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Not Your Average Joe: A local coffee-roasting operation sets java lovers abuzz

Not Your Average Joe: A local coffee-roasting operation sets java lovers abuzz
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 —— 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

 No average joe

By Caroline Fossi

The Post and Courier, Wednesday, June 13, 2007

 Brazilian coffee cools off after exiting the roaster at the new Charleston Coffee Roasters warehouse.  On a recent morning, Lowell Grosse scooped up a handful of green coffee beans out of a burlap sack.  Holding them up to the sunlight, he pointed out their uniform size and color, and their lack of defects — signs of a high-quality product.

"We specialize in the top 1 peBrazilian coffee cools off after exiting the roaster at the new Charleston Coffee Roasters warehouse.rcent of coffees in the world," said Grosse, president of Charleston Coffee Roasters, showing a visitor around the company's new roasting plant.

After buying the established roasting business more than a year ago from the original owners, Grosse now is focused on educating the local hospitality community and the coffee-drinking public about his company's wholesale and retail products, and specialty coffee in general.

To further that goal, the company will hold an open house Friday at the roasting plant at 289 Huger St. Similar to wine buffs, coffee drinkers can develop their palates to learn what varieties they like best, Grosse said.

"It's not right or wrong, it's personal preference," he said.

A former Wall Street worker and salesman, Grosse, 46, didn't start out as a coffee connoisseur. After moving to Charleston in 1996, he got into the business through family connections, working for local specialty coffee importer Balzac Bros. & Co. for more than a decade.

With an interest in learning the roasting side of the market, Grosse bought Coffee Roasters of Charleston last November. The company, launched in 1991 by Francisco and Caroline Davila, was known for its Rainbow brand of coffee and the now-closed Rainbow Cafe coffee shop in downtown Charleston.

Besides tweaking the name, Grosse changed the company's logo to a sea turtle with a shell shaped like a coffee bean — a nod to his interest in sea turtle protection and rescue efforts.

To accommodate the growing business, Grosse recently moved the company's roasting plant from a cramped building on Stuart Engals Boulevard in Mount Pleasant to the current location, a 7,500-square-foot space near downtown Charleston. He shares the building with another beverage business, beer maker Palmetto Brewing Co. The new facility is about three times the size of the old one and offers a more central location and better access to the Cooper River bridge for faster deliveries, Grosse said.

The plant includes two roasters and equipment for packaging whole beans or ground coffees for customers, including local restaurants, hotels and coffee shops.

Supermarkets stocking the company's products include Piggly Wiggly, Earth Fare and, in the near future, Whole Foods. The South Carolina Aquarium, which sells the local roaster's brews in its coffee shop, will soon start selling the bagged coffee in its gift shop, too. Charleston Coffee Roasters also sells fresh-roasted coffee direct to the public at the Huger Street plant.

The company imports its products from around the globe — from places including South America and Africa — producing single-origin as well as blended coffee varieties. It aims to do business with growers who use fair-trade practices and ecologically friendly growing techniques, Grosse said.

The business isn't without its challenges, of course.  For one, importers and roasters are facing rising coffee bean prices: A few years ago, green coffee beans cost 40 to 60 cents per pound on the futures market. Today, they're up to $1.16 to $1.20 per pound. Charleston Coffee Roasters also has a number of competitors in the market, including a local roasting company, King Bean Coffee, as well as two larger Southeastern roasters and multinational roasters. But Grosse said he's confident there's enough business to go around.

Reach Caroline Fossi at 937-5524 or

Good Morning Lowcountry

Post & Courier - Friday, June 15, 2007

Mmmm ...

There are few things that stir Hyper GMLc's passion like beans — specifically high-altitude, Central American shade-grown organic beans. Honduran. Nicaraguan. Mmm. Mmm. Mmm. Our obsession with coffee is one of our more alarming traits to the uninitiated. We insist on single-location whole-bean varieties — blends are for weenies — the closer to the roaster the better. Let's not even discuss decaf. We grind these aromatic darlings ourselves, brew them only, only, only — this really isn't negotiable — in a drip cone. We usually come up with a cup that's, well, nearly pudding. Uncle John likes to say he brews his coffee so the spoon stands up straight. We don't find that nearly liberating enough. So imagine our delight to hear that gourmet coffee can be had today absolutely, unequivocally, steamily FREE!

The incredible rightness of beans

Dang, that got our heart pounding. Charleston Coffee Roasters holds an open house 2-8 p.m. today at its new roastery, 289 Huger St. It's to promote the business as well the South Carolina Aquarium's turtle rescue program. But part of the festivities is an invitation to sample "freshly roasted premium coffees from around the world," so we shamelessly plug it. Not that this kind of behavior is addictive or anything. We're just big on beans.

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