cindy Shegan Keeley | Daily News
Coffee Tree Roasters co-founder Bill Swoope Jr. holds a handful of unroasted peaberry coffee beans at his company's headquarters in West Mifflin.
Cindy Shegan Keeley | Daily News
Tim Swoope stands by one of three roasters in the West Mifflin headquarters of Coffee Tree Roasters. The regional coffee chain is opening a store in Pleasant Hills next week.
Cindy Shegan Keeley | Daily News
Coffee Tree Roasters' co-founder Bill Swoope Sr., right, and director of operations Gina DeTar sample competition winning coffees at the company headquarters in West Mifflin. Some of the coffees sampled may eventually be sold at Coffee Tree Roasters outlets, one of which is opening in Pleasant Hills next week.
Cindy Shegan Keeley | Daily News
Manager Talon Smith gets a new Coffee Tree Roasters store in the Bill Green Shopping Center in Pleasant Hills ready for business. The shop opens on Tuesday.
Cindy Shegan Keeley | Daily News
Coffee Tree Roasters employee Joe Burns prepares auction samples of competition-winning coffees for a taste test at the company headquarters in West Mifflin.

There's nothing like a good cup of coffee. Fans of the beverage soon will have another option to enjoy it in the Pleasant Hills area when Coffee Tree Roasters opens its newest outlet in the Bill Green Shopping Center on Tuesday.

The new shop will be the sixth for the regional chain, which opened its first in Squirrel Hill nearly 20 years ago.

There will be an anniversary celebration to mark the founding of the business, said Bill Swoope Jr., who started the company in July 1993 with his father Bill Sr. For now, the younger Swoope noted, “All my focus is on getting this new store open.”

There have been many trips back and forth between the new store and the Coffee Tree headquarters for the founders and their family members who work for the company. Fortunately, the main office is nearby in the South Hills Industrial Park along Lebanon Road in West Mifflin.

The headquarters in what once was the Continental Can Company serves as more than just an administrative center. The company roasts all its beans there and warehouses coffee brewing equipment used in its stores and rents to other coffeehouses and restaurants.

The West Mifflin facility also is the testing ground for all the coffees the company serves. Swoope and other employees have traveled the world's coffee growing regions to acquire the best beans.

The company acquires quality beans through online auctions run by the Cup of Excellence, which showcases coffees that have won competitions.

Swoope, family members and other company employees recently conducted a tasting — known as a “cupping” in coffee lingo — in advance of bidding on an auction lot.

It is a process that has both an organic and clinical feel. Testers experience many natural aromas and flavors, yet the tasting is an orderly process that determines how a coffee will taste when it is freshly brewed and after it cools. It's conducted as a blind taste test, so no one will make a predetermined assessment of the coffee based on its style or country of origin.

This particular auction lot contained unroasted samples of coffee from all over the world. The samples, which are light green in color when they arrive, are lightly roasted, ground and put in clear glasses. There is an aromatic test of the loose grounds dry and then after they have been doused in hot water.

The grounds float to the top of the cup and are sniff tested. After that, the floating mass has been stirred — or broken — with a spoon. Next, testers slurp the coffee back, spoonful by spoonful, to assess the brews for body, sweetness and acidity.

The slurping makes for a noisy experience as each glass is critiqued.

Swoope gives the thumbs up to a Nicaraguan blend, which he describes as having “razor fine acidity, really clean and crisp” — and rejects a Rwandan blend that reminds him of potatoes.

Coffee roaster Joe Burns agrees with the potato assessment and notes it seems to get stronger as the coffee cools.

Swoope says the key to cupping coffees is identifying the off flavors. He said a single bad bean can have a detrimental effect on flavor. For that reason, each sample is tested in duplicate with individual beans going in to each sample.

After the ultra-light roasted beans are sampled, beans are tested for flavor using conventional regular, dark and extra dark roasts. This time, the coffees are filtered, giving testers an idea of how the beans will perform in stores.

The cupping process is elaborate but no less technical than the roasting process itself. Coffee Tree Roasters has three roasters at the West Mifflin plant and is expecting to add a fourth soon.

Tim Swoope, who is the brother of Bill Jr., noted that getting the right roast involves using the senses. Beans smoke when they reach the right level of darkness and make an audible crack as they heat. “Sometimes you're only talking about a difference of seconds between a dark and medium roast,” he said.

The roasting area is filled with burlap sacks containing unroasted beans and plastic bags of roasted coffee beans ready for shipping to Coffee Tree stores and other restaurants and customers.

It is company policy to sell all beans within eight days of roasting. While the company serves tea and desserts at its stores, coffee is first and foremost the main event.

The new store will open at 6 a.m. and close late. Daily offerings will include three freshly brewed coffees — a dark and a light roast plus a water-filtered decaf — plus a wide variety of coffees by the bag.

Swoope hopes customers make the new shop a home-away-from-home and said comfortable seating and a fireplace in the store should go a long way toward making it a leisure time destination. He also believes there will be a lot of foot traffic in the store because of restaurants and other businesses already in the shopping center.

Eric Slagle is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1966, or

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