Charleston, S.C., has earned a reputation as one of the great food cities of America, but as a coffee town, it’s as weak as the brew it serves.
Despite cup after cup of evidence, I found it hard to accept that so much good food could be accompanied by so much bad coffee. So my companion, Linda, and I made it our mission to find a great cuppa joe while we were there. The search paid off in unexpected ways. Not only did we find an outstanding roaster, the search led us to places that we couldn’t have discovered otherwise. I later consulted coffee experts and now know how to track down a great cup of java anywhere.
The first hint of a problem emerged while brunching at Toast, on Meeting Street downtown, where the crunchy-crusted crab cake over a fried green tomato was as satisfying as the biscuits, which were large, uniformly airy and flecked with yellow where cold butter had been folded in. But the coffee?
Linda’s cup of regular was so flavorless that it was as if the cup were merely haunted by coffee. My $5.50 latte packed all the punch of a Brahms lullaby.
We assumed an otherwise good restaurant was having an off day, but it was just the first of many insipid sips we would be served at a variety of places.
Turns out there is a historical explanation for Charleston’s coffee that dates to Colonial times. “Coffee was the drink of America, because it was British loyalists who drank tea,” said Peter Giuliano, senior director of symposium for the Specialty Coffee Association of America. “And there were more loyalists in the South.” Hence, Dixie’s enduring love of iced tea, he said.
An East Coast preference for lighter brews may compound the blandness. In coffee-industry parlance, Giuliano said, “Boston roast” is the lightest, while “Seattle roast” or “San Francisco roast” is the darkest.
Resorting to Google, we located the Gaulart & Maliclet French Cafe, better known as Fast & French, which touted coffee made in a French press, the same device I use at home to make a heady brew.
To judge a shop based on brewing equipment was the right idea, but we seized on the wrong hardware. “The first tip-off is the espresso machine,” Giuliano said. Look for a La Marzocco or Nuova Simonelli. “When you see these high-end machines,” he said, “you know the owner made a commitment.”
But even the right equipment isn’t a guarantee of a good coffee, he said, which proved true of the French press. Although the fragrance of fresh coffee preceded our cups, the “special French roast” failed to live up to the aroma. We asked that our second round be stronger, and it was, but only marginally.
In the days that followed, in coffee shops, pastry shops, diners and even the better restaurants, the coffee continued to be anemic.
We needed a shift in search strategy. We had looked in the ritzy downtown areas near the museums and the shopping mecca of King Street. “The great coffee shops are usually where the record stores and used-clothing stores are, not where the chichi Rodeo Drive stores are,” Giuliano said. “Hipster neighborhoods tend to have great coffee shops.”
So we moved our search north, closer to the College of Charleston. And this is where we began to make the kind of offbeat discoveries you don’t find in the tourism brochures.
Searching out a shop, we walked past an imposing Greek revival building, the Karpeles Manuscript Museum, and spotted what looked like a pointillistic painting of Amelia Earhart in a basement window. We sneaked inside the fence for a closer look, only to find the panel was made of bottle caps. It was both compelling and lighthearted, and we studied it for several minutes. It was the work of artist Molly B. Right, who includes an average of 3000 vintage caps on the 45-by-60-inch panels she calls bottle-cap mosaics. On the phone she said that people are welcome to drop in while she is working — we had just missed her usual daily 10 a.m.-4 p.m. hours. It was the best art find of the trip.
Our meander concluded at Black Tap, a coffee shop that — judging by the people poring over dictionary-size study guides and silently staring at laptops — catered to the college crowd.
The interior was modern, with natural light streaming in the many windows, bar-style seating along the wall and a rustic communal table in the center of the room. Airy and orderly, it met another of Giuliano’s criteria for a good shop. “How clean is it?” he said. “A messy shop — sugar on the condiment bar, crusted milk on the steam wand — walk out.”
The barista was setting up cups under single-serve pour-over drippers and adding hot water over the fresh grounds in each at a measured pace.
Fresh grinding for each cup is critical. “Eighty-five percent of a coffee’s flavor is aromatic.” said Dan Streetman, a head judge for the U.S. Barista Championship. “When ground, it increases the surface area, releasing aromatics, and when they are gone, they are gone.”
Linda ordered a regular coffee with extra room for cream. The barista scored points when he didn’t just pour off the excess to make room, but brought the excess in a second glass. The brew was properly strong and earthy.
That is by design, said coowner Ross Jett: The coffee is measured with scientific exactitude. “Drips are 23 grams of coffee to 365 grams water, seeing total dissolved solids of 21 percent,” he said. “Any coffee geek will understand what that means.”
I took a risk ordering a latte with homemade lavender syrup. It was served with an artful pattern in the foam, another good indicator, apparently. “Latte art, it’s a diagnostic,” Giuliano said. It shows attention to detail: It’s not easy for a barista to learn, and the owner has to be willing to waste a lot of milk teaching the technique. The drink had a pleasantly citrusy, herbal flavor with subtle sweetness. Jett said the mix, made of raw-sugar simple syrup infused with lavender flowers, was the result of experimentation, and — again — precise measurement. No syrup pumps are used at Black Tap, because they are too inexact.
Great coffee shops are about more than coffee. They tend to be gathering places for the offbeat and eccentric, and they are repositories of arcane local knowledge. After asking our barista about food and art in the area, we were directed to a gallery that we couldn’t locate on the Internet, even though we knew its name, and to a terrific used bookstore, Blue Bicycle. He also directed us a restaurant, Chez Nous, hidden in an alley that was by far and away the best dining experience we had in Charleston.
If I had understood how insular the specialty-coffee world is, I could have cut down the search. “The good coffee community is very aware of the network,” Giuliano said. “If you want to know where a good coffee shop is, ask a coffee pro.” As a matter of fact, when I mentioned Charleston, Giuliano’s first words were, “Did you go to Black Tap?”
So our wandering could have been avoided with an advance phone call or three. But where’s the adventure in that?
Furchgott is a moderately caffeinated writer and photographer in Baltimore.
More from The Washington Post:
The Mills House Wyndham Grand Hotel
115 Meeting St.
In 1861, General Robert E. Lee reportedly watched the Great Charleston Fire from the Mills House. Walking distance to the Battery, art and shopping districts. Rooms have a contemporary feel, some with bedrooms accessorized in a Tiffany blue. Rooms from about $280.
Market Pavilion Hotel
225 E. Bay St.
Close to the Battery and other Charleston sights. Even if you don’t stay there, the Pavilion rooftop bar is worth a visit. Rooms from $320.
6 Payne Ct.
Influenced by the food of Southern France, Northern Italy and Northern Spain, each day’s new menu offers just two appetizers, two entrees and two desserts — a couple can order the entire menu. Entrees from $22.
Black Tap Coffee
70.5 Beaufain St.
Precisely made craft coffee flavored with homemade lavender or brown sugar syrup, if you like. Coffee runs between $2.75 and $5.
Karpeles Manuscript Museum
68 Spring St.
Visit working artist Molly B. Right, who makes captivating bottle-cap mosaics in the lower level of the museum. Her hours vary, but she is generally there 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
The Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston
161 Calhoun St.
Get your art on at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, which hosts events and five to seven exhibitions — usually free — in 3,200 square feet of galleries. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Open until 7 p.m. Thursdays.