You'd think a coffee tasting on a Friday afternoon in July with temperatures in the upper '90s would be a hard sell. But such was not the case recently at Charleston Coffee Roasters where a steady stream of folks visited the company's new facility. The varied crowd of young and old tasted some single-origin coffees and even braved a tour of the un-air-conditioned warehouse where all the beans are hand-roasted. President Lowell Grosse led the impromptu tour himself and clearly loved every minute. Coffee is his passion, and the curiosity of his guests reinforced his belief that the time is right for a coffee movement here in Charleston.
Charleston Coffee Roasters is not the only local roaster, but they are the largest and specialize in the highest quality coffee produced. Currently their wholesale clients include East Bay Coffee House, the Sea Turtle Café (in the South Carolina Aquarium), Piggly Wiggly, and Earth Fare.
"Our goal is to become the premier roaster in Charleston," says Grosse, a strong statement, but one that should be heeded considering his background. Grosse worked as a coffee importer for 16 years before starting his own roasting company in 2005. He says importing is a lot of "slurping and spitting" — meaning that most days center around smelling, tasting, and judging the quality of various coffees. This process is called "cupping," and years of cupping have trained his palate to discern the subtle nuances of fine coffee.
Much like a sommelier, Grosse thinks in terms of flavor profiles and uses adjectives like "robust, rich, and acidic" to describe his product. He wants people to realize that coffee is "not just a cup of black liquid" but a complex and important commodity. He notes that it is the second largest traded good after oil and that over 35 countries rely on coffee as their major export.
Such factoids flow liberally from Grosse, and his website — www.charlestoncoffeeroasters.com — proves just as informative. There you can learn the history of coffee (which dates back to the beginning of time); study the agriculture of growing coffee (the green beans are actually the seeds of a cherry); stay abreast of various industry certifications (like "Bird Friendly" and "Certified Organic"); or simply figure out how to brew a perfect cup (2 tablespoons of coffee for every 6 ounces of water).
Grosse clearly believes in educating people, and his tastings offer a perfect occasion to receive such a tutorial. Learn what green coffee beans look like and meet their roaster Jen Layton, who came to Charleston Coffee Roasters after many years with Counter Culture Coffee, a leading North Carolina roasting company. There, she worked primarily in sales, but here she spends most of her time hand-roasting small batches of beans. The roasting time depends upon the beans' individual characteristics, which Layton has come to know through cupping. As the beans roast, she watches and listens. The beans will crack twice if roasted to their maximum (a sound Layton compares to popcorn popping), but some beans should be pulled before the second crack, necessitating an attuned ear. On a busy week Layton might roast several thousand pounds of beans (a daunting task considering that she can roast only 20 pounds at a time.) But like Grosse, Layton loves coffee and believes in their mission to educate people about the subject.
"It's not even about us as Charleston Coffee Roasters," says Layton. "We should be a part of a community."
They will achieve that goal this fall as they begin their barista training program. The day-long course will be led by Layton, who has her barista certification from the Specialty Coffee Association of America. They will invite food and beverage workers to learn the intricacies of operating an espresso machine. "It's not just pushing a button and walking away," says Grosse, and Layton could not agree more. She contends that there is nothing worse than finishing an exquisite, four-course dinner and then being served an espresso without any crema.
Layton hopes that the classes will attract a diverse group and not just their existing wholesale customers. Topics covered will include the importance of periodically changing the grind of your espresso beans, tapping down the ground beans correctly, and warming your cups. Layton's enthusiasm is so contagious that it's easy to imagine the success of the course. As she walks through the warehouse on yet another sweltering summer afternoon, she stops and runs her hand through an open bag of green beans. She says the romance of coffee is what appeals to her. She thinks about the number of hands it takes to bring these beans to this warehouse. "So much hard work and labor have gone into it, and I could ruin it," she says. "It's an honor to be a part of something so exotic."
Charleston Coffee Roasters hosts free monthly tours and tastings. On Fri. Aug. 17, you can learn about exotic coffees, see them roasted firsthand, and taste them at the end. Reservations are required. Call (843) 266-7444 or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.