Zekes Chris Rhodes with roaster

Meet the Neighbors: Zeke's Coffee

High-quality, Pittsburgh coffee for collars of all colors

One pound. That is the capacity of the “fluid-bed” coffee roaster that turns out some of Pittsburgh’s finest beans in the back of Zeke’s Coffee in East Liberty. The contraption, which uses hot air to circulate and roast the green beans, looks better suited to a machine shop than a café.  And owner Chris Rhodes, in a baseball cap and earmuffs (worn to dampen the sound of thebeans churning in the roaster), doesn’t come off as a stereotypical coffee connoisseur. But the coffee is always fresh and the beans he produces are fit for even the most-discerning coffee snobs.

Those snobs will be disappointed, however, by the omission of two items from the Zeke’s menu: espresso and pretentiousness. At a moment when many cafés are turning to complicated brewing methods and offering a plethora of single-origin roasts, Zeke’s Coffee stands out for its no-frills approach, a refreshing departure from the new norm of overwrought brews. A typical day’s offerings usually only include hot drip coffee – plus iced coffee on a hot day – and hot tea along with a deliberately limited assortment of pastries.  

Zekes Chad Roaster and Coffee Cab Left: Chaff, a by-product of the roasting process, covers the roasting area like flecks of gold. It is donated to local farmers and gardeners for excellent compost. Right: Chad, a Zeke's team-member, fuels up the Blue Collar Coffee Cab.

Rhodes started roasting in his Penn Avenue space in May 2011 and opened to the public that July. Recently he built a coffee-dispensing bike, to realize his long-term dream of bringing "pounds to the people." “I just wanted to be more places than just here,” says Rhodes, “There’s no legislation on that bike. It’s not a vending cart, so I can be anywhere without getting shut down. I can pick that up and go anywhere.” Initially he worried that this was another one of his “stupid ideas.” But the response was unanimous: “Everyone loved it.” His goal is to develop a route, find a driver, and get it out more regularly. Rhodes currently pedals everywhere, from downtown construction sites to farmers’ markets—while generating some serious DIY advertising (Rhodes often hauls 100 pounds of coffee and supplies to sites at dawn). It may soon be seen at the Wheel Mill, a new 80,000 square foot bike riding park on Hamilton Avenue near Bakery Square.

Even before the launch of the “Blue Collar Coffee Cab,” Zeke’s was already caffeinating the new businesses and start-ups bringing change to East Liberty (full disclosure: Beauty Shoppe members enjoy complimentary Zeke's at all locations!). It isn’t uncommon to find business being done over laptops and iPads inside or at a table out front. The shop also sees a steady stream of locals stopping in for a cup and to chat with Rhodes, himself an East Liberty resident since 2006. 

Zekes Blue Collar Coffee Cab bike The Blue Collar Coffee Cab parked outside on Penn Avenue.

At two years old, there are a few extra seats in the shop a greater variety of beans on the shelves, but the same blue-collar mentality from which the company emerged remains. After all, the beans – not the baristas – are meant to be on show here. “We are, and always will be, a coffee roaster,” Rhodes asserts. Still, there are plans are in the works to grow the space and in start pulling shots of espresso beginning in July. “We always have people asking for other drinks, and we hate to see people sad.” This doesn’t mean abandoning the high-end-coffee-done-simply approach: the Zeke’s tool of choice is London-based ROK Kitchen Tools’ completely manual (and quite beautiful) espresso maker. Leave it to Zeke’s to make espresso feel low-maintenance.

Zekes Coffee Beans ROK Kitchen Tools espresso press Left: Beans for sale. Right: ROK Kitchen Tools' press, available to espresso enthusiasts to take home, as of June. Espresso will be available at Zeke's this July.
More from Chris and the Zeke's team, Daniel, Chad and Liz, on their website. Photos by Aaron Tacinelli.