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Smokin’ hot Joe: Coffee culture turns up the heat

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Sue Townsend saw the future 20 years ago when she opened the Chocolate and Coffee House in the Litchfield Exchange. Since then, coffee sales have been percolating as people took their early morning cups of joe to mid-morning and then to mid-afternoon, turning them into a sugar-and-caffeine rush with flavored milk and whipped cream.

Since Townsend brought lattés and cappuccinos to Litchfield in 1994, they’ve become old hat. There’s competition on every corner. Starbucks has a shop inside Litchfield Beach and Golf Resort. Latté Litchfield was forced to move to greener pastures in Surfside. If motorists drank a cup of coffee at every opportunity between the Waffle House at Murrells Inlet and Landolfi’s at the South Causeway in Pawleys Island they would have a serious case of the caffeine jitters.

Townsend says her coffee customers have become more sophisticated. “In my shop,” she said, “people want straight, strong coffee, not flavored. They usually ask me what’s the strongest.”

Ethiopian Yirgachefe was the Chocolate and Coffee House featured brew Friday. Indonesian and Costa Rican beans have outpaced the standard Colombian on the sales counter. “Some ask for coffee by country,” Townsend said. “Some have no clue. I have two girls who, even in the dead of winter, want iced coffee.”

For Amy Valhos, owner of Applewood House of Pancakes, coffee is a volume business. Her employees grind 100 pounds of beans a week during the tourist season. She uses a blend containing expensive Kona beans from Hawaii. “We were the only breakfast place on the beach with Kona coffee when we opened,” she said. “You find it more in the night restaurants. If we run out, we don’t have the option of running to our neighbors.”

Don’t worry, pancake aficionados. Valhos isn’t going to run out of coffee. She begins every morning by filling two 3-gallon urns. Her coffee never sits longer than 20 minutes. “We want it to stay fresh,” Valhos said. “We grind as we go. We cannot run out, so an urn never gets lower than about 30 percent.”

As lunchtime and the iced tea crowd approaches, Applewood employees switch to smaller brew pots to refill the urns. At the end of the day, they seldom have more than two or three pots to pour out, Valhos said.

She places so much importance on coffee because she drinks it herself. “I have to have the same number of ounces at the same time every day or I’m going to have a headache,” she said. “People get used to the same brand, the same everything.”

Ron Rader, a Hagley resident and native of Georgetown’s Maryville neighborhood, opened the Coffee Break Café on Front Street when Reynolds Tobacco eliminated his sales job five years ago. “I turned 50 and lost my job,” Rader said. “My wife and I started kicking around some ideas. We knew there was no coffee shop in Georgetown and said let’s go for it.”

Rader went to a barista school in Michigan. “They taught me everything I needed to know about the machines and coffee,” he said.

Ed Colpitts, from Spokane, Wash., was in Coffee Break Café last week having a cup. “It rates right up there,” he said. Mary Jo Glover, from Pittsburgh, said Rader was “king of coffee.” She was in the shop with her husband, Roger. They became regular customers after they bought a condo at Fogel Wharf on Front Street and Rader showed them how to navigate the local rivers.

Rader said he picked up little things from customers. One elderly man told him to be patient; it takes years to build a clientele. “We couldn’t make it on just coffee and had to go with food to make ends meet,” Rader said. His wife, Meghan, used her mother’s recipes for soup and added sandwiches and salads. Free wi-fi attracts another set of customers. Working people and tourists come for coffee and a piece of cake in the middle of the afternoon for a pick-me-up.

“Everybody told me I was crazy when I spent about all my pension from RJR,” Rader said. “I didn’t think it was a big risk. I told my wife we were going to be successful if I had to work 80 hours a week. If I had to stay open 24 hours a day, I would do it.”

Rader gets $2 for a 12-ounce cup of Coffee Break blend, beans he gets from a roaster in Florence. His niche is lattés, cappuccinos and espressos. He grinds Brazilian beans for an espresso shot, or a double shot to satisfy stronger coffee cravings. “Once you’ve got to have espresso,” Rader said, “nothing else will do. I serve a double-double.”

