The 4th Wave: Coffee Culture in Charleston

It’s a movement. Call it hipster, generational, a newfound awareness. Whatever label you choose to apply to the recent surge in independent coffee culture popularity will probably fit. The creative, alternative lifestyles of an inventive and inspired generation have influenced the demand for places that reflect these very attributes.

We want modern. We want fresh. We want to feel connected. We want to be alone, but not lonely. Coffee shops are community builders – essential to the infrastructure of society today. In a world where everything connects, where everyone seeks connections, coffee shops are bridges. One-of-a-kind coffee shops attract the person seeking more than a grande coffee from Starbucks. They attract the people who want good coffee, who care about what they’re drinking, who want an experience rather than an in-and-out cup to take on the go. These spaces are being created to host communities, to build relationships and to give people coffee experiences they won’t forget.

An iced coffee by the window in bright and sunny Black Tap. (Photo by Madeline Little)

An iced coffee by the window in bright and sunny Black Tap. (Photo by Madeline Little)

This is the fourth wave: a community of coffee drinkers gathering in independent coffee shops on city streets, drinking carefully crafted coffee roasted from the finest beans. It was a quiet emergence. Now, its presence is loud and overflowing with a contagious energy – especially here in downtown Charleston.

“Coffee culture has finally hit Charleston,” said Jayme Smith, co-owner of Black Tap Coffee on Beaufain St. “People are beginning to understand and want good coffee.”

Smith and his partner Ross Jett moved to Charleston in 2012 to open Black Tap. Owning a coffee shop began as an idea and grew quickly as the result of an online chat between the two former college roommates. Smith lived in California at the time and Jett in D.C., but it was no more than a year following this fortunate conversation that the two were trying their hand at running an independent coffee shop in downtown Charleston.

According to Smith, it started slowly. “It’s easy to get down on yourself,” he said, “but the key was to keep pushing.” Now the two run a successful destination coffee shop. Each cup of coffee is brewed using the pour over method, Smith maintains is the purest way to make a cup of coffee.

Black Tap never settled. In the beginning, people would walk in, Jayme said, take one look at the price, and walk out. “That hasn’t happened in a few years.” People now are more willing to pay $3.50 for a cup of good coffee. “Some people are more accepting than others,” he said. “You can’t cater to everyone…we could have had a ready-to-go coffee, but we didn’t. We stuck to this and it’s been very beneficial.”


Photo by Madeline Little.

Black Tap is pristinely black and white, excluding the outside, which stands painted in shades of purple. Tall windows let the light pour in, illuminating and freshening the small space. In the center is a community table that fosters conversation and collaboration while lining the walls stand bar stools for independent, isolated work. “We want people to be able to come to a place that makes them feel comfortable,” Smith said. “That two minutes or that two hours in here, whatever it is, hopefully goes a long way in helping people with their days.”

The shop derives its vibes from a sense of community and productivity. “I think our space stimulates people…it’s clean, modern. Some people work really well in places like this.” Black Tap does just that for students at the College of Charleston. A popular place to study and get a cup of coffee, the environment makes homework feel less taxing and tedious. Ah, the magic powers of a coffee shop. “It can be, in a way, an escape from reality,” Smith said.

Coffee has always appealed to an intellectual crowd, to a community of people with goals and ambition, to people who possess a desire to affect the world. This following has enabled coffee culture to grow and played an integral role in its direction. “That is what has driven this industry,” Smith said. “People’s jobs today are way less centralized…[they] aren’t working nine to fives anymore. There is a demand now for places like this.”

But Black Tap attracts more than just a young and intelligent hipster crowd. They see customers from all walks of life enter their wooden doors. Smith and Jett want first and foremost to provide people with a good cup of coffee, but they also seek to inform and educate. “If we give them our knowledge on coffee and see them really receive it, then we see them the next day, then we see them every day…if we can change people’s perspectives on what coffee is and what it can be, that’s a really rewarding thing to be able to do as a coffee shop owner,” Smith said. “That’s part of the job – to spread this culture.”

Another coffee organization dedicating themselves daily to spreading this culture – Counter Culture Coffee – opened a training center on Spring St. earlier this year. Counter Culture is a North Carolina-based coffee company leading a continuous search to find the best coffee beans from around the world. Counter Culture works directly with the farmers and then utilizes its own roasting methods, placing value on transparency and sustainability.

Kudu Coffee & Tap Room (Photo by Madeline Little.)

Kudu Coffee & Craft Beer (Photo by Madeline Little.)

Since its founding in 1995, Counter Culture has observed a growing interest in coffee beyond just its caffeine content. “Sustainability is a priority to us,” said Park Brannen, sales and regional development manager for Counter Culture in Charleston, “and that means more than just the efforts we make to be environmentally sustainable. I think it can also mean the way that we work to support our partners and help them to grow their businesses. There are several ways in which we do that, but I think the biggest is Counter Intelligence.”

