The Coffee King of Cincinnati

La Terza founder Chuck Pfahler’s decades-long quest for the perfect cup has taken him across the globe. We’re reaping the rewards right here.

Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

Chuck Pfahler is excited about mescal.

He might be better known as Cincinnati’s coffee king—if you’ve had a cup from a local coffee shop this week, there’s a good likelihood that, somewhere down the line, Pfahler had a figurative hand in those beans. (He founded wholesale coffee distribution company La Terza, which supplies beans to more than 50 coffee spots in Cincinnati and beyond, in 2003.) But these days, he’s seriously eyeballing the mescal crown in the display case next door, too.

“As much as I love coffee, I have equally fallen in love with the spirit mescal,” says Pfahler, who left La Terza in early 2019. He opened Adesso, which specializes in coffee, cocktails, and wine, in Mason in March 2020.

He tells of a February visit to a friend’s palenque, or mescal distillery, like he’s telling a fairy tale or a campfire story. There’s a fifth-generation mezcalero, or mescal-making master, named Valentín Cortes. The palenque had just opened, so Pfahler witnessed the first fermentation. Cortes had been sleeping next to a fermentation tank for days to assure the piñas, the heart of the agave plant that can take eight years to grow, smoked for the precise amount of time. If the mezcalero stops fermentation too soon or too late, the end result would be, Pfahler says, “unpleasant.”

That dedication to the process and the quality of the product doesn’t just appeal to Pfahler; it’s the whole why behind Adesso, its values, and its mission. Consider the shop’s tagline: coffee + moments. It’s not about coffee as a means for caffeine but about a pause to savor the present moment. Adesso, even, is Italian for now.

Adesso encourages that pause by offering a tidy, selective coffee menu inspired by Italian cafés, which means the drink itself defines the size. Adesso espressos are 2 ounces, and espresso-based drinks are the corresponding size to incorporate those 2 ounces.

“If you want [to drink] a swimming pool, don’t order the macchiato, and don’t lather it with caramel and whipped cream,” Pfahler says. “We can’t do it.” Adesso’s macchiatos have 2 ounces of espresso and just a spot of steamed milk, the classic Italian way of preparation.

For customers acquainted with these authentic recipes, the technique is nostalgic. Courtney Holloway, a Mt. Lookout musician who met Pfahler last fall, says Adesso reminds her of the cafés she visited when she lived in Italy.

“The Adesso team are baristas in the true Italian sense of the word,” she says. “They are always asking questions to get to know the guest’s palate and customize [the] experience.”

That’s because those baristas, Holloway says, know everything about their menu.

For customers unfamiliar with Italian espresso, Pfahler and the Adesso baristas are ready, and happy, to help a customer order.

“So often you walk into a coffee shop, and there’s this pretentiousness,” Pfahler says. “We laugh with them and have a good time. ‘This is what we got and what we’re all about. I think you’d enjoy this drink.’ ”

He’s so excited to teach an understanding and appreciation for the sometimes overlooked nuances of coffee that he’s even taught classes, like “Coffee 101: A Cup of Excellence and The Art of Grinding Coffee” at the University of Cincinnati’s continuing education program.

This enthusiasm is evident to customers—Holloway says she noticed it immediately.

“The thing that makes Adesso awesome is that everyone there is passionate about the experience they are creating,” she says. “They are excited about the drinks they are crafting, [and Pfahler’s] excitement is infectious.”

This coffee love dates back to 5-year-old Pfahler, who would sneak into the kitchen pantry and make his own brew with Mom’s Taster’s Choice. In college, he roasted his first beans on a popcorn maker, which works because coffee and popcorn cook at the same temperature.

“There was something really romantic about the smoke and the smells, taking something that’s almost unusable, then transforming it to something I could share,” he says.

Though he’s been in the local coffee business for nearly two decades, Pfahler is still learning. He’s traveled to India, Turkey, Italy, Mexico, and central and South America to meet coffee bean farmers and learn more about mescal, too. On a late summer visit to Mexico to celebrate his anniversary with his wife, Pfahler says, he couldn’t help but scout.

“We made some great connections with producers already during our short stay here,” he wrote in an e-mail during the trip. “Who knows what will come out of these new relationships?”

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