Coffee roasting since 1900

Jacques Kelly

August 17, 1992|By Jacques Kelly

The heady aroma of strong coffee hangs over Grindall Street and Riverside Avenue, due south of Federal Hill Park.

It's always the breakfast hour at Pfefferkorn's, where an extended family tends the ovens that toast some of the finest coffee served in Maryland.

This tiny neighborhood coffee roasting plant seems like a miracle of survival in the tiny 400 block of Grindall St., which has some of the greatest harbor views in all of Federal Hill.

"We're really a one-horse operation," says Louis C. Pfefferkorn Sr., the grandson of a renowned Baltimore coffee roaster who began his business near Camden Station in 1900. For the past 92 years, Pfefferkorn descendants have made sure that Baltimoreans always had a good cup of morning brew.

The Pfefferkorn clan operates out of an old garage with stout brick walls and wood timbers supporting the roof. The place looks like a minefield of broken coffee urns, 300-pound sacks of Colombian beans, delivery trucks, scales and bagging machines. But the 16 employees keep the percolators bubbling.

Coffee beans have a greenish cast when they come out of their heavy burlap sacks, each stenciled with the country of origin -- Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Kenya or Ethiopia. The beans (initially stored in a separate warehouse) pass through a gas-fired oven, making a pleasant smoky java perfume that drifts out of a chimney behind the 400 block of E. Hamburg St.

The little coffee factory seems right at home in the old neighborhood. All around are a mixture of old South Baltimore families, backyard clothes lines and children playing in the street. Some of the neighboring homes have been expensively renovated. Others look about as they did in 1950.

Inside Pfefferkorn Coffee, Inc., family members are all over the place. Joining Louis Pfefferkorn Sr. are his son, Louis Charles Pfefferkorn Jr.; his daughter, Patti (Mary Margaret) Griffin, and their cousins, James Pfefferkorn Jr. and Julia Barth, James' sister. Samuel Pfefferkorn and James Pfefferkorn are Louis Sr.'s brothers and partners with him in the business.

"We have a little niche," says Louis the Senior Pfefferkorn. "We understand where we fit in.

"Trailer loads of coffee would work us to death. We'd have to put on another shift. Then our neighbors wouldn't love us."

The Pfefferkorns are modest people who do not make extravagant claims about their product. "It's a good coffee, as good as we can make it," Louis Sr. says. "We make coffee that's pleasant and full-bodied."

However, don't look for packages of Pfefferkorn beans on a grocery store shelf. Pfefferkorn's sells primarily to restaurants, hotels and convenience stores. The firm offers four blends -- Best, No. 1, Store and Hotel. And while they have some trendy perfumed coffees, the business was not made on these lines.

The family is just as pleased to be selling the coffee to such South Baltimore spots as the Garden Restaurant on Light Street or Cox's Pub on Fort Avenue as it is to such better known restaurants as Prime Rib, Brass Elephant and Harvey House in Baltimore, Fiori in Owings Mills, Rudy's 2900 in Carroll County and the Inn at Perry Cabin near St. Michaels.

The firm's trucks, all lettered in old-fashioned script, also distribute to a number of other places in Central Maryland.

Over the years, Pfefferkorn's coffee has been served at many other famous Baltimore eating establishments, including the old Walker-Hasslinger seafood house, Wilson's at Pennsylvania and North avenues and the old Morgan Millard drug stores.

The family business got to Federal Hill after it was kicked out of the Inner Harbor area in 1969. The city claimed the decades-old Samuel Pfefferkorn Coffee loft building at 110 S. Calvert St. Today the site of the old roasting ovens is a parking garage.

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