The Counter Intelligence program educates retailers and consumers. “If people understand the product they are serving,” Brannen said, “we find that it is often the case they take greater care in preparing coffee and can translate their own passion to the customers they serve. The more people that find some amount of inspiration or even something as simple as skill building, we think can pay dividends in the future.” Counter Culture supplied coffee beans to Black Tap when they first opened, helping them develop and expand their knowledge. Now, Black Tap roasts its own beans in a warehouse on Sullivan’s Island.    

Counter Culture currently supplies several local coffee shops including City Lights Coffee, The Muddy Water Coffee Bar, Bull St. Gourmet and Brown’s Court Bakery. Brannen said it was a pretty easy decision to open a training center in Charleston once they observed the growing interest in their product. “We work hard to be present and have real relationships,” he said, “specifically with the people that are a part of these businesses, and it’s helped us to grow to the point where we are at now.”

When asked about the role of coffee in society today, Brannen notes the complexity of this question. “I can tell you what it means to me, personally,” he said, “relevant to my perception of society. I see it bringing people together, bridging the often far-reaching gaps between vastly different backgrounds and proving itself to be a rallying point. In the sense of the industry that produces coffee I’ve met people all over the world with wildly different backgrounds from different cultures. This exposure has shaped my worldview and many of these people are now some of my dearest friends. Outside of the coffee industry, in my own personal life, coffee is an almost ubiquitously enjoyed idea that initiates social interaction.”

Another established independent coffee shop in Charleston, Kudu Coffee & Craft Beer, originally roasted beans from Counter Culture and has since grown enough, like Black Tap, to roast and distribute its own brand. “I’ve got nothing but good things to say about those guys [Counter Culture],” said Jason Bell, one of Kudu’s owners and lead roaster.

Bell has been providing volumes of Charlestonians their daily doses of caffeine since 2010. Originally called Kudu the African Experience, Bell and his two partners took over the coffee shop in 2010 and have since grown it into the unique gathering space that it is today. Located in the heart of downtown at 4 Vanderhorst St., Kudu serves a significant number of College of Charleston students due to its proximity to campus, quality coffee and energetic atmosphere – a perfect cure for that essay angst. “CofC really helps our business,” Bell said. “It always has. We greatly appreciate it when the students come back to town because when summer rolls around, it can kind of be like a ghost town … It’s more lively [now] – more energy in the air.”

Kudu is influenced by English pub culture, says Bell. There is no wifi, something he has taken heat for over the years while standing firm in his decision. Kudu is a social scene – a place where people of all ages and walks of life gather to drink coffee and be merry. “If we had wifi,” Bell said, “do you think as many people would be talking as they are right now?” He believes not providing wifi is a good way to foster communication and interaction – people meeting people rather than people meeting screens.

Bell recalls what it’s like to be a freshman in college. He strives to be more than just a coffee shop for students, but a place where they can always feel welcome. One student in particular, he remembers, came in every morning early to do homework. “Tara, who ended up working for us…I remember her coming in as a freshman in college. It’s funny to see them come in at orientation or their first week of college and then after a year or two, three, four…we’ve been able to watch people develop so much.”

“I hope that we influence the students by giving them a place to come and feel like they are a part of the community, but also feel safe,” Bell said. “I remember being a freshman in college…it was one of my more insecure years ever. It’s scary. You’re in a new place and you’re moving into this grown up phase.” Bell knows the value of hiring a relational staff. It’s giving people a familiar face, he says, that makes them want to keep coming back.

“Look around,” he says, pointing to a local chef he knows. A prominent local business man sits in the courtyard. An older couple shares a shaded table in the courtyard. “There is an interest in the craft behind the product, in the people behind the product…there are so many personalities within the food and beverage industry in this city…we have our story, just like everyone else.” Growing up, Bell never expressed an interest in owning a coffee shop. He did hang out in coffee shops, though he always found them a little too quiet.

Charleston’s coffee scene can only grow from here. A community of local businesses that support one another, Charleston fosters healthy relationships between all of its independent, local businesses. Social media has played a crucial role in coffee culture growth, according to Bell. Someone today is more likely to go to the quaint local business he or she finds on Instagram before the chain with 100 half-decent ratings on Yelp. People want personal experiences, experiences unique to Charleston. Anyone can walk into a Starbucks anywhere in the world knowing what to expect from the atmosphere and the menu. That is what distinguishes independent coffee shops from chains – their independence.   

Photo by Madeline Little

Photo by Madeline Little

Coffee’s influence in society is ubiquitous. In Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place, he discusses the idea of the “third place.” Third places, according to Oldenburg, play a vital role in promoting civil society, democracy and civic engagement. Beyond that, they are essential to human nature in that they help to establish a sense of place within a person. “Third places,” Oldenburg writes, “are anchors of community life and facilitate and foster broader, more creative interaction.”

Coffee shops are culture’s visible soul – places where everything is better and everything is safe.

*This article first appeared in the October 2015 issue of The Yard

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