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Charleston's Ultimate Coffee Guide

Charleston's Ultimate Coffee Guide
February 2017
A simple cuppa can awaken a mind—and a community. Over the past decade, the Lowcountry has become steeped in niche bean roasters and specialty retailers, an independent blend served up by an awareness of high-end national brands such as Counter Culture, Intelligentsia, Stumptown, and, yes, Starbucks. “We’re seeing Charleston as a Southeastern hub for coffee,” says Danner Friedman of local importer Balzac Brothers, which deals specialty-grade green beans to some dozen area businesses. “The coffee climate here is getting exciting,” says Camino Coffee Roasters’ Andy Hay of the coffee bars, roasters, and warehouses now percolating around the region. “Ten years ago, this area didn’t have the demand for specialty coffee. Now, the scene is blowing up.” Turn the page to meet the instigators; raise a cup to the roasts; and drink in the lattes, pour-overs, and drips brewing at local restaurants and markets.

{Importer Profile}

Hills of Beans: Balzac Brothers

In 1917, brothers Ralph and Richard Balzac began importing green coffee beans to the U.S. One hundred years, four generations, and innumerable relationships later, the company is among the country’s largest independent coffee importers. While the family no longer hops a boat from New York to Colombia with a bag of money in tow, they do nurture some of the same partnerships forged a century ago. And the importer’s 1996 move from Manhattan to Charleston has helped brew a specialty coffee movement here in the Lowcountry. “Balzac Brothers plays a large role in giving small roasters the ability to offer our clientele a wide variety,” says Richard Mallett of Coastal Coffee Roasters. The company’s Fulton Street location allows micro-roasters to cup samples on-site and then purchase entire lots from small producers right out of the side alley.

Breaking Grounds: Meet the Makers

A cup above the mega-mixtures that once dripped into the omnipresent Mr. Coffee each morning, the ethically sourced single-origins and carefully honed blends being produced by today’s specialty coffee roasters send up notes of chocolate, spices, fruit, and nuts that give the palate a delightful jolt from any homogenized coffee coma.

Broom Wagon Coffee

For Jeremias and Rachel Paul, coffee began as a necessity that got the then-fledgling parents through the day. “We loved the ritual and caffeine,” she says, but as the fog of early parenthood cleared, the couple realized they’d also stumbled upon a passion. The biking enthusiasts named their micro-roastery “Broom Wagon,” after the race support vehicle that scoops up straggling cyclists. “Coffee picks up stragglers in the same way,” laughs Rachel. Founded in 2015, the company curates a handful of high-scoring beans from Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mexico, and Sumatra, roasting three pounds at a time for careful control over the process. Jeremias, a German-born former photography professor, is meticulous in his work, choosing a lighter roast that lands in the sweet spot of a fully developed flavor profile. Broom Wagon’s Kenyan, for example, puts forth hints of apricot and grapefruit then finishes with a marzipan note. The duo’s focused approach allows them to teach customers about the sensory aspects of coffee, an effort they hope to further with a West Ashley retail space on the horizon. In the meantime, locals can opt for free deliveries.

Camino Coffee Roasters

Camino founder Andy Hay believes a good story percs up the pot, so this one-man micro-roaster focuses on both the taste and the tale, 10 pounds at a time. From a modest warehouse in Awendaw, the two-year-old wholesaler turns out coffees with admirable origins, like a cinnamon-tinged Costa Rican from beans grown by one of the only women-owned and -operated farms in the world. Or its citrusy selection from a farm in Guatemala that provides on-site schooling and health care. Then there’s the cherry- and apricot-hinted offering from an indigenous people’s cooperative in Colombia. “Good coffee is hand-picked one cherry at a time. We too often take for granted the huge amount of labor that goes into every $12 bag,” says the self-taught roaster. Hay found inspiration for the brand in his work as a guide trekking the caminos (trails) around coffee farms in the Guatemalan highlands. For an even more satisfying cuppa, the company donates 10 percent of its earnings to nonprofits boosting education and development in coffee-growing regions across the globe.

