Every morning, Tyler Gilliam starts his day chasing after that perfect cup of coffee. The daily ritual begins with boiling water, dark-roasted grounds, and a French press. Brewing coffee for him is more than just a caffeine fix. It's an opportunity to relive delicious memories of European cafés and years of family tradition. Like many coffee lovers, Gilliam, a Darkness to Light employee we ran into at Kudu Coffee, can tell you exactly what types of coffee, brewing methods, and additives he does and does not like. The number of options begs the question: What makes a good cup of coffee?
Lowell Grosse from Charleston Coffee Roasters is convinced it starts with the bean. Just like the grapes that become any fine wine, the soil type, location, elevation, plant variety, and growing conditions all influence the quality and flavor of a coffee bean. The coffee plant produces a berry-like fruit that must be harvested ripe, pitted for its two coveted seeds (the beans) and then dried. The harvesting, sorting, and drying process can make or break a bean's potential, so it's crucial that great care is taken to ensure uniformity and quality of the crop.
A pound of coffee requires roughly 4,000 beans. Buyers can procure beans from a single farm, a single origin, or from farms with certifications like shade-grown or bird-friendly. For Grosse, this process comes down to the relationships with the people growing the product. He likes to meet the farmers and make deals with a handshake.
Determining whether a coffee bean is worth paying for involves evaluating the beans for their quality, aroma, flavor, and mouth feel. A coffee tasting, or "cupping," is a method of testing the beans after they are roasted, ground, brewed, and sampled. Although many of the attributes of a bean are subjective, the goal is to find uniformity in the cups and ensure there is no residual fermentation or bitter aftertaste. Grosse says he is looking for an experience that "has a good balance of sweetness, refined acidity, smooth body, and leaves you wanting another cup." Once the beans are deemed high quality, then the real magic begins.
The heat in the Charleston Coffee Roasters warehouse on Huger Street is stiflingly hot, and it smells similar to burnt popcorn. As the roasting machine hums in the background, Grosse thumbs through several samples of "green" coffee beans. Side by side, it is easy to see the difference in the size, color, and consistency in the beans in each tray.
Roasting beans is a mix of art, science, and knowledge. Each variety has its own flavor profile that reacts differently to roasting, and Grosse says a good roaster "needs to know the intrinsic flavor to roast" and roasts in small batches. The beans are roasted at around 400 degrees and the total process takes between 20-22 minutes, during which the beans dry and begin cracking. Local roaster King Bean Coffee's new Il Petroncini roasting machine pays homage to owner Kurt Weinberger's experience with and respect for the coffees of Italy, a country he says has "perfected the art of coffee roasting."
Often, roasters select beans and roast times based on the intended brewing and grinding method to be used with the coffee. Brewing can be varied based on the temperature of the water, the immersion time, and whether the coffee has been ground course, medium, or fine. The combination of these factors can result in coffee that is weak, strong, bitter, sweet, or highly caffeinated. "A great cup of coffee is well-extracted and brewed the proper amount of time and at the proper temperature. It tastes interesting and balanced, with multi-dimensional notes from the roast profile," explains Jessica Jurs, coffee manager at The Collective (opening in October). Her preferred method of brewing is a "pour-over," in which water heated to specific temperatures in a specialized kettle is poured over ground coffee placed in a cone filter atop individual cups of coffee. This process is all about timing, technique, and equipment, but it's known for its ability to produce a delicious cup of coffee.
Unlike the automatic electric coffee pot perched on most people's countertops, manual coffee brewing is all about control. No one can tell you this better than a seasoned barista. Derrick Smith at Kudu has been brewing coffee on and off for 15 years, learning from mentors and refining his skills through constant practice. Like Jurs, he has an immense amount of respect for the process and believes that it is the barista's job to pay homage to everyone that is involved in getting coffee from berry to brew because "if we don't prepare it correctly, we ruin a lot of hard work." Derrick feels strongly that being a barista is more than just brewing coffee, it is also about educating customers on the value of good quality coffee and manual brewing. Although you would expect coffee lifers like Smith and Grosse to turn their noses up at customers that ask for generic flavored coffee blends, they believe many people have just never had a really well-made coffee that suits them, so it is about finding the right fit. Although this local circle of coffee connoisseurs is small, Jurs believes "the coffee culture is developing rapidly, with more educated customers, and more shops using high quality roasts and manual brewing."
Gilliam, Lowell, Jurs, and Smith all say that coffee shops are where they socialize, make new friends, and share their love of coffee. They attend events like the Kudu Latte Art Throwdown to show off for each other while sharing their talent with the public. Smith says, "Charleston has the best restaurants and the best bars. There is no reason that coffee also should not be sought after on that level."
Where to get a great cup of coffee
Black Tap Coffee
70.5 Beaufain St. Downtown, (843) 793-4402
The selecton rotates constantly, and they use the pour-over method to ensure the freshest brews to order. The coffeeshop also cold brews roasts, making for a much less acidic iced coffee.
4 Vanderhorst St. Downtown, (843) 853-7186
Choose from two seasonally changing brews, one of single-origin and another blended one. The coffee shop buys from Counter Culture out of Durham, N.C. Right now, you can find the roaster's blended espresso, the Tuscano, which is roasted in the "sweet coffee" tradition of Central Italy.
160 East Bay St. Downtown, (843) 577-2180
They feature Island Coffee, a microroaster in nearby Ravenel, and the house coffee is a single origin Costa Rican.
1664 Old Towne Road, West Ashley, (843) 556-7050
This coffee shop chooses a weekly Charleston Coffee Roaster blend to feature and always keeps the Charleston Organic and the Sumatra blends brewed. The shop uses a medium espresso and decaf from the local roaster as well.
Charleston Coffee Exchange
2875 Ashley River Road, West Ashley, (843) 571- 5875
Twelve flavored coffees and 16 regular coffees of both single-origin and blends are roasted in-house. The shop rotates them for brewing, with six options available in the morning.