It seems like roasteries are popping up all across the country lately and Charleston, S.C. is no exception. Since our review of Black Tap Coffee back in 2013, this beautiful and quality-driven coffee shop has taken on its own roasting operations, further extending their commitment to superior coffee and and to Charleston’s community. When we last visited Black Tap, they were skillfully serving up Counter Culture coffee and offering a variety of pastries from Wild Flour, a local bakery. Now, almost two years later, they’re still serving Wild Flour’s baked goods (though they’ve added a few new items like a banana nutella turnover, a ham and cheese turnover, and a mini quiche) and still preparing good, handcrafted coffee products for all of their customers in a clean, modern space, but they’re no longer a Counter Culture account; instead, they roast their own beans. We caught up with Ross Jett, co-owner of Black Tap Coffee, to ask him a few questions about this big change and get some pointers for any aspiring shop-turned-roaster.
Since we last talked, you all have started to roast your own beans. What prompted the transition? What kind of hurdles did you have to leap?
The move from being a Counter Culture account to roasting our own coffee came partly out of necessity and partly out of demand. As the owner of a growing business and the head of a dedicated, loyal staff, its my responsibility to enable my best employees to grow with the business. Tripp Gandy, who is now our roaster and green buyer, was one such employee. I recognized in him one of the best coffee palates I’ve ever encountered, as well as the traits of a good technician. We hired Mike Ebert, former president of the SCAA, to do a roaster 101 boot camp with us and from there, we spent almost a year borrowing time on someone else’s Probat L12 to practice and learn. Throughout that time, we were still a Counter Culture account, but when we were able to find our own roasting facility and secure the Loring S15 falcon, we were ready to jump in with both feet.
There was also a big opportunity for us as a brand to start roasting. Charleston had no specialty roaster they could call their own.
There was also a big opportunity for us as a brand to start roasting. Charleston had no specialty roaster they could call their own. All the local roasters have been around for decades and practice a very old school approach to sourcing and roasting. We knew a city like Charleston, having perhaps the highest concentration of outstanding restaurants given its size, needed a coffee provider that could match the experience people have here with the food. We had a few restaurants already asking for our coffee before we started and we also had a bunch of people from out of the area asking us to send them coffee, so it seemed like a missed opportunity every time we had to refer them out to Counter Culture.
Do you source your own coffee or do you partner with an importer?
We have not partnered exclusively with any one particular importer. There are plenty of roasters that have popped up in the last 5 years that buy whatever Coffee Shrub or some other importer has on the menu, but that’s a lazy way to source coffee and a program will rise and fall if they’re blindly buying coffee like that. We get dozens of samples in from several different importers and we sample roast and cup them multiple times over before we decide if something makes the cut.
All that said, we have really strengthened the relationship we have with Charleston’s local importer: Balzac Brothers. They have been around for almost 80 years. They have a very extensive network in the coffee world, but they never really focused their efforts on sourcing great specialty grade coffee. When an importer like that flexes a muscle and starts asking relevant questions about how their coffee is being grown, picked, sorted, processed, and shipped, it’s pretty astounding how quickly they can become a player in the game. We are really blessed that they are the kind of people that listened to the kind of requests we had. They must have a very bullish long term outlook about the Black Tap team. And it’s really nice for us to just be able to drive a truck down to the port of Charleston and pick up the coffees we buy from them. We don’t have to pay a tractor trailer to haul our coffee hundreds of miles across the country.
What kind of coffees do you particularly enjoy? Should we be on the lookout for something special on the horizon?
In terms of our green buying approach, we are looking for traceability. If a sample comes in that tastes good, but it’s missing some key pieces of information about how it was grown, the area it’s from, the varietals represented, how it was picked, sorted, or processed, we won’t touch it because there’s a risk that there’s inconsistency in the larger lot.
In terms of our roasting approach, we are targeting juiciness. To us, juiciness is the balance of sweetness and acidity in a coffee, usually free of flavors attributed to the process of roasting the coffee. With the way we are roasting the coffees, we have seen a need to brew a bit differently as well. Many of our coffees taste best brewed in the 4-5 minute range, at a longer extraction than is traditional.
In more general terms, everyone on staff tends to get really excited about excellent, washed Ethiopian coffees. Luckily for us, we have an incredible Guji, Gedeb, and Kochere on their way into the port right now, so we are stoked to get those in very soon here.
What advice do you wish you had been given when you started thinking about making that leap into roasting?
I think we have handled the transition really well so far. We bought the right tool for the job. The Loring S15 Falcon is expensive relative to what we could have purchased, but there’s really no substitute out there if your goal in roasting is consistency from batch to batch, and responsiveness during the roast process. I respect the roasters out there who have restored vintage roasters and are doing neat things with them, but in car terms, if they are driving around a 1963 Corvette Sting Ray, we’re driving a brand new Tesla Roadster. While the vintage roasters have a cool factor that can’t be argued, we have a tool that is much more energy efficient, nimble, and has a range of features that allow us to produce better coffee. We have great reverence for the traditions that have moved the coffee industry to where it is today, but at our core we are progressivists. It is our endless yearning for growth and improvement that keeps us motivated, and we believe our choice in equipment is reflective of that philosophy.
As far as the transition went, we took over a year to fully commit to roasting everything ourselves. It wasn’t a hasty decision. During that time, we took every chance we could to learn the ins and outs of sourcing, buying green coffee, and roasting. From a business standpoint, there’s also a completely different model of cash flows that you need to consider when you’re looking at buying and using a green coffee inventory relative to when you’re just a coffee shop and you’re buying roasted coffee for your shop. But we had that full year to wrap our heads around every aspect of the process. Now we’re doing our best to execute and convince a crowded marketplace that we are doing something exceptional.