Charleston Coffee Roasters

Like his company’s popular Charleston Organic medium roast, Lowell Grosse boasts a custom blend of industry experience. As a coffee importer for nearly two decades, he learned to taste and analyze the commodity while traveling to the world’s top coffee-growing regions. Quality beans typically grow at an altitude of 4,000 to 7,000 feet, with warm days and cooler nights that help develop the cherries’ natural sweetness. And the difficult terrain demands round after round of handpicking the ripest fruits. To source good coffee, experts must understand the product from an agricultural angle. “Like grapes and wine, crops look different from season to season,” explains Grosse, noting that the ability to pair clients and coffees for the correct price ultimately determines an importer’s success. Now, as the 11-year president of Huger Street wholesaler/retailer Charleston Coffee Roasters, this matchmaker is still bringing together beans and buyers, using his understanding of roast levels and intrinsic flavor profiles to create citrusy, earthy, nutty, and chocolatey coffees that always leave sippers wanting another round.

Coffee Roasters of Charleston

Coffee flows through Francisco Davila’s blood. The Colombia native, whose family owned coffee farms in the Huila region, has distributed beans across the globe since arriving in Charleston just two weeks shy of Hurricane Hugo. As the owner of ship chandler Coleman Supply Company, Davila originally stocked freights like the nearly 915-foot-long Sea-Land Atlantic, providing captains the liquid lightning they needed to pilot their ships across oceans the world over. Eventually, his signature and Rainbow lines began selling in restaurants and retailers closer to home, and Davila’s run with Sea-Land came to an end (though his beans do still fuel sailors who make their way to the Lowcountry for U.S. Sailing Association regattas). The roaster may be best known for his popular “Charleston” blend, a medium selection with gentle hints of chocolate and nuts that he created in homage to the Lowcountry’s mild climate. But he’s still wistful about his southern Colombian roots, where three mountain ranges meet and the volcanic soil richly nourishes coffee plants: “There’s pure water, butterflies, birds, bees, and flowers. Like the label on my Rainbow Coffee, it’s paradise.”

King Bean

Along the back wall of King Bean’s North Charleston warehouse, a fancy espresso machine with its inner workings splayed sits in front of a ceiling-high shelf of retired coffee contraptions. As a former Navy aviation mechanic, founder Kurt Weinberger understands the essential role equipment plays in perfecting a cup of joe. “Being a good roaster is just a small part of this business. We also serve as a consultant to restaurants, helping them develop signature blends and assemble equipment packages based on their needs,” says Weinberger, who became coffee-obsessed in his early twenties while stationed in Seattle during the ’90s Starbucks phenomenon. The Hilton Head native returned home with two espresso machines and one big idea. With a 24-kilogram Diedrich roaster, he launched his roastery in his parents’ garage, eventually moving up to a Charleston locale and upsizing to a custom Petroncini that handles 100 pounds of beans at a time. He engineered a cast-iron drum for quick cooling and an after-burner to cook off excess smoke. In its 20-year span, King Bean has become royalty on the Lowcountry hospitality scene. The team earned honors in the last two Charleston Coffee Cup throw-downs, winning “Best Roast” in 2016 for an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe that heralds lemon meringue pie and the 2015 “People’s Choice” award for its smooth 20 Strong anniversary blend.

Bean Town: The Roaster/Retailer Roster

They balance their back-of-the-house craft and bricks-and-mortar establishments, serving up not only sustainably sourced coffees but also coffees to sustain patrons, from neighbors to visitors, undergrads to retirees.