He seldom pours out his leftover coffee, preferring to freeze it in ice cube trays for iced coffee.

Rader isn’t the only one with a corner on the market.

Suzanne and Gary Bencivengo serve an Italian-style coffee at Landolfi’s in Pawleys Island. It’s a brew Suzanne learned to make in order to satisfy the regular customers when the restaurant was in Trenton, N.J. “Those gentlemen would let you know,” she said. Gary buys the beans in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 5-pound bags.

Allison Jayroe runs the coffee bar at Breathe Again just up the road. She learned to like coffee from her father, Robert Jayroe, and learned to make it at Books-A-Million in Murrells Inlet. The Breathe Again niche: Sweet Man’s Baked Goods. Frank Capalbo bakes most weekdays in the kitchen there, and the smell is enticing. A woman orders a decaf latté with skim milk and a shot of vanilla. “Really good,” she tells Allison. Extras like soy milk, whipped cream and flavor shots drive up the price, Alliston said. But the Breathe Again latté is just $3.25, and the customer doesn’t seem to mind.

Max Goree at Pawleys Island Bakery at Highway 17 and Waverly Road sells a regular brew and a decaf along with “sticky bun” with cinnamon and caramel. He does a brisk trade in breakfast food and added self-serve coffee for customer convenience. “We didn’t want to compete with Starbucks,” he said. A 12-ounce cup sells for $1.35. “People come just for the coffee,” Goree said.

Blair Mathis at Barefoot Barista says coffee is the lubricant of conversation and a little known reason Americans became industrious. True to form, the barista was barefoot and holding court last week on the past, present and future of the beloved bean.

“It’s not so much the coffee itself,” Mathis said, “it’s the culture. My true passion is the notion of bringing back the original coffeehouse, the penny university, where the future of the world was debated in the 1700’s. Doctors, bricklayers, people from all walks of life came and talked, exchanged ideas. That sense of community is what we want to bring back with coffee as the catalyst.”

Mathis said coffee has a long and interesting history. Pope Clement VIII was asked to condemn the drink as “the devil’s juice” because it was preferred by Muslims. Wisely, the pope wanted to taste it first. He said it would be a sin to deny Christians such a drink. If not for coffee, Americans would be beer-drinking sots. “In colonial times,” Mathis said, “people got up and slammed down a beer first thing in the morning. Coffee made us more productive.”

Mathis knows his beans. He prefers arabica, those grown above 2,000 feet elevation, to the cheaper, heartier robusta. Like wine, coffee’s subtle tastes come from the soil. “Tanzanian peaberry and Ethiopian have a specific bite, an earthiness. Guatemalan has a smoother flavor,” Mathis said.

Roasting brings out those flavors. “It’s a visual thing,” Mathis said, “an art form.”

He grabs a handful of roasted beans and picks out one. He points out two tiny cracks that formed during roasting. The second crack comes just before it burns and requires perfect timing and temperature to bring out the fullest flavor.

Mathis would like to roast his own beans. For now, he buys them from a company in Charleston and another in West Virginia that deals directly with farmers: Crop to cup it’s called. “All of us are very earth conscious,” Mathis said.

The barista’s art is in taking a handful of beans grown in a tropical region extending from Hawaii to Tanzania and turning it into a cup of coffee that suits a customer’s taste: regular brew to latté, cappuccino or espresso.

It’s a little-known fact that espresso has less caffeine than an ordinary cup of coffee, Mathis said. “Espresso has twice as much coffee, half as much water,” he said. “It’s a much stronger taste, but espresso has less caffeine.”

Mathis said anyone can become an expert. “If you know what you like,” he said, “you are a connoisseur.”

Mathis likes almost all of it. His one exception: iced coffee. “I can make them, but I can’t drink them,” he said. “It can be 120 degrees outside, but I’m not drinking an iced coffee.”

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