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Artisanal Pizza is Boosting the Coal Industry

Pizzerias are a new and growing market for coal companies

(Melissa Hom/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

It’s been a tough few decades for the coal mining business, but companies are now eyeing one of the few growing markets: coal-fired pizza places.

“That market just kind of snuck up on us,” Greg Driscoll, chief executive officer of Blaschak Coal Corp. tells Mario Parker and Leslie Patton for Bloomberg News. “It’s sort of in the face of everything that is going on.”

Driscoll’s Pennsylvania-based company deals in anthracite coal, one of the purest and hottest-burning varieties of coal found on the planet. While the large majority of the coal that Blaschak digs out of its mines still goes to energy companies, the use of anthracite for fuel has steadily decreased in the last few decades thanks to large supplies and increasing competition from natural gas and tougher environmental regulations, Parker and Patton report. However, the same qualities that made anthracite perfect for fueling the Industrial Revolution also make it ideal for giving pizzas a finer taste.

“The phenomenon of coal-fired pizza has a lot to do with flavor,” Fred LeFranc of Results Thru Strategy, a restaurant consultant group, tells Parker and Patton. “It’s the difference of having a steak cooked over a gas grill versus charcoal. You get this great smoky flavor.”

While pizza places represent just four percent of Blaschak’s total wholesale market, Driscoll says it’s their fastest-growing sector. Anthracite can burn at temperatures of up to 900 degrees Fahrenheit, much, much hotter than traditional wood-fired ovens. This allows cooks to bake their pizzas faster and more evenly while also getting the smoky flavor from a fine dusting of coal, MUNCHIES reports.

But pizza alone won’t save the anthracite industry: while the United States bituminous coal generates about half of electricity in the United States, in 2014 American coal mines only produced about 2.5 million tons of anthracite, a far cry from its 1917 peak of 100 million tons. Of last year's supply of anthracite coal, Blaschak sold only about 15,000 tons* to pizza places across the country, Anya Litvak reports for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. But faced with stiff competition and a shrinking market, Driscoll is willing to explore any new markets that present themselves.

“Anthracite fueled the industrial revolution and two world wars,” Driscoll tells Litvak. “Big events foster growth but they’re temporary. Don’t make them your plan.”

In the meantime, America’s coal-fired pizza ovens will keep running on a steady supply of Pennsylvania anthracite.

Editor’s Note, September 30, 2015: This article originally misstated the amount of anthracite sold by Blaschak Coal to pizza makers. Instead of the 375,000 tons referred to in the piece, it is instead less than 4 percent of that number, or about 15,000 tons. The article has been corrected and we regret the error.
About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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