Black Tap Coffee

Burned out on their California corporate and Capitol Hill careers, former college roommates Jayme Scott and Ross Jett began brewing plans for their own shop. Though sure coffee was the commodity, the duo was uncertain where to pour their efforts until a friend coaxed them towards the Lowcountry. “At the time, the city’s coffee scene didn’t match the up-and-coming food scene,” notes Scott, who had become immersed in San Francisco’s coffee culture. So in February 2012, he and Jett opened the doors to their light and laid-back coffee spot tucked inconspicuously into a corner of Harleston Village. Success was swift—the shop quickly became a buzzworthy destination for seekers of its cold brew served from a cask ale-style tap (thus, the name). Four years later, the guys ordered another round, adding veteran barista Tripp Gandy to the team to help introduce an in-house line. On nearby James Island, the roastery sources high-quality beans in order to craft unique roasts that appeal to both geeks and greenhorns.

The Bean Scene:

Try the Heavyweight, a sweet and chocolatey blend that easily stands alone or pairs with cream and sugar. Fans can also enjoy weekly and biweekly subscription deliveries.

On-site Sipping:

A steady rotation of higher-ed students, young professionals, and tourists stream through the crisp-white shop, grabbing seats at community tables for conversation and pour-overs. 70½ Beaufain St., (843) 793-4402;

Charleston Coffee Exchange

For more than 10 years, this West Ashley roaster has promoted accessibility, offering a wide variety of beans with well-rounded flavors to as many imbibers as they can serve. Though Charleston Coffee Exchange certainly sees regulars who’ve been frequenting its casual storefront for more than a decade, its coffee crowd remains well-blended, filled with scholars and retirees, caffeine fiends and families. This fall, the company rolled out its rich roasts in single-serving (K-cup compatible) pods, making access to its tasty coffees even more sipper-friendly.

The Bean Scene:

The Black Raven combines the roaster’s top-selling signature house blend with a dark Italian for a bold yet smooth brew.

On-site Sipping:

With a dozen or more roasts, as well as flavored seasonals, nestled into burlap sacks on the coffee bar, the aroma inside this friendly joint is inviting and intoxicating. 2875 Ashley River Rd., West Ashley; (843) 571-5875;

Coastal Coffee Roasters

Though they knew beans about the food and beverage industry, Brad and Jacki Mallett understood good coffee. And with their entrepreneurial sights set on crafting a stellar cuppa, the couple and their three children left upstate New York to open their Summerville roastery in 2010. Situated in the heart of the historic downtown, Coastal Coffee Roasters has found a welcoming community, and in return, has rolled out the welcome mat for residents. Eldest son Richard honed his craft under the tutelage of local roaster Francisco Davila, proprietor of Coffee Roasters of Charleston. With room to spare, the roastery soon expanded to house a retail space popular for its open mics and live music, winter farmers market, toddler yoga classes, and networking groups. And two years ago, Brad turned to a new brew, helping launch the town’s first craft brewery, Oak Road Brewery, at the far end of the warehouse.

The Bean Scene:

The roaster recently introduced an earthy Hawaiian Kona Peaberry, which uses the peaberry, a single coffee seed that’s thought to have more flavor than the twin seeds typically found within a cherry.

On-site Sipping:

Stop in the rustic storefront for a bite and a delightful drip, or visit the dispenser wall of whole-bean coffees “on tap” for at-home brewing.

108 E. 3rd N. St., Summerville; (843) 376-4559;

Cooper River Coffee Roasters

Paulette and Sean Sullivan got their F&B start here in the Holy City before eventually landing in Ohio, where the couple owned a coffee shop and roastery for seven years. But the Lowcountry lured them back, and in 2015, they made a fresh start with Cooper River Coffee Roasters. While wholesale fuels much of their business, Paulette finds that the social aspect of sipping is what truly warms her. “Coffee shops are a place to be around others and have a conversation, so I try to facilitate some commonality between customers at the counter,” she says. The Sullivans are also doing their part to build community across countries, sourcing the majority of their beans from a women’s farming program called Café Femenino, which ensures female farmers across the coffee belt receive proper compensation for their products, as well as healthcare and clean water.

The Bean Scene:

In roasting, temperature thresholds are signaled by two audible popping sounds, known as “cracks,” made as the beans expand and release heat energy. The Rwandan, like all of Cooper River’s offerings, is toasted to Full City (a light espresso roast), meaning the beans have passed the first crack stage but not yet reached the second crack.

On-site Sipping:

This unpretentious hidden gem draws mostly immediate locals, who stop in for fresh grounds and iced coffee by the growler. 1303 Ben Sawyer Blvd., #5, Mount Pleasant; (843) 810-7917;

Lowcountry Coffee Roasters

As the roaster with the longest local run (since 1984), this well-steeped operation respects roots, touting single-origin java from growers that promote ethical, sustainable, and bird-friendly practices. Owner Vincent Corsino, who purchased the business seven years ago, regularly travels to top coffee regions to meet the growers behind the beans he’s buying. Lowcountry Coffee Roasters connects with 26-plus farms around the world to source coffee seeds for in-house roasts as well as mounds of private labels. Like many specialty roasters, the company purchases an entire year’s crop from specific origins. And Corsino’s passionate about the success of his partner farmers. “There are hundreds of thousands of people who consider this their lifeblood,” he says. “Anything that has such a huge economical impact on any society can have adverse effects if not handled in an ethical manner.” To that end, Corsino has worked to get the U.S. legislature involved in stamping out corruption over certifying biodegradable shipping bags in Cameroon, supported hydroelectric power for a self-sufficient property within a Costa Rican national forest, and partnered with a Brazilian farm that feeds and cares for birds migrating from Argentina to the Southwestern United States.

The Bean Scene:

La Amistad, a popular offering that’s heavy on chocolate and medium in body, stems from an organic, self-sufficient, family-owned operation situated within a Costa Rican national forest.

On-site Sipping:

The freshly opened Lowco Café, a certified-green facility, serves up a drive-thru window as well as cozy seating and retail space. The drinks taste even better when you purchase a burlap coffee sack to raise money for organizations helping educate children and promote women’s rights in coffee-growing regions. 1171 Clements Ferry Rd., Wando; (843) 889-2448;


Brothers Jason and Josh Bell immersed themselves in the Kudu Coffee business in 2010, when they took over the five-year-old shop that was set to be closed permanently. Half a decade later, with specialty coffee sales flowing, the owners decided to rev up their own roastery, Springbok, soon drawing Kudu barista Colin Robison into the fold to help pull shifts on the 12-kilo Diedrich roaster. The roaster zones in on highly graded specialty coffees, like its Colombia La Florida, which was a top-30 finisher at the Huila Best Cup Competition in Colombia. But Jason, who is on his way to becoming a certified Q grader (see page 109), may be most excited about the opportunity to provide education and training for wholesale accounts in Springbok’s downtown roasting warehouse and lab. “My vision is to provide our area with a consistent high-quality product, technical support, and coffee education classes right in downtown Charleston,” he says.

The Bean Scene:

Sample the popular Colombia La Florida brew, which offers notes of honey and brown sugar with hints of jasmine and a sweet, creamy finish.

On-site Sipping:

A see-and-be-seen set for students and 20-somethings, the artsy Kudu Coffee & Craft Beer nixes Wi-Fi to encourage customers to mingle while enjoying a pour-over or a pint. Belly up to the reclaimed wood bar or scramble for a seat in the open courtyard—either spot serves up excellent coffee and people-watching. 4 Vanderhorst St., (843) 853-7186;

Coffee Talk

Direct trade: when a broker or roaster works directly with a farm

Fair trade: paying a farmer market price or higher for coffee beans based on their grade

Single origin: from one specific region or farm

Shade grown: coffee plants canopied by larger trees, which yields larger, better-quality beans

Naturally processed: four-week drying method that keeps the seed inside the coffee cherry

Micro-roaster: produces under 100,000 pounds a year

Specialty roaster: uses beans with a grade higher than 80